In the News: Should an Abused Wife Be Charged in Her Husband’s Crime?

Did you see yesterday's The New York Times? Georgetown University Law Professor Deborah Epstein and domestic abuse survivor Kit Gruelle highlight the case of Noor Salman, whose husband was the mass shooter who killed 49 people at Pulse Nightclub in 2016. Salman is charged with aiding and abetting her husband, who was killed in a shootout with the police, in “providing material support” to the Islamic State, and obstruction of justice.

Epstein explores the connection between intimate terrorism and mass shootings and argues Salman was more a victim of her husband than ever his accomplice due to the nature of their relationship, one she claims was characterized by extreme coercive control. This is an important case to watch in the U.S.

You can see the full article here.

The Power and Control Wheel

The Power and Control Wheel is a tool utilized in the domestic violence/interpersonal violence field to understand the tactics abusers use to gain power and control over their victims. The wheel is instrumental to our understanding of how abusers operate. The wheel was created by the Domestic Abuser Intervention Programs as part of “The Duluth Model”, which focuses on training and education that teaches how communities can work together to shift blame to abusers and better support survivors. To date, it is the most common batterer intervention program in the United States.

As a precursor to the coercive control framework developed by Dr. Evan Stark, the wheel is rooted in feminist theory that recognizes that men utilize violence and other means of abuse to exercise power and control over women and children and that “because of their unequal social, economic, and political status in society,” women and children are particularly vulnerable. [1]

Since its creation in the 1980’s, the model has been criticized for focusing on women as victims, but not perpetrators, and failing to accurately represent the motivations of some men who batter. Additionally, there are several complaints quite explicitly calling out the section of “using male privilege”, as some believe this diminishes the fact that men are abused too.

These challenges are important to consider, as they point to important distinctions and research has addressed in recent years. We plan to explore the research related to these challenges in the future, as they could also be utilized to challenge a coercive control framework, but for now, we are going to focus on understanding the basics of the model, as we have found it to be incredibly useful.


The wheel is a heuristic tool that focuses on how eight different types of abuser tactics partner with physical and sexual violence (or the threat of physical and sexual violence) to dominate a victim. The wheel is made up of these component parts:

  • Physical and Sexual Violence (outer ring)
  • Using Intimidation
  • Using Emotional Abuse
  • Using Isolation
  • Minimizing, Denying and Blaming
  • Using Children
  • Using Male Privilege
  • Using Economic Abuse
  • Using Coercion  and Threats

You can check out DAIP’s website for videos explaining each portion of the wheel.


Many experts in the field have utilized the wheel to explain varying aspects of abuse, including specifics of certain cultures and groups. These adaptations build upon the wheel’s framework to provide further insight in varying contexts. We like how Dr. Clare Murphy explains the wheel, as well as the adaptation she created to explain how “wider culture breeds, reinforces and supports the male imperative; the notion that men have rights over women.” Check out her website, Speak Out Loud (a website to “Learn About Coercive Control And Psychological Abuse") for her thoughts on the wheel’s impact and a description of her adaptation.

We hope that this model serves to be validating for those who have experienced this type of abuse. In the future, we also hope to make the connection for those who may have experienced this abuse in another environment, which we will continue to explore on this journey to understanding.

Written by Chelsea Brass & Abigail Hazlett

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


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.


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

More on the UK Law Criminalizing "Coercive, Controlling" Behavior

We highlighted the 2015 UK law criminalizing "coercive, controlling" behavior last week. Thankfully, because legal documents pertaining to the law are all in English (as opposed to the law in France), we have been able to access some of the information that's been utilized to assist victims, direct service providers, police officers, hospital staff and legal professionals navigate cases where coercive control may be utilized by an abuser.

We have found the legal guidance, as well as the guidelines for police investigation, to have very useful and practical information as to how the coercive control pattern is translated into tangible pieces to use as evidence in an investigation. Additionally, those tangible parts (text messages, bank statements, etc.) may be practices or investigative methods that could be utilized to strengthen current policies and practices in the United States, regardless of the lack of a law that explicitly criminalizes coercive control.

Below are guidelines created by the College of Policing to teach officers how to investigate domestic violence cases with the new law in place, encouraging officers to "focus on identifying a pattern of behaviour across different types of evidence. Much of it will be evidence of the victim and perpetrator’s day to day living and their interaction."

[Note: we have included hyperlinks to those UK gov pages in the titles of the sections below.]


Examples of evidence utilized in successful cases include:

-  Records of communication between the victim and perpetrator (emails, phone records, text messages, social media)
-  Audio or visual recordings of interaction between the victim and perpetrator, demonstrating body language and tone (including 999 recordings, which is the UK equivalent of a 911 call in the United States, Closed Circuit TV, Body Worn Video footage)
-  Local inquiries (neighbors, regular deliveries, postal services, window cleaner)
-  Witness testimony (from family and friends, as to observed behavior by both parties and its effect and impact)
-  Diaries kept by the victim and/or children
-  Records of lifestyle and household, including photographic evidence of the scene
-  Evidence of isolation (lack of contact with family and friends, withdrawal from social activities and clubs)
-  Records of interaction with services which show the perpetrator adopting a dominant role (always accompanying the victim to banking or medical appointments)
-  Bank records showing financial control
-  Medical records
-  GPS tracking devices installed on mobile phones, tablets, vehicles
-  Care plan, where the perpetrator has caring responsibilities

The guidelines indicate this list is not exhaustive and any evidence which shows a pattern of control or coercion is relevant and to be recorded.

See Home Office (2015) Statutory Guidance Framework and Crown Prosecution Service (2015) Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship for further information.


When interviewing victims, investigators are instructed to elicit information on the current event to which they are present, general information about the victim and their families, as well as relationship context, depending on the individual circumstances of each case. Related specifically to the presence of coercive or controlling behavior, investigators are tasked with determining the following:

-  Victim’s view of how they feel the suspect controls their life and, if so, how (this can be difficult to explain and describe to an outsider as the small controlling behaviors on their own can sound trivial)
-  Victim’s views on the rules or expected behaviors set by the suspect in the relationship (what the victim must and must not do)
-  Victim’s account of any threats used to maintain control (to ‘out’ their sexual orientation, medical condition, immigration status, other personal information or criminal activity, or to use intimate photos on social media to cause upset and risk of exclusion or dishonor from wider family members or community)
-  Victim’s account of the use of threats relating to children (to limit child contact, to take the children, or to have them taken away)
-  Whether other persons are involved in planning and/or executing the abuse

Any of this activity that came before the law was enacted (December 29th, 2015) may not be used as evidence, but some forms of it may be able to be used as evidence of “bad character evidence” as explained here.

Hopefully, you found this information helpful. There are several resource available online that provide direction for those wanting to understand how the UK law is being implemented, some of which we have made available on our Take Action page. If you have any resources you'd like to share with us, please feel free to leave any in the comments.

Written by Abigail Hazlett & Chelsea Brass

U.S. Advocates Have a Lot to Learn from French & UK Laws

One of the primary goals of this website is to advocate for policy change in the United States that recognizes the harms of coercive control. Currently, only physical violence against a victim is recognized as a crime, meaning that until bodily harm or injury occurs, victims have no legal protection. In fact, Dr. Evan Stark, whose book Coercive Control introduced the concept, argued "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." In short, Stark argued coercive control represents a human rights violation and a "liberty crime" against the victim. Other countries have created laws intended to protect victims from not just the physical harm they may (or may not) experience, but the emotional and psychological patterns of abuse utilized by many abusers.

A January 2018 article in the Huffington Post provides an overview of places where psychological abuse is outlawed. We think of psychological abuse as a prime tactic used in any coercive control pattern and are excited to see how laws meant to address this form of abuse are utilized in court systems. While there may be limitations to a bill that explicitly addresses coercive control, the implementation of these laws may be very informative as we work to strengthen current policy here in the United States. Below, we have included an introduction to relevant legislation in both France and the United Kingdom. We will continue to review the framework, implementation and analyses of these laws, which we hope to share with you in the near future.


In 2010, France banned “psychological violence within marriage”, becoming the first country to officially criminalize psychological abuse. The Library of Congress summarizes the Law on Violence Against Women, which among other protections for victims, includes psychological violence: 

“The Law also contains several criminal provisions aimed at reinforcing the fight against familial violence, including psychological violence. Harassing one's spouse, partner, or co-habitant by repeated acts that “degrade one's quality of life and cause a change in one's physical or mental state of health” is punishable by a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a €45,000 fine (about US$57,000), if that harassment resulted in an incapacity to work for eight days or less or does not result in any work incapacity. The penalty is increased to five years and a fine of €75,000 (about US$95,000) if the resulting incapacity to work is over eight days.”

At its introduction, an NPR story reported critics viewed the legislation as unnecessary and “would allow couples to be hauled in for having an argument.” One of the bill’s creators, Martine Billard, disagreed, arguing the law addressed a legitimate concern and would require a victim to prove “that the abuse is repeated and done with the intention of destroying the victim's dignity.”

Additional articles on the introduction of the French law:
French Bid to Ban Marital Abuse That's Psychological in Time Magazine
France Makes ‘Psychological Violence’ a Crime in The New York Times


In 2017, the United Kingdom passed The Serious Crime Act 2015, criminalizing the use of controlling or coercive behavior in intimate or familial relationships. Carol A Lambert, MSW, reports in the Huffington Post that “the UK’s new law recognized a gap in the existing law and now includes patterns of coercive control by an intimate partner while still living together that can carry a maximum sentence of five years of imprisonment or a fine, or both.”

The UK's Independent highlighted changes to the law in a December 2015 article, shortly after the bill was passed. The article provides specific examples of behavior classified as "controlling, coercive" and an explanation that the law is only applicable in circumstances in which repeated, continuous and ongoing treatment produces a "serious effect" on the victim. Additionally, it lays out some of the initial responses to the law by those working with victims:

In opposition, Sandra Horley, the chief executive of Refuge, said she did not believe that criminalizing coercive control was the right solution. “We already have enough laws – the problem is that they are not being implemented properly,” she said. “The police don’t even arrest when there is evidence of serious physical violence, so how are police and juries ever going to understand complex concepts like coercive control?
“Controlling behaviour can be incredibly subtle, and isn’t always coercive. Extreme jealousy and possessiveness, for example, can be dressed up to look like care or concern. Providing evidence of such behaviours to satisfy criminal standards is likely to be extremely difficult.” 

However, Polly Neate, of Women’s Aid, strongly supported the new criminal offense, saying it was a significant step in protecting women experiencing domestic violence: “We welcome the home secretary’s announcement that the government will criminalise the patterns of coercive, controlling and psychologically abusive behaviour which lie at the heart of the abuse so many women experience,” she said. “We hope this new law will lead to a real culture change, so that every woman experiencing control can get the support she needs to break free safely.”

The implementation of these laws are an exciting development and represent an opportunity for advocates in the United States to learn how to be most effective in meeting victim's needs and best practices for direct service providers, police officers, hospital staff and legal professionals.

Written by Abigail Hazlett & Chelsea Brass

In the News: Coercive Trafficking Bill Introduced

A press release from John Ratcliffe Representative explains, "the PROTECT Act would amend existing human trafficking law to specify that the use of drugs or illegal substances to cause a person to engage in a commercial sex act or forced labor constitutes a form of coercion. It also aims to protect trafficking victims from prosecution by recognizing that victims are often forced to commit crimes by virtue of their own victimization."

The bill was introduced by United States Senators Sherrod Brown, John Cornyn, Dianne Feinstein, Amy Klobuchar, Bill Nelson, Rob Portman, & Thom Tillis. The bill summary can be found here.

In the News: Coercive Control (U.S. news to date)

Another #MeToo Scandal Hits the White House

Hosted by Tanzina Vega, WNYC's THE takeaway

February 12, 2018

In the wake of recent reports that White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned after allegations of domestic abuse from his two ex-wives, President Donald Trump called for Due Process for the accused. Host Tanzina Vega discusses what it's like to experience the "invisible actions of verbal and psychological abuse" with a victim whose experience is similar to that reported by Porter's ex-wives. Julie Goldscheid, CUNY Law School professor, joins the discussion to detail the issues victims of verbal and psychological abuse run into with the legal system and how due process applies in situations like these.


written by SOUMYA KARLAMANGLA, Los Angeles Times

October 11, 2017

‘Coercive control’ potential factor in ‘Dirty John’ case of psychological abuse


January 12, 2018

Both articles examine the story of Debra Newell, told in the podcast, “Dirty John,” released by the Los Angeles Times in October 2017. John Meehan was a conman who utilized coercive control to control his wife, Debra. The story is a disturbing look into the experience of a victim of coercive control and both articles offer insight from experts.



February 17, 2017

Drs. Evan Stark and Lisa Aronson Fontes discuss a UK law which provides protections for victims of domestic violence for non-violent abuse and argue U.S. victims are unsafe because without clear and documented physical damage to a victim, "the police and court system are likely to view it as trivial."

With Coercive Control, the Abuse Is Psychological

WRITTEN Abby Ellin, the New York Times

July 11, 2016

Abby Ellin at the New York Times wrote about coercive control, highlighting the recent UK law and efforts in the U.S. to highlight non-physical forms of abuse through the hashtag #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou. The article is a great primer for understanding the basics of coercive control and what a relationship characterized by the abusive dynamic might look like. 

abuse is abuse, even if he doesn't hit you

written by Melissa Jeltsen, huffington post

May 16, 2016

Melissa Jeltsen provides readers with tips on recognizing coercive control in abusive relationships, including the common tactics of gaslighting, intimidation, authoritarian control and demands of obedience, and isolation from support systems. She also highlights the hashtag #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou and the hashtag's creator Zahira Kelly.


written by lisa aronson fontes, ph.d., psychology today

August 26, 2015

Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes offers a very reader-friendly breakdown of coercive control in the context of an intimate partner relationship, including a checklist from her book Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.


written by lisa aronson fontes, ph.d., huffington post

June 10, 2015

Expert Lisa Aronson Fontes shares her own personal story with a relationship characterized by coercive control.