In the News

In the News: "Victims of Sexual Violence Often Stay in Touch With Their Abusers. Here’s Why."

This past Friday, the New York Times explored why victims might stay in touch with their abusers and why many often struggle to leave abusive relationships. We are grateful to see they also mentioned some of the challenges victims face in the US court system, where men are believed more than women. Coercive control, of course, is often at the center of the answer to the "why?" question and the two experts interviewed for this piece do a great job of highlighting coercive control dynamics, even without using the actual term.

The piece features quotes from Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes, whose writings we have highlighted before on this blog, and Qudsia Raja, who is the policy director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Their feedback is particularly important and this article is worth a read.

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

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

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

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

What Really Happens in a Controlling Relationship: The harsh reality of "perspecticide" in a coercive control relationship

This post has been republished with the permission of its author, Lisa Aronson Fontes. It can also be found at Psychology Today, where it was originally published. Links included in the original post have been maintained here.

Living with an abusive and controlling partner can feel like living in a cult—except lonelier. Victims' ** own viewpoints, desires, and opinions may fade as they are overwhelmed by the abusers'. Over time, they may lose a sense that they even have a right to their own perspectives. This is called perspecticide—the abuse-related incapacity to know what you know (Stark, 2007). Perspecticide is often part of a strategy of coercive control that may include manipulation, stalking, and physical abuse:

Deciding how you should spend your time.

Abusers make their partners narrow their worlds. Once isolated, it is easy to lose one's sense of self.

  • Doug *** insisted that Val watch him play video games rather than doing what she wanted. He demanded that he be the center of her attention at all times. Gradually she accepted this as an obligation.
  • Corey’s husband only “allowed” her to socialize along with him, with other couples. He did not permit her to leave the house without him, even to shop for food.
  • Whenever TeyShawn tried speaking on the phone or seeing friends or family, his boyfriend, Angelo, grew angry with him. After a while TeyShawn severely curtailed his social life; It just wasn’t worth the hassle.


Abusers insist on controlling minute aspects of their partners' lives. Over time, victims internalize the rules and forget what life was like when they were freer to make their own choices.

  • Herman drew up an extensive chores chart and insisted that Marta keep a detailed log of her activities.
  • Ken gave his partner, Steve, a list of expectations for his diet, workout routine, and grooming, and implied that their relationship would be over if he did not comply.
  • Darnell expected Sara to dress modestly when outside the home but insisted that she dress sexily when they were alone together. He told her to stop speaking to the cat, reading magazines, or sleeping on her back. He chose her makeup, dictated her bedtime, and weighed her daily. He meticulously controlled the way their house was organized, down to how towels were folded and food stored on the shelves. To avoid explosive conflict, Sara followed Darnell's demands and began to see them as "normal."

Defining you.

Abusers make their partners feel badly about themselves. Because they are isolated, people victimized by perspecticide begin to believe the negative descriptions of themselves and lose self-esteem.

  • Imani’s husband told her repeatedly that she was a gloomy, depressed person by nature. He told her that she was selfish to ask for changes in their marriage since she would never be happy anyway. Over time, she stopped asking.
  • Lori’s boyfriend told her she was oversexed and that he needed to keep an eye on her or she’d be out of control. He had sex with her at least once on most days, which was more than she wanted, but he told her it was what he needed to do to keep her “honest.” Over time, she stopped protesting the way he monitored and forced himself on her. She accepted the idea that the sex was “for her own good.”
  • Clarice’s husband, Dre, did not have a job for the first decade of their marriage. Clarice worked long days and when she returned home he berated her for “choosing work over family.” In front of the children, he defined her as cold, unloving, and nonmaternal. Clarice constantly felt obliged to prove that she was a good mother. The children joined their father in blaming Clarice for “not being around much,” as if she was making a deliberate choice to be out of the home for long stretches. In the evening, sometimes Dre would take away Clarice’s phone, saying, “Now you’re going to have to pay attention to us.”

Setting the terms of life in a couple.

Abusive partners create the expectations. The abuser demands certain acts as proof of love and over time, the person being victimized gives in.

  • Kelly’s husband insisted that they share a toothbrush and that they use the same water or wine glass at all meals. He couldn’t seem to tolerate her having anything that was hers alone. Kelly dreamed of being able to close the door when she showered but her husband wanted to be able to see her at all times.
  • Lily pushed her boyfriend to share all his social media and email passwords and when he refused, she secretly installed a keystroke logger so she could access them against his will. When he found out and confronted her, she replied, “Loving couples keep no secrets.” He gave up on the idea of Internet privacy.
  • Karen told Carmen that she should never say “no” to her; pleasing her should be her Number One and only priority. Carmen tried hard to follow this rule, and grew ashamed when she had longings of her own.

People subjected to perspecticide often blame themselves, as they feel despairing and disoriented. It can be hard for them to figure out exactly what’s wrong. Controlling partners serve as a filter for the outside world, gradually forcing their victims to lose the support of family, friends, and coworkers. Isolated and controlled in this way, victims lose self-esteem and have trouble remembering what they once thought, felt, and believed.

** If you're not comfortable with the terms "victim" and "abuser," feel free to substitute words that you prefer.

Written by Lisa Aronson Fontes

In the News: A Domestic-Violence Expert on Eric Schneiderman and ‘Coercive Control’

If you've been watching the news, you have seen the recent New Yorker expose on former New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman, where multiple women accused him of a broad range of abusive behaviors. Dr. Evan Stark recently gave an interview in which he discussed that story and offered his own description for Scheiderman's behavior. It's an excellent read that highlights some important concepts for understanding what makes coercive control different from other forms of violence and abuse, as well as learning the warning signs for coercive control.

Some important takeaways (our emphasis added):

  • On the difference between coercive control and other forms of abuse: "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."
  • On recognizing coercive control early: "Much of what we define as love in the U.S. looks like coercive control. We think when somebody wants to do everything for us, or wants to know the answers to questions we haven’t even asked yet, we think that’s a sign of love. But it may also be a sign of someone who doesn’t want to allow us to have our own sense of dignity and autonomy and respect. When someone feels uncomfortable that they’re not able to express their differences, or when they find their partner so overreacting to differences that they catch themselves before they say something, they’re in the presence of coercive control."

It's a short read and we definitely recommend checking it out!

Written by Abigail Hazlett

In the News

Be sure to check out these recent stories on coercive control:

Financial Times: Why Domestic Abuse is an Employer’s Business Too

This UK source discusses the unique opportunity businesses have to impact the lives of domestic violence victims in their workforce: “Domestic abuse is about control, and a workplace may be the one place [people] come to where they are on their own, so it’s an incredible opportunity to offer the support they need.” Focusing on the financial impacts of domestic violence, including lower productivity, lost wages and even lost jobs, this piece highlights not only why businesses should care about addressing DV, but how one company is doing just that. This piece is of particular interest to us, as we hope to one day work to develop an appropriate HR training informed by a proper understanding of coercive control and the lasting impacts of trauma.

Law.Com: Companies Can Help Employees Who Face Domestic Violence

This North American source, written by an attorney, discusses specific policies and practices employers can utilize to combat domestic violence and the impacts of coercive control on employees.

The Daily Mail: The Abuse That Leaves No Bruises

The Daily Mail (a UK source) highlights the stories of three survivors of domestic violence, including the impacts of coercive control. "Coercive control is like cancer: everybody knows somebody who's been affected. It's only when you start to speak openly about it, without shame, that it prompts others to start to take a closer and more honest look at their own experiences." These victims' stories are powerful and worth a read.

Psychology Today: 11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting

"Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality." It is often a key component an abuser utilizes to establish a coercive control dynamic with their victim. This is a helpful list outlining how the tactic works and how to recognize it. As you read through these 11 signs, be sure to look for ways in which gaslighting may occur outside of intimate relationships. We plan to write about gaslighting in context of public discourse in the future and this is a great primer for that!

The New Yorker: The Trial of Noor Salman and its Shocking Disregard for Survivors of Domestic Violence

Noor Salman was the wife of Pulse Night Club shooter, Omar Matteen, who murdered 49 people. She was also a victim of coercive control, who Rachel Louise Snyder writes, was failed by the justice system and charged for a crime (of which she was just acquitted) because they lacked an understanding of the experiences of victims of coercive control. It is important for law enforcement and professionals throughout the legal system to understand how victims may behave when they are operating under duress and fear for their own or their children's safety. This is a powerful and important read.

The Sally Challen Case

In 2011, Sally Challen was sentenced to 22 years in prison for the murder of her husband, Richard. Her case has drawn a lot of attention in the United Kingdom over the past few weeks because she was recently granted the right to appeal the court's decision. Why? Challen's lawyers claim there is new evidence that suggests Sally's husband was abusive to her, and under the 2015 law outlawing coercive and controlling behavior, her lawyers are arguing that she was the victim in the case and Richard's death was an act of self-protection.

David Challen, Sally's son, has spoken out publicly in support of his mother, requesting her conviction be reduced to manslaughter and that she be released with eight years already served. He was joined by many advocates in the UK who launched a campaign in support. Challen's legal team reportedly plans to introduce new evidence that shows extreme coercive and controlling behavior, including evidence that "Richard humiliated her, isolated her, lied to her about his affairs with other women, controlled her finances, and raped her, after she kissed one of his friends on the cheek." [1]

This particular case is important to watch for many, including those interested in how implementation of a coercive control law could play out in the U.S., but even more importantly for victims in the U.K., as the reality of living under a regime of coercive control and the lasting damage it causes is now receiving national attention.

Eva Wiseman recently wrote about how this case changes things for victims in The Guardian:

"Sally Challen’s case has the potential to change, if not the world, where men will surely continue to abuse women until what it means to be a man changes completely, then the way we look at the world, and in turn, the women suffering inside it. This case has comprehensively laid out the ways in which women are crushed by their abusers. It’s shown the depth of violence women suffer in these relationships, the lack of control they have, whether of their bank accounts or how regularly they’re allowed to go to the toilet, and so in turn, explains how difficult it can be to leave this house, this double-glazed prison.

"We know the role that children play in these stories, we’ve seen how mothers will put themselves at risk to protect them. If Sally’s appeal is successful, as her son David (who has been campaigning steadily for her release, calmly answering questions about his father’s death on Good Morning, and calling for mental abuse to be taken more seriously in this country) is hoping, then thousands of women living in similar small hells, could be freed too."

This is certainly a case we will keep an eye on. For more on this case:

Written by Abigail Hazlett


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.