Beyond IP Relationships

Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships: Abusive Groups

We have stated before that a core assumption of our work is the belief that coercive control in abusive groups functions similarly to coercive control in intimate partnerships of two people (dyads). Because groups are made up of many dyadic relationships (as opposed to intimate relationships that contain only one dyad), the coercive control dynamic members of abusive groups experience may appear, or in at times actually be, less severe than what victims in intimate, dyadic relationships experience. This may obscure the ability of those who have not personally experienced the dynamic in this setting from being able to recognize the coercive control dynamic of abusive groups and the accompanying behaviors (e.g. policing, censoring, intimidating).

Additionally, abusive group structures are characterized by dyadic and familial-style interactions. Like relationships characterized by intimate partner violence, cultic (or other forms of abusive group) relationships involve a reciprocal relationship between the target ("group member") and the controller/oppressor (“group leader”). These relationships are, in essence, an extension of the one-on-one or one-on-a few dynamic we see in IPV, but they are expanded to include all members of the group (a multitude of dyads). For example, in a religious or political cult, relationships between members of the group may mirror the abusive leader-follower dynamic (as members mimic the abusive leader), however these relationships are always under the ultimate control of the group leader, even if for a moment, a group member is able to exercise power and control over another group member who has less power within the group. This dynamic can also be seen in abusive families (i.e. the older sibling who participates in abuse of a younger sibling even as they themselves are abused by a parent).

As we explore these dynamics, we believe it is important to examine how culture, systems, societies, institutions, groups, and families can all function as their own sub-systems or groups that can reinforce, and at times function as an interwoven system of abusive dynamics.

We have seen this come up with gangs and extremist/terrorist organizations where gang members or extremist group members may be perpetrating crimes, however at the same time they may also be a victim of abusive group dynamics that would make it dangerous or impossible to leave, forcing their participation. In this case, the realities of harms inflicted by the group are often ignored and the group member is maligned and viewed only as a perpetrator. Those who understand abusive groups have a lot to teach us here, as they recognize the way coercive control functions to keep group members from leaving, and the chaotic dysfunction of the group works to make members unable to think critically and therefore deployable to do the leader's bidding.

These topics are complex, but vitally important to understanding how coercive control functions beyond intimate partner relationships. A proper understanding is necessary for a number of reasons, including prevention, successful interventions and treatment for those who are capable of leaving. In the next few weeks, we plan to explore this idea further, looking to the wealth of research available in the field of cultic studies and other forms of abusive groups.

Written by Abigail Hazlett & Chelsea Brass

ICSA Conference Presentation

This past week, we travelled to Philadelphia for the annual International Cultic Studies Association conference, where we had the privilege of seeing some incredible presentations and presenting our own work. We'll be sharing some of the resources we discovered there over the course of the next few weeks.

Our conference presentation centered on explaining our adapted model of the Power and Control Wheel. Our adaptation explains the victim experience within abusive groups (gangs, terrorist organizations, political and religious cults, highly abusive families, etc.), with group leaders utilizing their individual relationships with followers, as well as control over followers' relationships with each other, to maintain power and control over group members. We have discussed the original Power and Control Wheel previously and believe that because it is a helpful teaching tool for understanding victim's experiences in abusive and controlling intimate relationships (between two people), it serves as a beneficial foundation for exploring how this dynamic functions within groups. We received a lot of wonderful feedback and are excited to see how this tool may be utilized in a clinical setting and in court rooms where these dynamics are often misunderstood, but vital to comprehend.

For those interested, the abstract for our presentation can be found here. Details about the content, as well as information about available 1.5 hour CE credits for mental health professionals, are provided. We are told the presentation will be available at a future date for any who weren't able to attend in person, but are interested in watching and receiving credits (if applicable). When that link becomes available, we will be sure to share.

Our presentation slides can be downloaded here. We will publish a full explanation of the model in the coming weeks, but for those who attended and would like a copy for use immediately, a copy can be found here.

If you have any questions or you're interested in connecting with us about how this tool can be utilized in your own work, please feel free to reach out.

Written by 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.
[3] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2012). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012. Vienna, Austria.
[5] Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2004). Domestic & Sexual Assault Advocate Handbook on Human Trafficking. Tallahassee, FL.
[6] ibid
[8] ibid

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.


Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships: Shared Dynamics

In last week's blog introducing our Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships Series, we asserted that the power and control dynamic within abusive and coercive intimate relationships is similar to the dynamic within other types of abusive organizations or relationships (like human trafficking, abusive families, cults and terrorist organizations). The framework of coercive control, developed by Dr. Evan Stark, is focused specifically on the dynamic between male abusers and their female victims, with an emphasis on the way structural inequality compounds the abuse women experience, creating an environment of total entrapment in women’s private lives. We recognize the value in stressing the difference between this particular dynamic and other forms of domestic violence or physical and sexual abuse, but we suggest that the tactics of coercive and controlling abusers, as well as the entrapment their victims experience, are not entirely unique to intimate partner relationships, nor is the dynamic between abuser and victim.

The overlap between coercive control and the other forms of abuse we plan to highlight is not complete, but in each of these contexts, coercive control is either a critical characteristic (e.g. human trafficking, cults and certain types of highly abusive families) or it is a tactic commonly utilized by abusers within these groups (e.g. gangs, cults, and terrorism). In each of these abusive contexts, the abuser relies on a combination of captivity, isolation and fear to establish power and control over their victims. Drawing on this, we believe recognizing what these forms of abuse share is important because:

  1. Doing so allows us to draw insights from prevention work across various fields.
  2. Doing so may allow for a better understanding of victim’s experiences, allowing us to better meet their needs, so that we may be most helpful to survivors as they pursue recovery.
  3.  Any effective policy that criminalizes the emotional and psychological abuse (rather than just the physical or sexual abuse) coercive control victims experience would ideally also protect victims who experience these other forms of abuse as well.

As such, we’d like to share the work of some important academics who have contributed to our understanding of the shared dynamics within these various fields of abuse.


We have discussed Dr. Judith Herman’s work before and have highlighted her on our People to Know page. Herman’s Trauma and Recovery serves as the go-to guide for understanding how survivors experience trauma, with a specific focus on complex trauma, which results from prolonged and repeated abuse. Herman’s work is foundational to our approach and has encouraged us to look for commonalities where possible. She argues that “people who endured horrible events suffer predictable psychological harm” and as such, “...because the traumatic syndromes have basic features in common, the recovery process also follows a common pathway.” [1]

Further, Herman recognizes similarities in the dynamic between abuser and victim across various abusive contexts:

Captivity, which brings the victim into prolonged contact with the perpetrator, creates a special type of relationship, one of coercive control. This is equally true whether the victim is taken captive entirely by force, as in the case of prisoners and hostages, or by a combination of force, intimidation, and enticement, as in the case of religious cult members, battered women, and abused children. The psychological impact of subordination to coercive control may have many common features, whether that subordination occurs within the public sphere of politics or within the private sphere of sexual and domestic relations. [2]

Herman also discusses similarities in the tactics of abusers and experiences of victims:

The methods that enable one human being to enslave another are remarkably consistent. The accounts of hostages, political prisoners, and survivors of concentration camps from every corner of the globe have an uncanny sameness. ...The same techniques are used to subjugate women, in prostitution, in pornography, and in the home. In organized criminal activities, pimps and pornographers sometimes instruct one another in the use of coercive methods. …Even in domestic situations, where the batterer is not part of any larger organization, and has had no formal instruction in these techniques, he seems time and again to reinvent them. [3]

Herman’s work recognizes that the dynamic between abuser and victim is strikingly similar across a variety of abusive contexts. Most importantly, we believe her work points to the exciting possibility that learning to safeguard people against one form of coercive and controlling abuse can aid in safeguarding them against other forms. Additionally, it may ring true that learning how to support victims of one form of coercive and controlling abuse toward recovery, can also aid us in supporting victims who have experienced other forms. Finally, we believe policy created to protect the public against coercive control should have impacts across these areas as well.


The work of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton (also on our People to Know page) also serves as foundational to our understanding of the shared dynamics discussed within this post. Lifton is a lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Psychology of The City University of New York. In the early 1950s, Lifton studied prisoners of war and other captives, exploring the psychology of captivity and what he termed “thought reform”. Later in 1961, he released the groundbreaking book on his study of coercive techniques, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China. He detailed methods of formulaic manipulation, a phenomena he believed to be pervasive within various forms of abuse, spurring research in several fields.

Interestingly, Lifton is also recognized by Judith Herman as a researcher illuminating “our common predicament”, recognizing the salience of the theoretical underpinnings between domestic violence and other forms of coercive abuse. [4] In saying this, we believe Herman is referring to the politics, impacts and experiences of psychological captivity. Lifton’s work on this area explores the particular internal and external dynamics surrounding this phenomena, highlighting the important distinctions between physical and psychological captivity, including the fact that psychological captivity does not require physical captivity. Further, he explores how when the two do co-exist, they serve to mutually reinforce an incredibly powerful form of domination.

In the book, Ethics of Captivity, on the chapter of “Coercion and Captivity”, philosopher Dr. Lisa Rivera expounds on Lifton’s contributions in this area:

What is distinctive about psychological captivity is that the near total control over someone’s action that physical captivity achieves through physical barriers and force can be accomplished in the right context without those barriers and without force. Another significant feature of psychological captivity is that it often includes the expectation that the captor’s preferences for the captive’s choices will be internalized and acted upon by the captive as if these preferences are valuable. Thus, loyalty rather than mere behavior can be demanded by captors. Psychological captivity is effective only in some cases without violence or the threat of violence but the psychological captive is, in a physical sense, sometimes free to escape. [5]

Lifton’s work is fascinating and provides important insights into the experiences of many of the victims in each of these abusive contexts. In intimate relationships, a woman may have her every action, down to how she vacuums the carpet or styles her hair, controlled by her abuser. In human trafficking, a victim may be forced to consent to their physical body being violated over and over (and then have to pretend to like it). In cults, such as (recently in the news) NXIVM, members may be branded by the leader and forced to compete for attention and recognition as one of his sex slaves. In each of these contexts, the abuser’s ultimate goal is total control, not just of the victim’s actions, but of their very identity. In each of these contexts, a combination of isolation, captivity and fear are utilized by an abuser to entrap their victim and establish a dynamic of power and control.

Written by Abigail Hazlett & Chelsea Brass

[1] Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence--from domestic abuse to political terror. Hachette, UK. p. 3.
[2] p. 74-75.
[3] p. 77.
[4] Herman, J.L., in Lifton, J.L. (2000). Destroying the world to save it: Aum shinrikyo, apocalyptic violence, and the new global terrorism. Macmillan, review excerpt on book cover.
[5] Rivera, L. (2014). Coercion and Captivity. In Lori Greun’s The ethics of captivity. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 162.



Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships: What’s So Domestic About Abuse?


Much of the academic work surrounding coercive control, including our own, has focused on the dynamic within the context of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV). However, central to our understanding of power and control is a belief that the experience of an abuse of power is universal. The severity of each person’s experience is obviously different based on the context of their relationship to an abuser, however there are undeniable similarities between tactics of coercive and controlling abusers and the experiences of their victims across various abusive groups and types of relationships.

We believe that the underlying dynamics of power and control are central to both IPV and the study of abusive groups and organizations, including human trafficking, terrorist groups and religious and political cults. We assert:

  1. The power and control dynamic within abusive and coercive intimate relationships is intrinsically similar to the dyadic (two people) and/or familial dynamics core to the victim experience in abusive organizations (like cults and terrorist organizations)

  2. If our insights regarding shared, underlying dynamics of coercive control ring true, these fields (along with other related fields) should not be siloed; we should be intentional about applying any insights from one field to serve another.

With this in mind, we plan to begin to introduce these concepts in a series of essays over the course of the next several weeks. We will begin with an overview of authors across these fields who acknowledge their shared theoretical foundations. We will then begin a multi-part series that looks at these similarities as they exists in these different fields.

We begin with human trafficking because we see this phenomena as containing many components of the various situations we will cover (cults, terrorism, etc). For example, the dynamics of abusive relationships are commonly found in human trafficking situations (e.g. the person exploited may believe their abuser loves them). Concurrently, human trafficking has such overlap with cultic groups it is actually now considered a “commercial cult” by both people in cultic studies and by human trafficking organizations supporting and supported by former victims.

Cults are often exoticized, but former group members and those working in the cultic studies field understand that like abusive intimate relationships and families, when you strip away the ideology and practices, cults are all about power and control. [1] While relationships characterized by IPV often involve a dyad (two people), group influence appears to serve as a powerful tool to reinforce the dyadic tie between leader and each respective follower. This dynamic can establish a powerful level of control and influence over the individual within an abusive group.

Terrorist organizations are primarily male-dominated and leaders utilize many similar dynamics of coercive and controlling behavior, including female subjugation and exploitation within some of  them (e.g. gangs with human trafficking and ISIS sex slaves). Similar to human trafficking parallels, many policymakers already commonly refer to some terrorist organizations as militant cults.

We hope you see here that we don’t find coercive abuse to be that domestic, nor do we see the abuse found in cults, terrorist groups, or human trafficking to be all that exotic. Victims of these different types of abuse are often stigmatized. As such, understanding the shared dynamics within these different contexts is vital because it helps us to better understand their experiences, to better meet their needs, and to develop the most effective ways of preventing this insidious abuse from occurring in the first place.

[1] Lalich, J., & Tobias, M. L. (2006). Take back your life: Recovering from cults and abusive relationships. Bay Tree. Chicago.

Written by Abigail Hazlett & Chelsea Brass