What is Coercive Control?
When dealing with the topic of domestic abuse, it is incredibly important to understand the concept of coercive control.
Many people envision domestic abuse to be loud arguments with lots of yelling, and perhaps the perpetrator slapping, pushing, or punching the victim.
While these explosive incidents do happen within the context of domestic abuse, they are not the full picture.
In order to fully grasp what is going on in a domestic abuse situation, one must grasp what coercive control is.
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Definition of Coercive Control
The Definition of Coercive Control
“Coercive control is a term developed by Evan Stark to help us understand domestic abuse as more than a “fight”. It is a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self. It is not just women’s bodily integrity which is violated but also their human rights.” (Source)
- A range of actions designed to control
The working definition in the UK is that coercive control is “A range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behavior.” (Source)
- An offense to liberty
Evan Stark defines coercive control as “an offense to liberty that prevents women from freely developing their personhood, ultilzing their capacities, or practicing citizenship, consequences they experience as entrapment.” (Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life)
In other words, coercive control is not just about the things an abuser does TO his victim; it’s more about what he TAKES FROM her. Her freedom to make her own choices, her personal privacy, her sense of self, her dignity, and her sense of safety and security are stripped from her by the abuser.
The Root of Coercive Control
The Root of Coercive Control
Coercive control does not stem from feelings; it stems from beliefs.
It is not caused by poor anger management, stress, addictions, or mental health issues, although these factors can certainly exascerbate the effects on the victim.
The root belief system of an abuser is one of ownership and entitlement.
- “Whatever I say goes because I’m the man”
- “Women need to know their place and stay in it”
- “It’s my responsibility to keep her in line”
- “Nobody tells me what to do”
- “I deserve whatever I want”
- “She got what was coming to her; she shouldn’t make me mad”
These beliefs are developed from various factors such as the environment of the abuser’s childhood
home, his religious beliefs (or twisting of them), his individual selfishness, and societal stereotypes.
Elements of Coercive Control
Elements of Coercive Control
1. It is an ongoing pattern.
Instead of isolated incidents of violence, coercive control must be understood as an ongoing pattern of control that extends into every facet of the relationship. Even elements of the relationship that feel good to the victim are part of the abuser’s larger strategy to remain in control over her.
2. The abuser communicates his demands or expectations.
These demands can extend into any area of the victim’s life, such as:
- her personal appearance
- her personal activities
- her social life
- her household activities
- her work
- her use of finances
- her health
- her intimate relationship
- her parenting
- her religious beliefs and practices
Explicit demands are not always verbalized, yet the abuser makes it clear to the victim what the expectations are, by putting in place the next element:
3. The demands are linked with a threat of negative consequence for noncompliance.
Like the demands, the threats of consequences may not be explicity verbalized. However, based upon past interactions, the victim understands what the abuser expects, and understands the unpleasant ways he is likely to respond if she does not meet those expectations.
Coercion can take place unnoticed by outsiders as they observe what appears to be a pleasant request from the abuser followed by the victim willingly fullfiling it. If the complete history of the relationship were known to the outsider, they would understand that the interaction is indeed coercive. Both the demand and the threat of punishment are present, although invisible.
4. The abuser uses surveillance to ensure the victims remains under his control.
Some possible means by which he may carry out his surveillance are:
- Checking the victim’s personal mail
- Reading her journal
- Keeping track of phone use
- Reading texts
- Monitoring online activity
- Tracking victim’s location via GPS
- Checking receipts
- Going through victim’s purse
- Following the victim
- Installing cameras or recording devices
- Requires children to report victim’s infractions
- Requires victim to give accounts of her activities
- Inspecting minute aspects of the victim’s life – how much cereal is gone from the bag, how much phone battery has been used, how much gas is gone from the car, etc.
5. Because coercive control takes places within an intimate relationship, the abuser has special
knowledge of the best tactics to use. He can finely hone his ability to control his victim based on the highly personalized information he has about her.
- The beliefs that are most important to her
- Her hopes and dreams
- Her fears and vulnerabilites
- What makes her happy and what makes her sad
- What she is and is not comfortable with
- Her medical history
- Her personal thoughts and private conversations
…all these become personalized weapons that are used to control the victim.
6. Coercive control creates fear of the abuser in the victim.
This fear leads the victim to comply with the abuser’s demands in order to maintain physical and emotional safety. While physical force may take place, the emotional force of fear is often more than enough for the abuser to maintain control and power over the victim. (Source)
It is not violence that gives the abuser the ability to control; it is the possibility of it.
7. Coercive Control is primarily perpetrated by men towards women
While men can also be victims of coercive control, “statistics consistently show that women and girls are disproportionately affected by crimes of domestic violence and abuse.” It is “underpinned by wider societal gender inequality. This can contribute to the ability of the offender to retain power and control, and ultimately the ability of the victim to access support and leave safely.” (Source)
Tactics of Coercive Control
Tactics of Coercive Control
It’s important to remember that coercive control is strategically personalized, so keep in mind that any of the below tactics may be combined in different ways. In any coercively controlling relationship, many of these tactics may be used, or only a few. Some may be used with great frequency while others are used rarely if at all. When attempting to identify coercive control in a relationship, what you are looking for is for the above elements to be included, along with a mix-and-match selection of the below tactics.
- Name calling
- Using the victim’s past life mistakes or trauma to hurt them
- Ordering the victim around like a servant
- Treating her like a child
- Embarrassing in public
- Enforcing behavior that violates the victim’s conscience or better judgment
- Denying basic hygiene routines like showering or wearing clean clothes
- Requiring the victim to perform humiliating sexual acts
- Lies, deceit, half-truths
- Word salad (lots of words that don’t actually mean anything)
- Answering questions with shrugs, vague answers, or dodging
- Living a double life that they keep secret from you
- Gaslighting (Making the victim feel crazy)
- To kill
- To have the children taken away
- To hurt the children
- To have the victim committed
- Threats to friends or family
- To destroy things the victim cares about
- Threats of suicide
- Withholding food, medicine, money, clothes, or other needs
- Silent treatment
- Disappearing for days w/no word
- Driving dangerously
- Non-verbal threats like breathing a certain way, slamming a door, the clench of his jaw – things that, based on past experience, the victim understands the meaning of
- Hurting animals, smashing walls, or demonstrating other types of force that sends a message to the victim: “That could have been you.”
- Standing over the victim
- Blocking doorways
- Clenching fists
- Using scripture to try to get his way (e.g. “the husband is the head of the home”)
- Using scripture to sexually coerce the victim (e.g. “I Corinthians 7:5 says you can’t say no”)
- Using prayer to make the victim feel guilty (e.g. “please help my wife be willing to submit”)
- Using the public image of a “wonderful Christian man” while abusing in private
- Does not live by the same standards he requires of the victim
- Blocking in a room
- Pinning against walls
Sexual abuse and coercion
- Scrutinizes clothes (e.g. “too sexy”, “not sexy enough”)
- Makes derogatory remarks about the victim’s body or appearance
- Threats to “get it elsewhere”
- Secret or not-so-secret porn use that the victim does not consent to
- Badgers victim to participate in sexual acitivites she is not comfortable with
Minimizing, Denying, Blameshifting
- Makes excuses for abusive behaviors
- Lies about abusive behaviors
- Blames abuse on the victim (e.g. “she made me mad”)
- Shifts focus onto the victim (e.g. “she’s no angel either”)
- Downplays the abuse by saying the victim is just too sensitive
- Financial Abuse
Using Male Privilege
Using the children
- Scrutinizes every purchase the victim makes while he buys whatever he wants
- Does not allow the victim access to see the financial accounts
- Has secret financial accounts the victim is not aware of
- Requires the victim to manage the finances but belittles her and says she does it wrong
- Makes large financial decisions without consulting his spouse
- Does not allow the victim access to vehicle or phone
- Does not allow victim to work
- Prohibits contact with old friends
- Tries to convince the victim that “It’s us against the world”
- Drills the victim about every interation so that she becomes exasperated of trying to go anywhere or talk to anyone
All of these tactics are represented as part of the Power and Control Wheel. You can think of the hub as the root beliefs of the abuser. The spokes of the wheel are the tactics which he uses to maintain power and control, and the outside rim of violence (or merely the possibility of it) holds these tactics in place.
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Checklist of Controlling Behaviors
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Affects of Coercive Control on the Victim
Affects of Coercive Control
- The victim loses her sense of self
Over time, as she filters every thought and action through what the abuser would want and how he might respond if he doesn’t get it, her thoughts and choices morph into thoughts and choices that are not truly her own.
2. The victim’s health is affected
The effects of coercive control are described as “cumulative and compounding.” (Source) Continuous hypervigilance to try to meet the abuser’s expectations, walking on eggshells day after day, and the fear of what the consequences may be if she fails to meet those consequences creates stress-related health issues.
3. The victim has no freedom
Coercive control tactics are some of the same tactics that are used with hostages, prisoners of war, kidnap victims, or by pimps with prostitutes. While outwardly the victim may appear to be free, she is locked inside an invisible cage of fear – the fear of the understood consequences if she fails to meet the abuser’s demands.(Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life)
4. The victim lives in danger
“Not only is coercive control the most common context in which women are abused, it is also the most dangerous.” (Evan Stark)
Benefits of Coercive Control to the Abuser
Benefits of Coercive Control
1. The abuser exploits the resources that the victim brings to the relationship.
He can have
- food on demand
- sex on demand
- laundry and housecleaning services
- all the free time he wants
The victim provides all the services in the relationship while he receives all the benefits.
2. The abuser feels important.
He is the center of attention in the relationship. Every interaction revolves around him. The victim’s fear leads her to order her whole life around him.
3. The abuser feels a sense of domination and power
He has the power to restrict the victim’s liberty and cut off her ability to escape. Since he is receiving so many benefits from the relationship (which would better be described as slavery), he has no incentive to relinquish his power over the victim.
Many people wonder why a victim of coercive control wouldn’t just leave. But when you truly understand coercive control as a hostage-like dynamic and one of the most dangerous forms of abuse, perhaps it will become more clear that a victim cannot simply walk away.
The same tactics that the abuser uses to ensure the victim complies with his demands are also used to ensure she does not have the ability to leave the relationship. Just like the possibility of violence creates fear for the victim while in the relationship, the possibility of violence only increases if the victim tries to leave. This very legitimate fear, combined with financial, legal, and other logistical obstacles, makes it extremely difficult for most victims to leave their abuser.
In most states in the U.S., the aspects of domestic violence that are against the law are the mainly the overtly violent acts. However, it is not the violence that makes an abuser so dangerous, but the strategic pattern of coercive control that he uses.
Coercive control is a strong warning sign of potential homicide. This link has been studied extensively in the U.K., which eventually led to the criminalization of coercive control in the U.K. (Source)
Additionally, in Australia, it was found that, “Among intimate partner homicide cases subject to extensive review by the Domestic Violence Death Review Team in the Australian state of New South Wales, every case involved male partners exerting coercive and controlling behaviors over female victims prior to the homicide.” (Source)
Although coercive control is not against the law in most U.S. states, victims and those who wish to help them should still be aware of the potentail danger that coercive control poses. You can use the Mosaic Threat Assessment to help you discern the level of danger a particular victim may be in. (Be aware that a tactic of coercive control is monitoring of online activity. If you are taking this assessment as a victim, I would recommend using a library computer and a secure email address.)
Therefore, you can avail yourself of local domestic violence services to help you safely exit the relationship.
In the U.S. you can call the national hotline at 800-799-7233.
If you live somewhere else, find your country’s hotline here.