In the News: Cults and Coercive Control

Last week, we highlighted the important work of Dr. Alexandra Stein, author of the book Terror, Love, and BrainwashingThis past week, she was interviewed in a story on cults at the Daily Mail, a UK newspaper. Her interview succinctly explains the underlying dynamic of coercive control that is found in abusive groups and relationships:

This [submission] is done, she says, with the use of the fourth ingredient: coercive control. It is defined as ‘a strategic course of behaviour’ (aka brainwashing), often involving manipulation and humiliation, in order to persuade others to do your bidding.

‘The aim is to isolate you and trap you in that isolation,’ says Stein. ‘They create chronic stress, which causes trauma. Trauma leads to dissociation, a state in which you cannot think about your own feelings. In that gap, the cult can insert its ideology and tell you what you are feeling.’ This is all done, she says, by wearing members down. ‘You don’t have any resources left to step away from it and to have a good think about your involvement. When people do get that space, they often get out.’

In the interview, Stein also highlights the strong link between cults and domestic violence, which informed her efforts to lobby for extending the new UK law on coercive and controlling behavior beyond just domestic and intimate relationships, but to include groups as well. We would hope to see any future U.S. law that criminalizes coercive control be made applicable in this way also.

As cults have become a topic of interest in the news in recent years, Stein's work has been featured in a variety of places. We look forward to hearing more from her and seeing what impact she will have on coercive control policy in the U.K.

Written by Chelsea Brass

People to Know: Dr. Alexandra Stein

Alexandra Stein, Ph.D., is "a writer and educator specializing in the social psychology of ideological extremism and other dangerous social relationships. She is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. Stein offers prevention education programs and materials to help people understand how to identify and protect themselves from recruitment to cultic or extremist groups. She also studies and teaches about positive social relationships: 'small d' democracy, inclusivity and healthy social and personal networks that can oppose these dangerous relationships." [1]

We are big fans of Dr. Stein's work and believe that she will do much to help us understand the linkages between several fields, including those of terrorism, cults and domestic violence. She has a mastery of the concept of coercive control and aims to make an impact on the UK policy. Stein urges for a public health approach to combatting coercive control and would be a helpful collaborator for anyone working to develop a prevention agenda for the United States.

We plan to highlight more of her work in the future, but we would like to highlight two areas of special note: her doctoral work comparing highly political groups that are extremist and non-extremist, and most especially her contributions to the area of group attachment.

Stein's doctoral work on groups compared the Green Party to the Newman Tendency, "a group based in New York City, active in third-party politics, and run by Fred Newman, a former university lecturer." [2] The Newman Tendency and the Green Party are both highly political and ideological groups, but the Green Party does not ask as much of its members as the Newman Tendency. Throughout her work, she highlights the psychological and emotional differences between the two. It's an important distinction for people to understand, as experts agree it is not the ideology that makes an abusive group or cult, but rather, the abusive methods and power and control utilized by group leaders against followers.

What Stein contributes to attachment theory, as it applies to cultic control, is of extreme importance to the field of domestic violence, and of particular interest for developing an understanding of the full impact of coercive control on victims. Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby, explains how "how human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat," [3] by drawing on a schema developed in early childhood modeled after their relationship to their primary caregiver. That primary relationship then serves as a model for handling stress in future relationships.

In her book, Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems, Stein argues that attachment theory is not just applicable to relationships between individuals, but between individuals and groups. Further, Stein asserts that the attachment style one has developed (even healthy attachments) can be hijacked by these types of group and turned into a "fearful attachment" (as she posits "fear + isolation = control"). For those familiar with attachment theory, one of the most often cited theories of interpersonal relations, this kind of addition is a significant one, largely beyond the scope of just this field.

If you're interested in Dr. Stein's work on attachment theory, you should check out her book and watch this great interview where she discusses it in depth.

Dr. Stein's work is important across multiple fields and can do much to help us better understand the psychological impacts of coercive control. You can find out more about her and follow her work at her website, on twitter and on our People to Know page. We will continue to highlight her work as it applies to the concept of coercive control.

[1] http://www.alexandrastein.com
[2] Stein, A. (2012). Terror and Love: A Study of Brainwashing. Anthropology Now4(2), 32-41.
[3] Waters, Corcoran & Anafarta 2005, pp. 80–84.

In the News: Gaslighting, Domestic Violence Dynamics & the Crisis at the Border

In the United States, the news of the past few weeks has centered around the separation of immigrant and asylum-seeking families at the southern border. The New Yorker recently published an article making a comparison between the Trump Administration's language regarding this crisis and the language of domestic violence abusers. The article is an important read and example of how the behaviors of abusers are often normalized in the public sphere. Jessica Winter makes an important comparison between the language abusers utilize against their victims and the current administration's policies and political messaging. We encourage you to read the entire thing.

A recent Texas Monthly article provides another example of how the Trump Administration's policy and messaging relies on the dynamics of abuse. Texas Monthly executive editor Katy Dive discussed conditions at the border with Anne Chandler, executive director of the Houston office of the nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center, which focuses on helping immigrant women and children. Chandler confirms that legal points of entry along the border have been closed by border security, forcing the most desperate to cross illegally (because there is nowhere legal to cross). So, as the administration claims that asylum seekers are breaking our laws, the administration itself has created the circumstances under which asylum seekers have no option but to break those laws, and then that law-breaking is used to justify their policy.

The crisis at the border is important, not just because the lives of thousands of vulnerable people, regardless of where they were born, matter, but also because the language and tactics utilized by the Trump Administration throughout this very public conversation on the matter represent one of the many ways we have allowed abusive tactics and behaviors a space in our public life. When we accept gaslighting, lying, distortions, deflections, manipulation, belittlement and coercion from public figures, we are communicating that those very behaviors are also acceptable in private life. When we accept the dehumanizing treatment of one group of people, we are communicating that those behaviors are also acceptable against others. You cannot allow the abuse of one person and then credibly claim abuse is wrong against another.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Written by Abigail Hazlett

Resource: Technology Facilitated Coercive Control

An article recently published in the Feminist Media Studies journal highlights the role technology plays in coercive control. The article's authors, Drs. Molly DragiewiczAriadna Matamoros-FernandezMichael Salter, Nicolas P. SuzorDelanie Woodlock, and Bridget Harris, are based out of Australia, but their research and insights on this issue are applicable across the globe. One of the article's authors recently shared "Technology Facilitated Coercive Control: Domestic Violence and the Competing Roles of Digital Media Platforms" online and we thought it was a particularly useful resource to share. The journal article is helpful for understanding the role of online misogyny "within the broader context of domestic violence" and explores how abusers utilize digital technologies to "exacerbate" and "to mediate and coordinate violence" against their victims. The article itself can be requested from the authors here, but below are some highlights.

To begin, the authors define technology facilitated coercive control (TFCC) as "the technological and relational aspects of abuse in the specific context of coercive and controlling intimate relationships. TFCC refers to violence and abuse by current or former intimate partners, facilitated by digital media. It includes such behaviours as harassment on social media,  stalking using GPS data, clandestine and suspicious audio and visual recording, threats via SMS, monitoring email, accessing accounts without permission, impersonating a partner, and publishing private information (doxxing) or sexualized content without consent." [1]

The article explores current research on TFCC, including the role platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) can play to "engender counter-misogynistic discourse" and act to protect victims through "regulation and governance of online abuse." [2] Long before widespread use of digital platforms existed, coercive control was utilized by abusers to entrap and dominate their victims, even at times when they were not physically present. With technological advancements and the near ubiquitous use of smartphones and platforms like Facebook, Instagram, etc., opportunities for abusers to access information and/or "persistently intrude on their targets regardless of location" have only increased. [3]

For technology creators, addressing this problem will be vitally important. This article may be particularly helpful for its discussion of challenges for platform governance and complications digital platforms face in protecting users against those who utilize their products to coordinate abuse. The authors propose four key issues which must be addressed to tackle the problem of  TFCC [4]:

  • lack of clarity on what platforms are currently doing to combat abuse
  • develop a shared understanding of what platforms ought to be doing to combat abuse
  • regulators must decide the extent to which responsibility is delegated to platform providers to combat abuse and develop effective laws where necessary
  • international consensus must be established regarding regulation of and expectations for transnational platforms

If you have an interest in the role of technology in coercive control, this is a must-read!

Written by Abigail Hazlett

[1] Dragiewicz, M., Burgess, J., Matamoros-Fernández, A., Salter, M., Suzor, N. P., Woodlock, D., & Harris, B. (2018). Technology facilitated coercive control: domestic violence and the competing roles of digital media platforms. Feminist Media Studies, 3.
[2] p. 4
[3] p. 5
[4] p. 20-21

A Must Listen: Engendered Podcast

This past week, Engendered, a new podcast highlighting "stories that explore the systems, practices, and policies that enable gender-based violence and oppression and the solutions to end it" launched. This podcast had us from day one, with host Teri Yuan interviewing Dr. Evan Stark on coercive control on the very first full-length episode. The episode runs a bit over an hour and is an engaging listen all the way through. Dr. Stark talks about his work in domestic violence over the years and how it led him to an understanding of the role of coercive control in women's lives, why coercive control impacts women differently than men, how the United States can tackle the problem of coercive control and the role of systemic inequality. 

You should listen to the entire episode, but these gems stood out:

  • Inequality as enabler of coercive control: "It is because of persistent inequalities that coercive control is possible. It is also, I believe... because women have gained so much that coercive control is necessary if men want to protect their privileges today. You see, the essential reason why men use coercive control today is because domestic violence is often ineffective. Domestic violence is illegal. Women can escape domestic violence."
  • How abusers utilize special knowledge of their partner's concerns and weaknesses to threaten and control them: Often when we ask women, "what does he do when he really wants to frighten you," the things they tell us are things that you wouldn't think about, because they are things that only he knows because of the privileged knowledge he has gained due to his intimacy with you. The knowledge he has of your brother's death, so that when he really wants to hurt you, he points to the baseball cap that you have from your brother... the one thing that you have and he threatens to destroy that. He just has to point to it and you're devastated and you'll do whatever he commands."
  • An example of when threats look like love: "Darling, you're cold, here is your sweatshirt. ...and only he knows and only you know... that the threat is that you'll have to cover up tonight because he'll hit you. And if he never lays his hands on you in that way, the simple offer of the sweatshirt is enough to let you know that you have done something to offend to him..."
  • On the gendered dimension of coercive control: "Right now, women are being told that they should dress as they should, clean as they should, cook as they should, care for their children as they should solely because that is the expectation of them as women."
  • Discussing how the United States can tackle the problem of coercive control: "Law alone is not gonna do it. ...You cannot distinguish the justice agenda for women from the equality agenda for women. ...You can't expect that you're going to have justice in personal life until you have equality in social life."

We are particularly excited that the show's first full-length episode focused on coercive control, as well as the systemic approach it takes to exploring gender-based violence. While I haven't had a chance to listen to all of the available episodes yet, the next few episodes look to be just as good (and important):

  • Episode 3Phyllis Frank, the Senior Director of VCS, a mental health counseling and family service agency located in Rockland County, with an anti-racist, social justice mission.  Phyllis started the first NY Model for Batterer Programs and will discuss effectiveness of batterer intervention programs.
  • Episode 4: Ruth M. Glenn, the CEO and President of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), speaking about the work she does at the NCADV and to debunk commonly held myths of survivors and abusers and how survivors and advocates like herself can play a vital role in the crafting of a national narrative in this work that is inclusive, empowering and impactful. The episode will also highlight gun prevention efforts and the NCADV’s role in the creation of the DisarmDV website.

If the first episode is any indication of the value of this podcast, we can't wait to see what's next! There are already three full-length episodes you can listen to on the Engendered website or you can subscribe anywhere podcasts can be found.

Written by Abigail Hazlett

What the "Collective" In Coercive Control Collective Means

In creating this site several months ago, our ultimate goal was to create a space where we could begin to share information about the concept of coercive control and some of the ideas our research on the area has inspired. We are both graduate students at the University of Texas, but we have been reading on this topic for the past five years. We intentionally created the Coercive Control Collective with a variety of goals in mind, beginning first with sharing what we had most readily at our disposal: our own perspective!

That being said, we have had some questions about why we have called this site a “Collective”. We were mindful when we created the site to use the word “collective” because we wanted the site to ultimately become:

  • A space where we share a collection of ideas on coercive control, including some of our own.

  • A space that serves as a collection of resources.

Our own efforts over the past several months have laid a foundation for creating this space, but there is much more we want the “Collective” in our name to mean:

  • We are a space where experts in related fields can share their own ideas about coercive control.

  • We are a space where we can form coalitions and facilitate collaborations with experts in related fields to combat coercive control through public policy, prevention and education.

  • We are a space where we can share information about public policy, prevention and education efforts in different areas of the United States and other areas that might be relevant to the United States.

If you think there are resources related to these points that could be helpful but have not yet been highlighted on this site, we welcome you to reach out and share them with us. We created this space with specific goals, but our long-term goals can’t be reached without engaging and collaborating with experts, thought leaders, policy professionals, and organizations that serve victims and survivors of coercive control.

Written by Chelsea Brass & Abigail Hazlett

In the News: How Abusive Relationships Take Root

Much of the time, this blog is aimed at the intricacies, subtleties and complexities involved in coercive control dynamics. This is important and where we feel we can make a contribution, however, just as vital are simple pieces that get straight to the point. This New York Times article gets at some of the poignant experiences that people who are victimized by severely controlling relationships experience.

We believe this article explains well the deceptively slow process in which critical thought is disabled and abusers are able to exact control over their victims. Of particular note is the cycle the author lays out, where small demands on the part of the abuser grow larger, while each concession made by the victim leads to greater self-doubt, and doubt, reinforced by the abuser, serves to make the victim even more vulnerable.

The following select quotes are worth highlighting:

  • On growing demands from abusers: “In this case, as in so many others, no single request was offensive on its own — at least, not early on. Each person in a relationship makes room for the other’s quirks, to some extent, male or female: that’s what couples do.

It’s the incremental ceding of control on one side that can prime someone for abuse, therapists said.”

  • On self-doubt and cognitive impairment: “Even as smaller confinements begin to lead to larger infringements, enough self-doubt has accumulated to feed the temptation to downplay the offense. It becomes increasingly difficult to see abuse for what it is.”

  • On the skills of abusers: “Some guys are very slick, they know how to groom women, know how to manipulate them, they promise to help their career,” Dr. Pape said. “And no matter how bright she is — she freezes, and takes on all the shame, the responsibility for what’s happening.”

This article may very well be the most succinct, plain-language, brief description of how abuse takes hold of a victim that we have seen and should be required reading for everyone. For those you know won't read much on this topic, this is the perfect article to send. 

Written by Chelsea Brass & Abigail Hazlett

Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships: Human Trafficking

We want to begin by exploring how coercive control can be employed within human trafficking for a variety of reasons, primarily because human trafficking cases can begin as intimate partner relationships and because they may involve dyadic dynamics (two people), which is most similar to the dynamics within intimate partner relationships.

To begin, we want to clarify what we mean by human trafficking. Legally speaking, human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation or commercial trade of human beings by means of threat, force or coercion, for the purpose of exploitation” [1]. It has also been dubbed “modern day slavery” and Polaris Project, a non-profit that works to combat and prevent modern-day slavery and human trafficking, estimates that the total number of victims in the United States “reaches into the hundreds of thousands when estimates of both adults and minors and sex trafficking and labor trafficking are aggregated.” [2]

Many organizations have researched the intersections and similarities between human trafficking and domestic violence. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence created a helpful worksheet on the topic. The Center for Court Innovation created a factsheet for jurisdictions to utilize as they plan or enhance their court responses to trafficking. UNICEF has also created a webpage that examines the shared dynamics between the two forms of abuse. Drawing from these sources, we want to review the following similarities between domestic violence and human trafficking:

Similarities: Gendered Dimensions

  • Like domestic violence, women comprise the majority of victims of human trafficking. “According to worldwide data from the United Nations, between 2007 and 2010, approximately 55% to 60% of the total number of detected victims of human trafficking were women.” [3]

  • According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “the majority of traffickers are male.” [4]

Similarities: The Abuser Tactics Employed

  • “Both batterers and traffickers use power and control to dominate their victims, and the range of tactics used by traffickers resembles that of domestic violence perpetrators.” [5]

  • Specific tactics may include “isolation, physical and emotional violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, financial abuse, threats to family members, use of children to manipulate and control their victims, withholding of food, sleep, and medical care, among others.” [6]

While it is important to know these similarities exist, the underlying power dynamics and structural inequality experienced by victims of human trafficking are what so closely mirrors the coercive control dynamic.

Similarities: The Power Dynamics Involved

  • “Individuals engaged in prostitution may be in an intimate relationship and have children with their pimp/trafficker, who may have threatened to or may have already used physical abuse, often as a mechanism to control and coerce the victim and to enforce silence when the victim comes into contact with the justice system.” [7]

  • “Human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, often involves the same dynamics of power and control present in patterns of domestic violence and sexual assault.” [8]

  • “When a trafficker is exploiting an intimate partner or family member, the familial relationship itself may be used to perpetuate an exploitative power imbalance. Sex traffickers may also utilize language that mimics familial relationships, such as insisting that a victim refers to him as ‘Daddy’ or other individuals he is exploiting as the victim's ‘family.’ Use of this language is meant to reinforce loyalty and strengthen the psychological ties between a trafficker and victim. When paired with other forms of or threats of abuse, leaving an exploitative situation becomes incredibly difficult.” [9]

Similarities: The Role of Structural Inequality

  • The most common victims of human trafficking are from already vulnerable populations [10]:

    • 25% of human trafficking victims are children

    • 75% of human trafficking victims are women and girls

  • In a study over calendar year 2016, The Polaris Project worked with 10, 615 victims of human trafficking. Amongst those:

    • 93% were minorities

    • The top five risk factors were:

      1. Recent migration/relocation

      2. Substance use

      3. Runaway/homeless youth

      4. Mental health concern

      5. Involvement in the child welfare system

The power and control dynamic between abuser and victim may also serve to prevent victims from having access to resources: “the dynamics of force and coercion may affect victims’ ability to use system resources. As in cases of domestic violence or sexual assault, the fact that an individual was coerced does not necessarily lessen the real or perceived blaming and stigma associated with trafficking. This, in turn, makes victims even more vulnerable to further trauma and less likely to seek help, especially from justice system stakeholders whom they do not know nor trust.” [11]

Coercive Control: Total Domination & Entrapment

Like victims of coercive control in relationships, victims of human trafficking can experience total entrapment and domination by their traffickers. The coercion, fraud, and threats of traffickers creates a real sense of imprisonment and makes victims (quite literally in many cases) another’s property. Because trafficking often involves multiple actors, rather than just an abuser and a victim, and because the abuse may occur within groups or organizations, it may be difficult for most to recognize that many of the dyadic and intimate dynamics utilized by abusive partners are utilized in trafficking cases to recruit and maintain compliance, as well as to threaten the victim if the person attempts to assert their independence or desire to leave.

That said, many victims do not know that this is occurring, and have to believe that they are free to leave and are choosing to stay. Advocates have drawn parallels between victims of trafficking who escape but return and victims of domestic violence who do not leave their abusers. Human trafficking advocates widely recognize this powerful pull toward the abuser as the “trauma bond.” Trauma bonds are created when “the victim must perceive a real threat of death and an inability to escape; they must be isolated; and there must be some perception of kindness.” [12] This bond is also utilized to benefit abusers in intimate partner relationships.

Dr. Evan Stark recently did an interview in which he explained the unique aim of coercive control:

"In coercive control abuse, you have a range of acts over time, a broad range of non-consensual and non-reciprocal tactics — isolation, intimidation, sexual abuse, stalking. And they’re not just used to hurt someone or to hurt their feelings, but to subjugate them in ways that make them unable or unwilling to escape, or to effectively resist a partner’s demands. The aim of emotional abuse is to hurt someone’s feelings so badly that they feel ashamed of themselves, and the aim of [physical] domestic violence is to hurt someone physically and make them afraid to resist in that situation, but the aim of coercive control goes beyond that. It uses a range of tactics to subjugate them, to make them dependent. The aim is total domination, rather than simply to win compliance on a particular issue." [13]

Seeing the ultimate goal of coercive control as total domination, we believe it is relatively straightforward to understand human trafficking as a commercialized extension via the ultimate exploitation of a woman’s body, viewed not just as property, but as an object seized upon for economic benefit.

This economic benefit is also seized upon by gangs, terrorist organizations like ISIS using women as prostitutes, and even religious cults like Children of God who pressure women to have sex with men as a recruitment tool. Cults and gangs may use branding to mark their female property, as seen recently with the sex trafficking cult, Nxivm. We will go into these topics near the end of our series when we tie these various fields together with more examples.

Trafficking laws and prevention programs, like the laws and prevention programs targeting domestic violence, must utilize a coercive control framework that goes beyond just criminalizing the end product (physical violence, kidnapping or stalking), but actually addresses the process that produces this sort of imprisonment and creates total domination over victims.  From a legal and policy standpoint, there have been many efforts recently to include coercion as a recognized part of the abuse victims of human trafficking face. Like coercive control in intimate partner relationships, trafficking policy and laws must recognize human trafficking as a "liberty crime" in which abusers strip their victims of their freedoms.

From a public safety perspective, we should attempt to obviate the abusive process by educating the public about how this sort of abuse works, that their labor is their own to employ as they see fit, and to be wary of anyone who attempts to assert that their own body is anyone's but their own.

Written by Chelsea Brass & Abigail Hazlett

[1] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2012). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012. Vienna, Austria. https://nrcdv.org/dvam/sites/default/files2/HumanTrafficking%26DV-TalkingPointsForm.pdf
[2] https://polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/facts
[3] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2012). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012. Vienna, Austria. https://nrcdv.org/dvam/sites/default/files2/HumanTrafficking%26DV-TalkingPointsForm.pdf
[4] https://www.unodc.org/documents/human-trafficking/UNVTF_fs_HT_EN.pdf
[5] Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2004). Domestic & Sexual Assault Advocate Handbook on Human Trafficking. Tallahassee, FL. https://nrcdv.org/dvam/sites/default/files2/HumanTrafficking%26DV-TalkingPointsForm.pdf
[6] ibid
[7]https://www.courtinnovation.org/sites/default/files/documents/UnderstandingHumanTrafficking_2.pdf
[8] ibid
[9] https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/domestic-violence-and-human-trafficking/33601
[10] http://polarisproject.org/sites/default/files/2017NHTHStats%20%281%29.pdf
[11]https://www.courtinnovation.org/sites/default/files/documents/UnderstandingHumanTrafficking_2.pdf
[12] https://nypost.com/2018/04/17/how-sex-traffickers-hunt-for-victims-and-brainwash-them/  
[13] https://www.yahoo.com/news/domestic-violence-expert-eric-schneiderman-214621191.html

Using Art to Shine a Light on Coercive Control

Art and artists have long played a role in bringing about social change. In recent years, some incredible artists have focused their efforts on the work of bringing awareness and recognition to the problem of coercive control and giving a voice to its victims. We wanted to share one ad campaign that uses the power of visual art to do just that.

Cut Your Strings is a UK ad campaign created to highlight various tactics of coercive control that are now criminal offenses, including tracking and monitoring, isolation, and threats. The three pieces are unique and do an incredible job of showing the impact of coercive control on a victim.

Tracking & Monitoring

ISOLATION

THREATS

Artist Credits
3D VFX Artists:

https://francescatowey.wixsite.com/po...
https://vimeo.com/lucycwright
Music:
https://www.charlesevanharrison.com/

Finally, if you are an artist or know any artists creating work that highlights this issue and would like to share it on our blog, please reach out and let us know. You can contact us here or through our Twitter or Facebook accounts.

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.