Partners in crime? Understanding coercion and choice in co-offending



Charlotte Barlow

High-profile male and female co-offenders provide fascinating, yet disturbing, images of crime and deviancy; the likes of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady and Rose and Fred West being some of the most infamous offenders in UK history.

It is often questioned how two people can be as ‘evil’ as each other, but this approach is usually overly simplistic. Here, Charlotte Barlow, author of Coercion and women co-offenders examines the complexities inherent in such relationships.

Although many female co-offenders are ‘equal’ partners and make an autonomous decision to offend, other women may have a less autonomous offending role. There have been a number of high-profile cases in recent years involving women who co-offended with a male partner who suggested that their relationship, at least to some extent, influenced their motivations to offend. This raises interesting questions about the possibility of coercion.

What is coercion?

Coercion means persuading or encouraging someone to do something by using force, threats, abuse (including physical, psychological, economic and/ or emotional), manipulation (including love or obsession) and/or control. The possibility of being coerced or forced into crime, with a male partner/ co-offender influencing motivations to offend, is a lived reality for some co-offending women, particularly if this relationship is characterised by violence, abuse or control.

Shauna Hoare and Nathan Matthews

A recent example highlighting the potential influence of an abusive, intimate relationship on women’s offending behaviour is the case of Shauna Hoare and Nathan Matthews, who were jointly involved in the killing of Becky Watts. Matthews was found guilty of kidnap and murder and Hoare was found guilty of manslaughter. Shauna talked in detail during her trial about her turbulent and violent relationship with Nathan Matthews. Hoare suggested that Matthews demonstrated a range of violent and controlling behaviours towards her throughout their relationship, including physical violence (such as strangling and being dragged down the stairs by her hair), being forced to beg for food, emotional abuse, threats and control.

“A ‘continuum of coercion’”

This pattern represents a ‘continuum of coercion’. Rather than being viewed as distinct and separate forms of coercive behaviour, the often over-lapping nature of such coercive techniques needs to be acknowledged.
Within the context of abusive, controlling and violent co-offending relationships, the whole relationship needs to be explored when attempting to understand the woman’s potential reasons for offending. Focusing on the offending act itself fails to provide an adequate picture of the motivations behind committing the crime. In the Shauna Hoare case, it would be difficult to understand how her relationship with Matthews may have influenced her decision to offend if looking at the offence in isolation, but gaining a clearer understanding of the abusive nature of her relationship could provide a more nuanced insight.

The issue with categorising choice and coercion

The idea of being coerced into crime or the suggestion that Hoare’s relationship with Matthews may have influenced her decision to offend is not intended to deny her of agency or choice, or to diminish her responsibility. Hoare did ultimately make a ‘choice’ to offend. However, this ‘choice’ needs to be situated in the social context in which it occurred, considering possible factors that may have influenced her ‘choice’ to offend, such as her potentially violent and abusive relationship with Matthews.

“‘Choice’ needs to be situated in the social context in which it occurred”

The concepts of choice and coercion cannot be understood as being in a binary relationship, where the one is present only by virtue of the other’s absence. Coercion may exist at varying levels in co-offending relationships, as do experiences of agency and ‘choice’. Denying the presence of agency in the presence of coercion (and vice versa) does not reflect the reality of many co-offending women. Acknowledging that both agency and coercion can co-exist in such relationships, albeit at differing levels, enables our understanding to move beyond notions such as ‘he made me do it’ and rather allows an exploration of how personal, social and cultural context and other mitigating factors may impact such women’s perceived offending choices and behaviour.
Rather than restricting coerced, co-offending women’s reasons for offending to limited binaries, which only serves to silence them, we need to try to understand their point of view to gain a more nuanced appreciation of their lived experiences.


coercion-and-women-co-offenders-fcCoercion and women co-offenders by Charlotte Barlow can be purchased from the Policy Press website for special 20% discounted price £32.00.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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