University of Sussex
Havard, Tirion Elizabeth.pdf (4.65 MB)

Beyond proximity: the covert role of mobile phones in maintaining power and coercive control in the domestic abuse of women

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posted on 2023-06-07, 06:46 authored by Tirion Elizabeth Havard
The World Health Organisation estimates that, globally, almost one-third of women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence from a romantic or sexual partner. At the same time, worldwide ownership of mobile phones is expected to reach the five billion mark in 2019. Establishing whether or not there are connections between the two is vital. Political and professional failure to keep abreast of developments in abusive relationship patterns related to new technologies could literally be a matter of life and death. This doctoral research, conducted in England, is particularly timely given that recent legislation in England and Wales now recognises a distinct feature of domestic abuse, namely coercive control, in the form of s76 of the Serious Crimes Act 2015. The Domestic Abuse Bill 2019 also intends to strengthen the definition of coercion. Underpinned by social constructionism and feminist epistemologies, this thesis aims to establish what (if any) role mobile phones play in the coercive control of women within the context of heterosexual intimate partner relationships. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with twelve women survivors of domestic abuse who were resident at refuges at the time of the interviews. Data were analysed using Grounded theory. Findings indicate that mobile phones are increasingly employed as a tool in the coercive control of women. Some of the ways perpetrators use mobile phone features are consonant with well-established feminist analysis of domestic abuse, such as the Duluth Power and Control Wheel. However, mobile phone functions such as texting, phone/video calling, and GPS tracking empower perpetrators to go beyond traditional mechanisms of control. Perpetrators are now able to have constant and ongoing contact with their partners irrespective of geographical proximity or distance. This thesis suggests that these opportunities to exert 24/7 surveillance extend and reinforce the power and control traditionally afforded to abusive men. Mobile phones endow perpetrators with a sense of omnipotence that leaves the partner believing that he is watching even when he is not. As a way of surviving within this context, women in abusive relationships become self-regulating, moderating their behaviour to conform to what they think the perpetrator wants, even when he is not there. This self-regulation is contrary to structural explanations of power traditionally used to explain domestic abuse and thus raises questions regarding the power dynamics within intimate abusive relationships. Whilst accepting the important role patriarchy plays in the domestic abuse of women, this thesis argues that structural accounts of power are insufficient to explain the power dynamics in abusive relationships given the new opportunities that mobile phone technologies afford to perpetrators. It proposes that, within this context, structural explanations of coercive control (Stark, 2007) need to be integrated with Foucault’s (1991) post-structuralist account of disciplinary power. The thesis suggests that mobile phones enable perpetrators to erect a framework of coercive control similar to that of Bentham’s (1791) Panopticon, where the domestic violence perpetrator is akin to the prison guard and the mobile phone the guard tower. Now, the prison is no longer limited to confined spaces and power and control can extend beyond physical boundaries. The thesis concludes by considering the significance of the findings for practice both within the Criminal Justice System and beyond. The material contained within mobile phones, e.g. frequency and nature of texting, Spyware apps etc., could be used to provide a context for the abuse, enabling professionals to identify coercive control sooner. This might then assist with arrest, prosecution and conviction rates as well as risk assessments and safety planning.


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  • Social Work and Social Care Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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