Variously referred to as coerced persuasion; conjugal, patriarchal, or intimate terrorism; nonphysical abuse; emotional abuse; indirect abuse; psychological abuse; and mental or psychological torture, coercive control describes the pattern of sexual mastery by which abusive partners, typically males, employ different combinations of violence, intimidation, isolation, humiliation, and control to subordinate adult victims. In marked contrast to the incident-specific definition of physical assault that dominates domestic violence research and intervention, coercive control is ongoing, extends through social space as well as over time, exploits persistent sexual inequalities, and focuses its regulatory tactics on enforcing stereotypic sex role behaviors. Although coercive control can cause physical injury and psychological trauma, its harms tend to be cumulative rather than incident specific and include the suppression of autonomy and basic personal liberties as well as violations of physical integrity. Despite the fact that coercive control is not currently classified as a crime, it is the context for abuse in which a majority of victims seek outside assistance. The discrepancy between the pattern of abuse for which most women seek help and the prevailing equation of battering with incidents of physical violence helps explain why such current policies as arrest, court protection orders, batterer intervention programs, and emergency shelter have largely failed to reduce the prevalence or incidence of woman battering.
I. The Theory of Coercive Control
II. Components of Coercive Control
III. Empirical Dimensions of Coercive Control
IV. The Gendered Nature of Coercive Control
V. How Victims Respond
The Theory of Coercive Control
The coercive control model developed from applications of learning theory to the experiences of persons undergoing severe restraint in non-familial settings, particularly hostages, prisoners of war (POWs), inmates, mental patients, and members of religious cults. The parallels between these experiences and abuse extend from the tactics deployed to similarities between the proximate consequences for battered women and the harms experienced by other groups who suffer extreme forms of personal or institutional subjugation.
In their efforts at ‘‘thought reform’’ with American prisoners during the Korean War, the Chinese Communists used ‘‘coerced persuasion,’’ a technique by which a person’s self-concept and resistance was broken down (‘‘unfreezing’’), the controller’s altered picture of reality was substituted (‘‘changing’’), and then the new view of reality was installed (‘‘refreezing’’), typically through ‘‘random, non-contingent reinforcement by unpredictable rewards and punishments.’’ In the late l970s, two feminist psychologists, Camella Serum and Margaret Singer, noticed that batterers employed these same or similar techniques, placing their partners in a ‘‘coercive control situation’’ of childlike dependency on the controllers. Psychologist Steven Morgan labeled wife abuse ‘‘conjugal terrorism’’ and noted the ‘‘remarkable’’ resemblance between the attitudes and behavior of the violent husband and those of the political terrorist. Building on this work, another psychologist, Lewis Okun (1986) wrote what remains the definitive chapter on the coercive control theory of woman battering. Drawing an extended analogy between coerced persuasion, the experience of women being conditioned to prostitution by their pimps, and the experiences recounted to him in his counseling work with abusive men and battered women, Okun emphasized the ‘‘breakdown’’ of the victim’s personality in the face of severe external threats and isolation and highlighted the extreme emotional and behavioral adaptations to this process, ranging from guilt, loss of self-esteem, identification with the controller’s aggressiveness, and fear of escape to difficulty planning for the future, detachment from violent incidents, and overreaction to trivial incidents. Importantly, Okun shifted the explanation for the victim’s reactions from her predisposing personality or background characteristics to the power dynamics mediated by the violent interaction. Although he stressed that any ‘‘normal’’ person would respond to coercive control tactics in a similar way, he emphasized the systemic nature of the oppression, not the extraordinary nature of the violence itself. Okun also identified social isolation as a key component of coercive control and linked it to ‘‘torture’’ (‘‘conjugal terrorism’’), threats, and the larger pattern of control by which batterers constricted their victims’ decision-making powers and, in some cases, prohibited all independent decisions. He described how batterers controlled women’s access to information (including censorship of mail and phone calls), exhausted them physically (e.g., by keeping them awake at night), and limited their movement, often to the point of forcibly confining them.
The next important contribution to the theory was by Ann Jones, a feminist author and journalist. In Next Time, She’ll Be Dead (1994), Jones extended the analogy between the control skills men deployed in battering and similar techniques used with hostages, inmates, and American POWs, drawing on the human rights literature rather than on learning psychology. In a dramatic table, she juxtaposed the Amnesty International ‘‘chart of coercion’’ and comments by shelter residents to illustrate such methods as ‘‘isolation,’’ ‘‘monopolization of perception,’’ ‘‘induced debility and exhaustion,’’ ‘‘threats,’’ ‘‘occasional indulgences,’’ ‘‘demonstrating ‘omnipotence,’’’ ‘‘degradation,’’ and ‘‘enforcing trivial demands.’’ In addition to highlighting the extreme psychological effects of violence, Jones noted that thoroughgoing coercion could be accomplished without physical violence.
The movement to counsel batterers was another important source of coercive control theory. Feminist pioneers Del Martin, Susan Schechter, and Ann Jones embraced a definition of wife-beating as controlling behavior that created and maintained an imbalance of power between the batterer and the battered woman. Following this lead in 1977 when he founded Emerge in Boston, one of the nation’s first counseling programs for violent men, David Adams construed battering as ‘‘controlling behavior’’ and defined any act as violent that causes the victim to do something she does not want to do, prevents her from doing something she wants to do, or causes her to be afraid. Counselors at Emerge confronted men’s ‘‘control skills’’ as well as their excuses for violence, asked their clients to keep ‘‘control logs’’ (built around a checklist of violent and controlling behaviors), and assessed their intent by the intimidating and controlling effects of their behavior on women’s autonomy. Moreover, in recognizing that control consisted of an array of ‘‘skills,’’ Emerge helped demystify the belief that dominance was intrinsic to masculinity rather than a carefully selected, instrumental way to ‘‘do masculinity.’’ In a related development, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program (DAIP) in Duluth, Minnesota, used video portrayals to sensitize men to their control patterns. The reasoning by Emerge and DAIP was refreshingly straightforward: Since men ‘‘learned’’ the tactics they deployed to subordinate their partners, they could be helped to ‘‘unlearn’’ them when appropriate sanctions were combined with reeducation.
The rationality of coercive control was spelled out most completely by Lundy Bancroft (2002). In Why Does He Do That? Bancroft identified the collection of comforts and privileges that made control over women desirable to abusive men, including the ‘‘heady rush of power’’ that provided intrinsic satisfaction; ‘‘getting his way,’’ especially when it matters the most; the availability of someone to take his problems out on; free labor from her and leisure and freedom for him; being the center of attention, with priority given to his needs; financial control; ensuring that his career, education, or other goals are prioritized; the public status of partner and/or father without the sacrifices; and the enjoyment of a double standard whereby he is exempt from rules that apply to her.
Another piece of the puzzle was provided by Ann Jones, this time working with a collaborator, longtime advocate Susan Schechter. In When Love Goes Wrong (1992) Jones and Schechter adapted the categories of coercive control theory, referred to batterers as ‘‘controlling partners’’ rather than as violent men, and defined abuse as ‘‘a pattern of coercive control that one person exercises over another in order to dominate and get his way.’’ While it was widely understood that ‘‘power and control’’ are the aims of woman abuse, Jones and Schechter made clear that ‘‘control’’ tactics were also its primary means. They provided a lengthy checklist of these tactics, roughly modeled after the widely disseminated ‘‘power and control wheel’’ developed by DAIP in Duluth, juxtaposing various aspects of psychological abuse (such as ‘‘moodiness, anger, and threats,’’ ‘‘denying your perception,’’ and ‘‘shifting responsibility’’) to such structural constraints as ‘‘control through money,’’ ‘‘limiting contact with other people,’’ and control ‘‘through decision making.’’ ‘‘Physical and sexual violence’’ appeared last on their list. Sandwiched among the better-known control tactics on the Jones and Schechter checklist was ‘‘picking out your clothes,’’ ‘‘telling you what to wear,’’ ‘‘forbidding you to shop,’’ and other constraints specific to women’s devalued gender roles. If regulating a woman’s dress or shopping seem trivial compared with burning her with cigarettes, including these tactics revealed that coercive control is ‘‘gendered.’’
Components of Coercive Control
Coercion includes acts of physical or sexual assault, threats, or other acts of intimidation used to directly compel or dispel a particular response by inducing pain, injury, and/or fear. Although the violence in coercive control can be fatal or cause serious injury, it is generally minor and distinguished from other types of assault by its frequency—often including hundreds of assaultive incidents—its duration, its routine or even ritual nature, and the fact that its effects are cumulative rather than incident specific.
Control encompasses forms of regulation, isolation, and exploitation that limit a victim’s options, transfer her resources to the controller, ensure her dependence on him, and maximize the benefits of personal service. Control tactics affect this outcome through three means primarily: by monopolizing the tangible and intangible resources needed to develop and enjoy personhood; by orchestrating a partner’s behavior through ‘‘rules’’; and by eliminating opportunities for the victim to garner outside support. Though control may include transparent forms of exploitation or confinement (such as taking a partner’s money or locking her in the house), it can be harder to identify when it is mediated by rules (such as forbidding her to work) or structural deprivations or when it targets behaviors such as cooking or cleaning that are already normatively constrained by identification with women’s default status as housewives and caretakers. Decisional autonomy is so taken for granted in many of these activities that their restriction passes without notice.
Intimidation in coercive control achieves the desired levels of fear, compliance, ‘‘loyalty,’’ and dependence primarily through threats, surveillance, and degradation. Intimidation may properly be termed ‘‘psychological abuse’’ because it reduces the victim’s sense of worth and psychological efficacy, often inducing an image of the perpetrator as bigger than life. Threats run the gamut from holding a gun to a woman’s head and detailing how she will be killed to signals of impending harm that are recognized only by the victim, such as a raised eyebrow or a tapping of the foot. Among the most frightening are threats that have such an ambiguous referent (‘‘you made me jealous’’), anonymous threats (including so-called ‘‘gaslight’’ games designed to make a victim think she’s crazy), and the use of force against property or other persons that communicate what a partner is capable of doing if a woman disobeys. Indirect threats can also be directed at the woman through the children, a dynamic of ‘‘child abuse as tangential spouse abuse’’ (contributor’s own term).
Surveillance, a second form of intimidation, makes coercive control portable, allowing it to extend through social space, making physical separation relatively ineffective as a way to end abuse. Stalking is the most prominent of a range of surveillance tactics designed to deprive the person of the right to privacy or to freely negotiate public and private spaces. Criminal law prohibits certain forms of surveillance (such as ‘‘stalking’’ and electronic eavesdropping). But the range of tactics batterers employ to watch their partners and intrude on their social and private lives goes far beyond anything currently considered criminal. For instance, an important intimidation technique involves micro-surveillance, where the controlling partner may subdivide ordinary behaviors such as sleeping, eating, cleaning, or making love into component parts, set performance rules for each component, and monitor their enactment. Controllers may steal or read diaries; search drawers for ‘‘sexy’’ clothes; measure the toilet paper, the breakfast cereal, or the height of the bed cover off the floor; and inspect underwear to detect disloyalty. Another facet of intimidation involves chronic insults and shaming. Typically introduced as a test of loyalty, a sign of ownership, a form of discipline, or a means of isolation, shaming involves demonstrating a victim’s subservience through public humiliation, denying her self-respect, marking (as with tattoos, burns, or bruises), and the enforcement of a behavior or ritual that is either intrinsically humiliating or is contrary to the woman’s nature, morality, or best judgment.
Isolation, the third tactical component of coercive control, is designed to prevent disclosure, instill dependence, express exclusive possession, monopolize a victim’s skills and resources, and keep the victim from mustering the help or resources needed for independence. Controllers isolate victims within and from those arenas that provide the moorings of social identity, including friends, family, coworkers, and professional helpers, eviscerating a woman’s selfhood and constraining her subjectivity. By cutting women off from alternative sources of information and support and inserting themselves between victims and the ‘‘world,’’ batterers become their primary source of interpretation and validation. In extreme cases, this can elicit a ‘‘Stockholm syndrome,’’ where the victim so completely internalizes her partner’s view that she sees, knows, and experiences herself only as he sees her and believes that only he can protect her. In order to placate their partners, prove their loyalty, or counteract their partners’ jealousy, abused women may also isolate themselves by quitting work or school or cutting themselves off from friends and family. When victims seek out ‘‘safety zones’’ where they can contemplate their options, controllers pursue them, ‘‘entering’’ and trying to sever each new social connection in ‘‘search and destroy’’ missions.
Because coercion relies on the proximate application of force, it compromises scope for immediacy. By contrast, control makes up in scope of effect what it lacks in immediacy. In control, where the element of compulsion is often implied by the ‘‘or else’’ presumption rather than being made explicit, the victim’s volition is constrained indirectly by the batterer’s dictating preferred choices, monopolizing time or access to information (called ‘‘monopolization of perception’’ in the torture literature), limiting the options available, and depriving the victim of the support needed to exercise independent judgment.
Batterers employ control to instill dependence, as a means to exploit their partner’s capacities and resources for personal gain and gratification, to prevent escape or disclosure, and to enforce stereotypic gender roles consistent with ideals of male dominance. Control is effective because it simultaneously constrains the sphere where independent action is possible and deprives the battered woman of the resources needed for such action. Control tactics are the direct cause of dependence in abusive relationships. In traditional societies where women are denied alternatives to dependence on men and their behavior is prescribed by religion, law, and/or culture, physical abuse is usually sufficient to actualize women’s obedience in personal life. But in societies where women are formally equal to men and reject ‘‘bad bargains’’ in relationships in large numbers, men who insist on securing sex-linked privileges must do so directly, personally, and without the expectation of institutional support. This is why coercive control is increasingly replacing partner assault as the chosen mode of entrapping women in personal life.
Control tactics target the basic necessities needed to survive, including money, food, sex, drugs, sleep, housing, transportation, and communication with the outside world. But if control over necessities constitutes its material foundation, the most insidious dimension of coercive control involves extending exploitation, prohibition, and regulation to minute facets of everyday life, particularly those associated with women’s devalued status as caretakers, homemakers, and sexual property. The regulation of women’s everyday behavior is accomplished through explicit or implicit ‘‘rules’’ that govern not merely what they do but how they do it; what they can and cannot say and to whom; whether, when, and where they go out; and how and to whom they make love. In the controller’s mind, rules give abuse the aura of rationality and disguise its authorship: It is because she has broken the rules, or an ‘‘agreement,’’ or acted ‘‘crazy’’ that she must be punished. The batterer not only makes the rules, but judges violations and enforces sanctions. The functional appeal of rules is their economy and the illusion of order and rationality they provide the batterer. Control skills are perfected slowly through trial and error as behaviors and excuses that have been standardized within cultures are adapted to the unique circumstances in millions of relationships, often over months or years.
Empirical Dimensions of Coercive Control
The existence of coercive control could be deduced from the fact that violence alone fails to account for critical facets of battering, including why it is ongoing; why the battering presented at service sites or reported to crime surveys looks so different from the ‘‘abuse’’ picked up by general population surveys; why female victims (but not male victims) become ‘‘entrapped’’ and develop a complex of psychological, behavioral, medical, and psychosocial problems seen among no other population of assault victims; and why interventions predicated on a violence-based definition of abuse have universally failed to reduce the problem, let alone prevent it.
Sociologist Michael Johnson (l995) was the first to recognize that the different pictures of ‘‘violence’’ that emerged from population surveys and service sites reflected different types of abuse. In contrast to the ‘‘common couple’’ or ‘‘situational’’ violence picked up by the surveys, what was being seen by shelters, police, and the courts was ‘‘intimate terrorism,’’ where control as well as violence was used. Evan Stark further subdivided violence into ordinary ‘‘fights’’ and ‘‘partner assaults,’’ where violence (but not control) was used to hurt or control a partner rather than to resolve a conflict. Johnson (2001) showed that the vast majority of women who used shelters (79 percent) or sought court assistance (68 percent) suffered from ‘‘intimate terrorism’’ rather than domestic violence.
Studies drawn from other service settings suggest that coercive control is the context for somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of the abuse seen by police, courts, and batterer intervention programs. Among the men arrested for domestic violence crimes in Quincy, Massachusetts, 38.l percent admitted that they had prevented their partners from freely coming and going in their daily routine, 58.5 percent said that they denied their partners access to money and other resources, and almost half reported restricting their partners in three or more additional ways (Buzawa, Hotaling, Klein, and Byrne 1999). Abused women in a representative sample of 734 Aid to Families with Dependent Children recipients in Massachusetts were eight times more likely than non-abused women (16 percent vs. 2 percent, respectively) to report that a current or former boyfriend would not let them go to school or work (Allard, Albelda, Colten, and Cosenza 1997). The extent of control in these relationships is suggested by the remarkable finding that fully 36 percent of the residents at one shelter reported not having a single supportive or recreational experience during the month prior to the interview (Forte, Franks, Forte, and Rigsby 1996). Realizing the possible importance of ‘‘domination behaviors’’ in measuring the success of counseling for batterers, psychologist Richard Tolman (1992) devised a scale of psychological ‘‘maltreatment’’ and then used a factor analysis to distinguish a dimension of ‘‘Dominance Isolation’’ from ‘‘Verbal Emotional Abuse,’’ a distinction that was supported in subsequent research. Items reflecting gender role expectations loaded with the domination/isolation factor. In a preliminary test of his measurement scale, Tolman documented the use of control tactics among a convenience sample of 207 battered women and 407 largely unrelated offending men, reporting that 75–95 percent of the battered women had experienced ten of the items and 50–75 percent of the women ‘‘endorsed’’ at least six of the behaviors. Only three control items—not being allowed to work (35 percent), being kept from medical care (29 percent), and being threatened with having the children taken away (44 percent)—were reported by fewer than half of the victims.
The only population data available on coercive control as of this writing come from the Finnish national sample. One in three of the battered women identified were restricted from seeing friends and family, as many as one in four (16–26 percent) were prevented from making financial decisions or shopping, and almost half (41–49 percent) were continually humiliated (Piispa 2002, p. 888).
There is mounting evidence that coercive control is the most dangerous context for woman battering, not merely the most common. A sophisticated multicity study identified two factors that predicted fatality in abusive relationships better than all factors other than the presence of a firearm: whether the couple had separated after having lived together, and whether an abuser was ‘‘highly controlling’’ in addition to being violent (Glass, Manganello, and Campbell 2004).When these factors were combined, the chance that an abused woman would be killed by her partner was nine times higher than when these factors were not present.
Even in the absence of violence, control tactics can elicit the profile associated with battering. In the Finnish national population study cited above, the highest incidence of mental health and behavioral problems was reported by a group of generally older women who had been physically abused in the past but had not been reassaulted for at least seven years. Compared with those who were in short-term, currently violent relationships, these women were three times as likely to report ‘‘fear’’ (91 percent vs. 39 percent), four times as likely to feel ‘‘numbness’’ (78 percent vs. 18 percent), and more likely to experience other similar feelings, strongly suggesting that their partners had merely replaced physical abuse with coercive control. Finally, in an ingenious study, psychologist Cynthia Lischick found that a measure of coercive control was far better at predicting the level of fear and entrapment in a population of young, unmarried, and multicultural women than the Conflict Tactics Scale, the most commonly used measure of domestic violence. Remarkably, where 29 percent of the partners of the ‘‘battered’’ women used both minor and severe violence and 15 percent used only minor violence, the majority of the partners (56 percent) had never physically abused their partners.
The Gendered Nature of Coercive Control
Violent women are no less likely to seek control over their partners than violent men. Moreover, violent women in counseling are as likely as their male counterparts to use violence because they are jealous, to get their partners to do what they want, to ‘‘punish’’ partners, and ‘‘to feel more powerful’’ (Kernsmith 2005). Male victims of female violence also report that their partners used a variety of control strategies such as ‘‘monitoring my time’’ or ‘‘interfering with my relationships with other family members,’’ although these tactics are reported far more often by female victims (Phelan, Hamberger, Guse, and Edwards 2005). Despite these data, there is no evidence that any substantial population of men are victims of the same pattern of coercive control by female partners or suffer comparable harms to their liberty. This is because women’s vulnerability to entrapment in personal life is due to the larger status inequalities they bring to relationships and their default consignment to a round of domestic responsibilities even in lieu of direct control. Since men cannot be unequal to women the same as women are disadvantaged relative to them, they can exploit inequality in relationships in ways that women cannot. Thus, even though many women hit, intimidate, control, or demean men, the substance, meaning, and consequence of these tactics are completely different when they are used in combination to oppress women. It is this fusion of social and personal constraint that gives coercive control its gendered theme and organizes its delivery around stereotypic sex roles. It is unclear whether similar structural constraints are imposed in abuse by same-sex or transgender partners.
How Victims Respond
In response to coercive control, victims attempt to establish outside supports and seek ‘‘moments of autonomy’’ in ‘‘safety zones’’ where they feel free to consider their options. Many victims try to exercise ‘‘control in the context of no control’’ by hurting themselves rather than waiting to be hurt, an explanation for the high rates of substance abuse and suicidality among battered women (Stark and Flitcraft 1996). Controllers react by pursuing victims into these spaces (‘‘search and destroy’’ missions) and trying to close them off, both literally by locking a victim in the house or a room and by monitoring her movements and relationships when she is on her own. The outcome of coercive control is a condition of unreciprocated authority that victims experience as entrapment.
Entrapment due to coercive control may explain a number of problems left unresolved by the domestic violence paradigm, such as why abusive relationships endure, why battered women suffer a range of medical, behavioral, and psychosocial problems seen among no other population of assault victims, and why arrest, batterer intervention programs, and a range of other interventions that are incident specific fail to stem either the level or the extent of woman abuse to any degree.
Coercive control deprives victims of the right to autonomously express their unique endowments in the world, thereby disabling a vast store of life-energy and creativity that is critical to the exercise of citizenship, women’s personal development, and the well-being of families, communities, and society. For this reason, coercive control is more appropriately thought of as a ‘‘liberty crime’’ than as a crime of assault. Implicit in this understanding— and in the broadening of domestic violence laws required to encompass coercive control—is the right of its victims to a liberatory response.
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