Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships: The Role of Structural Inequality

We have already provided a brief overview of the similarities we see in abuser tactics and victim experience across several different types of abuse where isolation, captivity and fear are utilized to establish power and control over victims. That post was pretty dense already, so we thought it would be good to separately address one important area of the coercive control framework that is often left out of the conversation: the role of structural inequality.

Evan Stark’s work outlining the coercive control framework we explore on this site argues that coercive control is uniquely different from other forms of abuse because of the distinct role gender inequality plays in further entrapping victims. In fact, he argues that gender inequality (or an attempt to uphold it) is behind why men take on the challenge of attempting to exert absolute control over their victims in the first place:

Men take up these challenges for three compelling reasons: because women’s gains threaten the privileges they believe are their due simply because they are men, because women’s gains increase the potential rewards if abuse is successful, and because they can think of no equally effective way to secure these privileges and benefits. [1]

We love Stark’s take on this and believe it to be an important aspect of understanding why men abuse women in this way. Power and control is not just central to the dynamic between intimate abusers and their victims, it is central to the structures and institutions that govern our society. These structures and institutions are creations of those with the most privilege and power and thus, often serve to reflect and uphold the dynamics that put their creators in power. Abuse does not occur in a vacuum and abusers and victims alike are influenced, guided and either restricted or empowered by these structures and institutions.

Theoretically, we see coercive control as coercive and controlling abuse further intensified and guided by the victim’s vulnerability to systemic oppression, particularly in the context of gendered oppression. We believe this dynamic is compounded by the following:

  1. In environments characterized by high levels of authoritarian control (communities living under authoritarian regimes like North Korea, political and religious cults, certain types of highly abusive families, etc.)

  2. Where group psychological abuse tactics are utilized to mirror dyadic abuse (between leader and follower, parent and child, etc.)

  3. Where victims encounter other forms of structural inequality (eg. a poor, trans black woman’s experience navigating the justice system versus a wealthy, white, cis-gender woman’s experience)

Dr. Judith Herman highlights the role of an abuser’s privilege (in relation to their victim’s lack thereof) within the context of various types of abusive relationships: “the more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.” [2] In many cases, the abuser’s ability to prevail over their victim occurs not just in the context of their individual interactions, but also beyond the dynamic to a victim’s interactions with the world around them, even when they are reaching out with the goal of escape or seeking assistance. The victim’s experience of entrapment is compounded by the various structural inequalities that contextualize their abuse. Further, abusers in these various contexts will utilize tactics that capitalize on the power differential that structural inequality provides them.

As we continue to dig into this concept, we will delve into how structural inequality makes victims intrinsically vulnerable and further entraps them after they have been recruited or ensnared. We believe this applies across various contexts, from commercial human trafficking and forced sex work, political and religious cults, abusive families and in some terrorist organizations (eg. the ISIS brides).

Written by Abigail Hazlett

[1] Stark, E. (2009). Coercive control: The entrapment of women in personal life. Oxford University Press. p. 131.
[2] Herman, J. (2004). From trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence–from domestic abuse to political terror. p. 8.