Gendered Dimensions of Coercive Control

We’ve previously introduced the Power and Control Wheel as a useful tool for understanding the tactics of abusers and experiences of victims. Today, we want to address some of the challenges that have been made regarding the wheel’s use, specifically those which focus on the gendered language and framework it utilizes. These questions are of importance because, as we’ve mentioned before, they are also ones which arise with a coercive control framework.

Before we dive in, however, we want to clarify that we have chosen to include tools like the Power and Control Wheel to be able to understand the gendered dynamics of abuse. The wheel does not equate with coercive control entirely, but it is helpful in providing survivors and bystanders with an understanding of what is happening to them or others. The wheel is a heuristic (teaching tool or shortcut), it is not all-encompassing and does not represent the dynamics of all domestic violence situations. In fact, a number of adaptations to the wheel have been created to tailor it more specifically to relationships in which other dynamics may be present.

Perhaps the most common challenge to the wheel is why it focuses on men as abusers. Don’t women abuse, too? There are several gendered dimensions of violence and control that we will attempt to briefly review in this post. We will attempt to address this question as best as possible and likely, we will elaborate on the topics below in future posts.

Men as Abusers

We recognize that there are women who are violent, though at times, this behavior could be in self-defense or within the context of mutual abuse where both partners actively participate in abuse of the other. We also acknowledge there is abuse in gay and lesbian relationships and there are women who exercise forms of control (stalking, surveillance, threats, etc). These particular dynamics are not what we are interested in examining on this website, unless they involve female violence as a direct response to violence and control from their abusive male partners (e.g. self-defense).

It is also important to note that statistics clearly show that women are more likely to be victims, while men are more likely to be abusers, especially in the context of severe abuse. In fact, a 2005 survey of intimate partner abuse indicated female abusers were estimated to be in only five percent or fewer of the cases reviewed. [1] That being said, the Center for Disease Control’s 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) shows that nearly 16 million men have experienced some form of severe physical violence by an intimate partner during their lifetimes” with 13 million reporting the abuse resulted in a negative impact. [2] We are grateful resources and research are being directed to help these victims, but remain focused on exploring coercive control, a specific type of relationship abuse perpetrated by men against women.

Coercive control is a specific pattern of behavior within a male-dominated relationship that is in part supported by a male-dominated culture. A website devoted to the study of coercive control, a feminist theory, must focus on male-perpetrated abuse.

Toxic Masculinity

We would be remiss if we did not point out the ways men are harmed by this culture. Toxic masculinity promotes a culture where it is not ok for men to express feelings, a culture where the man is supposed to be in charge, etc. Now imagine a situation where a male partner feels coerced by his female partner (at least one of the authors of this post has witnessed this behavior a couple of times). We posit that it is the same culture of toxic masculinity and male supremacy that often discourages male victims from recognizing the abuse and seeking help. An abused person should never be isolated from social support or feel they cannot share their experiences with others. The current culture, however, has created barriers for both men and women from doing so.

For example, the following videos from the UK include abusive scenarios where anyone of any gender can be tried for "controlling and coercive behavior":

“Male Privilege”

Many object to the use of “male privilege” on the Power and Control wheel. Male privilege refers to the status men hold and power they are allowed to wield within a male supremacist society. There is much research and writing available on the topic for those interested, but we cannot delve into all of the intricacies here. What is most important is to make clear that we believe male privilege is an important aspect of men’s abuse against women, but that it is not the ONLY privilege abusers have at their disposal. Economic, social, and racial privilege, as well as and in combination with male privilege, often allow abusers to avoid accountability, as systems and structures they encounter will often be more likely to believe their account of events, give them the benefit of the doubt, or view them as more trustworthy than their victims, who lack the same privileges. This is the case because these systems were created and exist within male-dominated culture. Female victims or victims who lack privileges their abusers have at their disposal are at a decided disadvantage when seeking help, escape or justice.

Coercive Control vs. Authoritarian Behavior

Finally, while we are focused specifically on coercive control, we recognize and are studying broader categories that exist which include manipulative and controlling forms of abuse under one umbrella. We view authoritarian behavior as the overarching phenomena of abuse of which coercive control is one type.

Written by Chelsea Brass & Abigail Hazlett

[1] Belknap, J., & Melton, H. (2005). Are Heterosexual Men Also Victims of Intimate Partner Abuse? Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet: The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women.

[2] Stiles, E., Ortiz, I., & Keene, C. (2017). Serving Male Identified Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence, VAWnet: The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women.