COMEDIC actor Jonah Hill has been making headlines this week for all the wrong reasons after his ex-partner published texts between them that appeared to show him being controlling throughout their relationship.

It sparked debate, as many came forward in his defence to perfectly illustrate just how simultaneously normalised and socially unacceptable coercive control has become.

In the messages, Hill is seen telling his ex-girlfriend and professional surfer Sarah Brady to delete pictures from her Instagram of her surfing. He takes issue with her posting pictures in swimwear, surfing with other men and accuses her of posting “sexual pictures”.

I reiterate again that Brady is a professional surfer, and her job is to be in a swimsuit on a surfboard.

Brady also shared messages from the start of their relationship, where Hill fawns over her swimwear photos. An interesting change in direction – though one not unfamiliar amongst women who have been victim to this kind of abusive behaviour.

Even after the messages had been shared with her inner circle, and he became aware of it, his abusive narrative continued and he accuses her of breaching his trust in a way that has traumatised him.

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The front line of the debate is centred around the distinction between healthily expressing boundaries and controlling behaviour. But the misappropriation of therapy speak running wild on social media, the reinforcement of gender roles and expectations and the uncomfortable truths facing men are all key players in this week’s controversy.

In the social media age, it has become much more socially accepted – and in fact encouraged – to seek and partake in therapy. It’s now widely accepted that therapy is a useful tool for everyone, and stigma around it is somewhat diminishing, thanks in no small part to TikTok, where the hashtag #therapy has been viewed millions of times.

Whilst this has been a positive example of societal progression, it has also resulted in the “yassification” so to speak of therapy lingo. By appropriating concepts like self-care, boundaries, or personal growth, a false perception of change or growth can be created as a smokescreen for coercive control.

Boundaries are essential for healthy relationships. They provide us all as individuals with a sense of autonomy, privacy, and personal agency. They are the emotional, physical, and psychological limits we establish to protect our values, beliefs, and personal space – a crucial practice for the healthy human experience.

However, telling your partner what they can and cannot do or what they can or cannot post on social media is a far cry from setting a boundary and it is certainly not healthy. The Jonah Hill controversy is a perfect example of how the soaring popularity of therapy has been hijacked as a form of manipulation.

The differentiation between boundaries and coercive control is a thin line and can be exceptionally hard to recognise, particularly for the victim in a controlling relationship.

Which is often the reason many don’t speak out until after the fact – because it isn’t immediately apparent to them that the situation they are in is abusive until they are far enough removed from the experience to dissect it.

A key identifier of coercive control vs boundary setting is the presence of mutual respect.

If a partner, or any other person you have a relationship with, is communicating a need to you with respect for your opinion and recognises your individual autonomy that’s a healthy conversation about boundaries. If they disregard your opinion, employ manipulative communication tactics and seek to exert dominance that is an attempt to control.

The texts published by Brady are deeply sad. Not only in that they depict serious coercive control but that such a fierce and talented woman was forced into submission and misery by such obvious insecurity on her partner’s behalf.

A common trend in coercive control is that insecure men, purposefully seek out women who shine exceptionally bright. They claim that’s what enticed them in the first place – the confidence and sheer life that a bold woman personifies – and then they’ll make it their own personal mission to dim that light.

As his mother famously described his father to Trevor Noah: “He’s like an exotic bird collector. He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.”

For a multitude of reasons (all related to misogyny and patriarchy) men often respond to misogyny discourse defensively. There is a pervasive sense of subconscious male fear across social media – fear of being implicated. Men who are self-professed “good guys” hate misogyny discourse because they subconsciously know that they have partaken in and benefitted from the structures that uphold it.

This is, of course, a generalisation and there are genuinely good guys that are capable of owning their responsibility as well as actively trying to dismantle the structures, but the former is a category of man not unfamiliar to women.

Shame is also central to this conversation. Men know that the structures they benefit from are simultaneously harmful to women. They know that women disproportionately live in fear for our safety. They know that, generally speaking and exclusive of other factors, it is harder to be a woman than to be a man.

That creates a sense of cognitive dissonance for men who do genuinely want to see a more equal society because their past actions or participation in behaviour attributable to the imbalance of power triggers an internal conflict.

Whatever the underlying and complicated psychological factors at play, it’s clear to anyone with the basic ability to comprehend that Hill was not setting boundaries in this case. He actively chose to date a surfer, and then told her to stop posting images of her surfing on social media. There has never been a more clear depiction of coercive control in practice.

The bravery of Brady in sharing her story will now forever serve as a reference point for women who are victims of coercive control and unsure how to identify it.

He might have made his living by making people laugh through the glamorous lens of Hollywood comedy, but there’s nothing funny about his private behaviour.