Domestic violence comprises a range of behaviors beyond physical and emotional abuse. Abusers often use violence, intimidation, degradation and isolation to deprive victims of their rights to physical security, dignity and respect. Evan Stark has been encouraging the use of “coercive control” to describe a course of oppressive behavior grounded in gender-based privilege. While all forms of abuse are about power and control, coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism that invades all arenas of women’s activity by limiting access to money and other basic resources. In addition, few elements of coercive control are currently considered criminal, or are only crimes when committed against strangers, which further complicates this issue within the context of domestic violence.
This Q and A was conducted with Evan Stark, Ph.D. MSW, a forensic social worker and Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University.
Q: What is Coercive Control?
A: Coercive control is a strategic course of oppressive behavior designed to secure and expand gender-based privilege by depriving women of their rights and liberties and establishing a regime of domination in personal life. This definition reminds us that women are often targets of violence. I wrote Coercive Control (Oxford, 2007) to examine the oppressive tactics some males used to dominate women.
Coercive control refers to abuse as a “strategic course of oppressive behavior,” meaning that battering is:
- rational, instrumental behavior and not a loss of control
- “ongoing” rather than episodic
- based on multiple tactics like violence, intimidation, degradation, isolation and control.
Sixty to 80% of abused women experience coercive control beyond physical and emotional abuse.
Men possess “gender-based privilege” because they are male. While all forms of abuse are about “power and control,” women are vulnerable to coercive control because of unequal political status and because men can take advantage of pervasive sexual inequalities in ways women cannot. While control involves everything from survival resources like money, to what television shows women watch, male abusers exploit and regulate women’s sexuality (e.g., how they dress, wear their hair, make love, etc.) and how they perform traditional gender roles as housewives and mothers.
Coercive control is a violation of “rights and liberties” protected by the US Constitution and international human rights conventions, including right to physical security (violence); to live without fear (intimidation); to dignity and respect (degradation); to social intercourse (isolation) and to autonomy, liberty and personhood (control). Over time, victimization and dependence are replaced by domination/subordination, agency and resistance. Emphasis shifts from what men do to women to what they keep women from doing.
Q: What should advocates know?
A: Advocates must “look beyond violence,” develop a proactive and ongoing response to the persistent nature of coercive control, emphasize the level of entrapment and control in assessing future risk, document and respond to the coercion and control in each case, adapt the political language of rights and liberties, and balance the restoration of freedom, autonomy and dignity with the provision of safety.
Nonviolent tactics used in coercive control invade all arenas of women’s activity. In response, advocacy must help restore autonomy wherever it is denied, by negotiating safe spaces at work, school or Church, identifying ‘safe stops’ where women can call for help, and organizing protective support networks.
Although coercive control is more extensive than domestic violence, advocates can partner with women from a strengths perspective – what I term “control in the context of no control.” Using the language of rights and liberties is key to helping women. It is also essential in getting police, courts and other providers to acknowledge how forcefully they would respond to someone who held a stranger hostage, or who tightly regulated how they dressed, walked, talked, spent their time or money, or how they made love under the threat of an “or else” proviso.
Q: How might the legal system better serve victims and hold abusers accountable?
A: When they confront the courts and ACS/CPS, victims feel they are on different planets. The criminal “perpetrator” is the “good enough father” in Family Court cases or invisible to ACS/CPS. The same woman rewarded for pressing charges is punished for doing so in Family Court. ACS/CPS may prohibit her from contacting her partner while Family Court punishes her for denying him access. Advocates can help women and the courts understand how systems collude with the batterer and support his control and/or use of the children.
Domestic violence laws focus on and respond to individual incidents according to the level of physical harm. Consequently, coercive control, where frequent low-level violence is accompanied by the other tactics, has no legal standing. Few elements of coercive control are currently considered criminal, or are only crimes when committed against strangers.
Coercive control is rooted in the battered women’s movement; the abuse of individual women harms and impacts women’s standing in society. However often women may abuse male or female partners, women are rarely able to deprive men of basic resources, or to rape or degrade them sexually, regulate their enactment of gender roles, or systemically isolate them from the supports needed for autonomy.