In the opening scenes of the Netflix show Maid we see Alex fleeing her home in the middle of the night. With her two-year-old daughter Maddie in her arms, she steps over broken glass and runs past a hole punched in the wall of her trailer. So far, viewers know nothing of what has happened, only that Alex feels she must leave her home.
The mini series, expected to reach 67 million households in the first four weeks of streaming according to Netflix, is based on author Stephanie Land’s personal memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay And A Mother’s Will To Survive.
It explores the bureaucracy of getting government help and falling through the cracks, the agony of managing childcare as a single parent, and crucially, the logistical, financial, and emotional fallout of leaving a situation that was abusive but, not yet, physically violent.
This position is summed up in an interaction with a social worker, who asks Alex if she wants to call the police, to which she replies: “And say what? That he didn’t hit me?”
Later, when Alex expresses further skepticism, despite now being housed in a women’s shelter, her friend Danielle says: “Before they bite, they bark. Before they hit you, they hit near you.”
Heidi Riedel, CEO of Woman’s Trust, a UK charity that provides free therapy for women who have experienced abuse, says like Alex not every survivor experiences physical violence. "The idea that if your partner is not hitting you then it can't be abuse, is a common misconception.
“Unfortunately, abuse comes in many forms: we see and support women on a daily basis who have experienced emotional, manipulative, coercive and controlling behaviour. ”
Since 2015 in England and Wales, the law has recognised that abuse doesn’t only have to be physical violence but can be coercive control, which is defined as an act or pattern of acts of assaults, threats, humiliation or intimidation used to harm or frighten victims.
Despite coercive control being illegal, the police recorded just 24,856 offences of it in 2019-2020 and only 374 offenders were convicted, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This is out of an estimated total of 1.6 million women who experienced domestic abuse every year, according to Women’s Aid.
Coercive control and non-physical abuse has been given increasing airtime in recent years, in everything from Channel 4’s I Am short films to storylines in soaps like Coronation Street. But as Maid illustrates, it can still be difficult for victims to recognise the behaviour when it happens.
Erica Osakwe, 22, from London, started the campaign VictimsToo after her own experience of abuse. She says she “stayed silent” for three years because she thought “it was all normal”.
“There is a misunderstanding that if there are no signs of bruising or no signs of blood, then there was no abuse,” says Erica. “Large parts of society link abuse to physical visible damage [or] injury, otherwise they are not a victim at all.”
As a result Erica - who has now successfully campaigned to extend the time limit for charges to be brought against perpetrators up to two years from six months - says many survivors of abuse, like Alex, “refuse to discuss their ordeals because ‘it isn’t serious enough’.
“Recognising these behaviours can be difficult,” a spokesperson for charity Women’s Aid tells Yahoo. “Perpetrators can use subtle techniques as part of a pattern of controlling behaviour, and will often try to make the survivor feel like this is normal, or place blame on them.”
The charity characterises any of the following behaviours as part of domestic abuse: coercive control, pyschological or emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, harassment, stalking, online or digital abuse and others.
But acknowledges that often, as in Maid, recognising it is not black and white. “Non-physical forms of abuse can be very difficult to recognise and build up the confidence to escape from,” says Women’s Aid.
“Some of the gaslighting techniques that abusers use to control and exert power include calling into question their memory of an incident, trivialising their thoughts or feelings, accusing the victim of lying or making things up, and mocking the victim for their ‘misconceptions’.”
Non-physical forms of abuse can also act as additional barriers to leaving: when you have no access to money or other resources like transport, employment, or a mobile phone. As in Maid this can lead to consequences of homelessness, debt and poor credit ratings.
Riedel says that since the pandemic began there has been an increase in the number of types of abuse women are experiencing: more than 65% reported five or more different types.
And what if, like Alex, women struggle to accept that it is abuse? “Survivors often worry that if they have no evidence of physical violence they will not be taken seriously by the police,” says Women’s Aid. “But all forms of abuse are intolerable and coercive control is against the law.”
Especially because, just like physical abuse, other types of abuse can have long-lasting effects. “The effect that this kind of abuse has on women, on their daily lives, their mental health and their emotional wellbeing, should not be underestimated,” says Riedel.
Watch: Thousands of domestic abuse victims 'forced to stay with their abuser' after being denied legal aid