When does psychological menacing cross into domestic abuse?
“Coercive control” is used to instill fear and compliance in a partner, says Evan Stark, PhD, the sociologist and forensic expert who coined the term. This type of mistreatment follows regular patterns of behavior, and, according to him, “in the vast majority of cases” is employed “by men of women” who are involved in abusive romantic relationships.
“I’m not talking about the somewhat controlling boyfriend or husband here,” says Stark, author of Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. “Compliance is fear-based. If there’s no fear, there’s no coercive control. And that fear is very real.”
The pattern goes like this: A woman meets a new love interest who seems especially keen on her. Flattered, at first she doesn’t mind when he involves himself in every detail of her life. He may show up at the office too much, or even pressure or force her into sex, but she ignores these red flags.
As the relationship progresses, so, too, does his obsessive monitoring of her. He reads her texts and emails. Stalks her. Tells her what she can and cannot wear. Isolates her from her family and friends. And controls her bank account so she can’t afford to leave.
If she resists, he employs low-level violence including slapping, arm-twisting, being dragged by the hair, even frequent sexual assault. He threatens to harm himself or the kids. She understands he will further hurt her, too.
How Common Is It?
According to Stark, coercive control is found in 86% of all reported domestic abuse cases. Only 14% of cases are now considered to be classic “battered women’s syndrome,” where the abused person has an obvious, serious injury such as a black eye or broken bone. And Stark says that while low-level physical abuse “isn’t likely to excite arrest or triage surgery in the ER,” it is relentless.
“In 40% of reported cases we see serial abuse, where a woman is subjected to physical assault several times each week,” Stark says. “These relationships last, on average, 5 1/2 years. That means the woman has endured being harmed with low-level violence dozens, if not hundreds, of times before it’s over.”
This form of psychological and physical abuse “can be found in institutions and religious cults,” too, he adds, and “we sometimes see it in same-sex relationships, as well.” But in general, the abused are female and their tormenters, men. The abused are usually not outwardly passive. Many are successful professionals who’ve lost personal autonomy even as their careers soar, and who may be too ashamed to seek help.
This is “not because women are less controlling, jealous, or abusive than men are,” says Stark, but because women have “fewer opportunities” to engage in coercive control. Advancements in women’s legal, social, and political rights may have actually enabled, rather than hindered, abusive men, Stark claims, because now they have more opportunities and resources to exploit, especially financial ones.
“Women are vulnerable because gains have not been sufficient. They may have formal legal equality now but not substantive equality.” Stark points to the large gender pay gap that rises dramatically over the course of a lifetime, as well as to the big disparity in political representation in the U.S. “Not long ago a man only had to use physical violence to control his partner. Now, he can’t solely rely upon that, so he crosses into the social space.”
Stark’s groundbreaking work led to recent legal shifts in the U.K. Much of Europe followed suit. As of December 2015, repeat offenders there who coercively control their partners risk a 5-year prison sentence.
The U.S. has yet to do the same. But victims’ rights groups here do now recognize coercive control as a major pattern in domestic abuse.
Spot the Red Flags
Could you be a target of coercive control? According to Stark, these are recognizable signs that your relationship is an abusive one and it’s time to seek help.
Obsessive monitoring. If your partner demands you exercise daily to stay slim, controls your wardrobe and diet, installs spyware into your digital devices, keeps you from other loved ones, and stalks your every move, move on.
Gaslighting. Abusers undermine the abused person's sense of sanity by insisting their lies are true, or by playing mind games such as moving a partner’s parked car late at night so she can’t find it in the morning.
Low-level violence. This includes constant physical abuse that leaves no scars and which generally won’t put abusers behind bars in this country: shoving, pinching, hair-pulling, and choking, with the understanding it will escalate if resisted.
Sexual assault. A common tactic among abusers is forcing the abused to engage in nonconsensual sexual acts, often several times each week, using psychological and physical threats to destroy resistance.
Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233.