What is 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.

Traditionally, domestic violence has been understood to be an incident or series of incidents of physical violence perpetrated by a partner or ex-partner.  Indeed, sometimes it is understood to be a fight between partners.

In Scotland, instead of using the term domestic violence, we use the phrase domestic abuse in order to emphasise that it is not about fights, that abuse is on-going and that it comprises much more than physical violence.  This is not to say that verbal and/or physical fights do not take place between partners, but it is important to distinguish between these and the social concern that is domestic abuse. It is dangerous to dismiss on-going abuse as a fight or a one-off act of violence.

However, some confusion remains, and even when we acknowledge the emotional, psychological, financial and sexual elements of domestic abuse we still focus primarily on acts of violence in our discussions and responses to domestic abuse. Talking about coercive control means that it is not only another phrase for domestic abuse but it helps us to rethink what constitutes domestic abuse.

It is a term and a concept developed by the academic and activist Evan Stark which seeks to explain the range of tactics used by perpetrators and the impact of those actions on victims/survivors.  In Stark’s own phrase, the concept explains ‘how men entrap women in everyday life’.

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. 

Coercive control, Stark argues, is not primarily a crime of violence; it is first and foremost a liberty crime.  This is not intended to play down the level or scope of physical violence that can occur within domestic abuse (though sometimes no physical violence is used at all, or the violence that is used may appear ‘minor’ in the eyes of the law) but to highlight what is significant – control.

In this model, violence is used (or not) alongside a range of other tactics – isolation, degradation, mind-games, and the micro-regulation of everyday life (monitoring phone calls, dress, food consumption, social activity etc).  The perpetrator creates a world in which the victim is constantly monitored and criticised; every move is checked against an unpredictable, ever-changing, unknowable ‘rule-book’.

The rules are based on the perpetrator’s stereotyped view of how his partner should behave towards him, rules about how she cooks, house-keeps, mothers, performs sexually and socialises.

Experiencing coercive control is like being taken hostage; the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the partner/abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.

Surveillance continues even when the perpetrator is not present (constant phones calls or texts, using children to report on movement etc).  The perpetrator can come to appear omnipotent.

Fear and confusion are central to our understanding of coercive control; it is living in a world of moving goal-posts, shifting sand; it is like constantly walking on eggshells.  It is a world of everyday terror.

In this way, coercive control is not domestic purely in the sense that it occurs at home – it crosses social space: literally, in that technology allows for surveillance wherever a victim is, and metaphorically, in that the victim becomes brainwashed, internalising the rules, adapting her behaviour to survive. Coercive control is the white noise against which she plays out her life; ever present, ever threatening.  The strength to live with this and to function daily in a range of settings – to survive – is enormous and courageous.

Scottish Women’s Aid is the lead organisation in Scotland working towards the prevention of domestic abuse. We play a vital role campaigning and lobbying for effective responses to domestic abuse. Scottish Women’s Aid Ltd is a company limited by guarantee, company no. SC128433, and a charity registered with the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, charity no. SC001099.

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