Why Is a Coercive Control Framework So Important?

This seems to be the question we get the most. Thankfully, Evan Stark, the man who first coined the term “coercive control” wrote an entire book that more than adequately addresses this question (amongst lots of other great information). We’d encourage you to check out Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, but until you have time to read the entire thing, we thought it would be helpful to provide a brief overview of some of his important arguments, drawn from a shorter academic article you can find in its entirety here

THE "VIOLENCE MODEL" OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

In most parts of the world, law, policy and prevention work addressing domestic violence is created based on a “violence model,” which “equates partner abuse with discrete assaults or threats.” [1] This model, Stark argues, is faulty because it assumes the severity of the domestic violence can be accurately measured based on evaluations of psychological and physical harm done to the victim in a specific episode or instance of physical violence. The “violence model” treats abuse as episodic, occurring only at the time of a specific instance of physical assault. 

This approach fails to take into account the “well-documented fact that physical abuse almost never consists of an isolated incident” and that almost half of all reported cases involve serial abuse in which victims reported daily assaults over the lifespan of the relationship [2]. As a result, laws and policy target only physical violence, but ignore and minimize the tactics abusers use to subjugate their victims. Abusers, if arrested, will often receive minimal punishment and victims are stigmatized and receive little to no relief because police, service providers and the general public inaccurately assume there is “time ‘between’ assaultive episodes” where victims can make decisions to leave the relationship if they have been harmed [3].

Because the “violence model” fails to recognize the damage of the coercive and controlling behaviors abusers utilize to subjugate their victims, it ignores the type of abuse that causes victims the most harm and leads most women to seek outside help (i.e. women report seeking help because they felt controlled in every aspect of their life or felt in danger, not necessarily because they had been hit).

Interventions that are not informed by these dynamics are at risk of being ineffective for several reasons. First, when resources are funnelled based on degree of injury, the vast majority of domestic violence cases are left entirely out of the equation. Additionally, battering interventions end up focusing on a symptom, rather than the source of the problem. Physical safety of a victim is absolutely the priority in these cases, but focusing only (or primarily) on the battering means programs are unable to address the patriarchal views at the heart of the problem.

Finally, when victims seek aid (often repeatedly as these instances occur over an extended period of time), they will fail to receive the assistance they need. Research has shown that “between 60 and 80% of the victims who seek outside assistance are experiencing multiple tactics to frighten, isolate, degrade and subordinate them as well as assaults and threats” [4]. Unfortunately, the “violence model” has led to laws that do not recognize most of these tactics as crimes and “almost none are included in current domestic violence laws, assessments or charges” [5]. This means that when a victim is not in the midst of a violent episode where their life is in imminent danger, they may not be taken seriously, even though they may be in great danger.

WHY IS A COERCIVE CONTROL FRAMEWORK BETTER?

Stark argues assessments ought to identify the level of coercive control an abuser utilizes over a victim, rather than the level of physical injury. This, he argues, would represent a more accurate determination of “the victim’s vulnerability to serious injury or psychological trauma” [6]. The evidence backs this assertion up, too. Recent studies have shown that the level of control in an abusive relationship, not the presence of prior assaults, is a “better predictor… of future sexual assaults and of severe and fatal violence” [7]. As such, knowing how much control an abuser exacts over a victim would be far more beneficial to both service providers and victims. 

Additionally, rather than assuming victims have time between abusive episodes of physical violence to assess their relationships and make decisions to protect themselves if necessary, the coercive control framework recognizes that the “primary outcome of coercive control is a condition of entrapment that can be hostage-like in the harms it inflicts on dignity, liberty, autonomy and personhood as well as to physical and psychological integrity” [8]. This perspective allows abuse to be reframed so that police and service providers begin to expect and welcome repeated attempts by a victim to seek help or to leave. A coercive control framework recognizes that victims may fear ‘staying’ in the relationship but feel unable to leave due to the entrapment they experience, even when they report no physical violence. [9] This will shift the conversation away from questioning why victims stay to long-term strategies for limiting abusers' access to victims and programs that emphasize meeting the full range of victim’s needs, including empowering victims, restoring their sense of “freedom,  autonomy, dignity and equality” and helping them to build support networks so that they can leave [10].

Written by Abigail Hazlett

[1] Stark, E. (2012). Re-presenting battered women: Coercive control and the defense of liberty. In conference Violence Against Women: Complex Realities and New Issues in a Changing World, Les Presses de l’Université du Québec, Québec, Canada. 3.
[2] p. 6
[3] p. 6
[4] p. 7
[5] p. 7
[6] p. 5
[7] p. 4
[8] p. 7
[9] p. 14
[10] p. 15