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From domestic violence to coercive control

When a major obstacle is removed to our progress, idealist intellectuals like myself rejoice. I was introduced to one such obstacle in the early l970s, when a woman hiding from her abusive husband in our home told us “violence wasn’t the worst part.” Like the millions of other victimized women we have served in the ensuing years, she understood that the prevailing equation of partner abuse with domestic violence has little relation to her lived experience of oppression.

Accepting the conventional equation of abuse with assault, my early research focused on the significance of domestic violence for injury and a range of related health and behavioral problems. What researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in much of the world now appreciate is that the significance of physical and sexual violence in male partner abuse derives from their role as part of an ongoing and multi-faceted strategy to subordinate women. This strategy is designed to deprive women of their autonomy, dignity, and their basic rights and resources; extends over time and through social space via various forms of surveillance, harassment, and stalking; and encompasses a range of tactics that hurt women, make them afraid, isolate them, and subject them to what the Council of Europe has called “arbitrary violations of liberty.” This phrase encompasses the numerous ways in which abusive men exploit their female partners (financially, sexually, etc.); deprive them of basic resources (e.g. money, transport, means to communicate, and medications); and regulate their everyday lives, particularly how they dress, cook, clean, parent, and enact other roles women inherit by default simply because they are female. This pattern has been variously termed “psychological abuse,” “intimate terrorism,” and “coercive control,” the term I prefer.

Some of the elements of coercive control are crimes and some are criminal when strangers are involved. But most of the tactics, like the pattern of coercive control as a whole, have no legal standing. Persistent sexual inequalities explain why coercive control has remained largely invisible despite the fact that its prevalence and devastating effects are in plain sight. Women’s second-class status means that harms to their autonomy, dignity, liberty, and equality are less “grievable” than comparable harms to men, hence less likely to be recognized as inconsistent with personhood and citizenship.

The adoption of ‘The Istanbul Convention” (IC) in 2011 by the Council of Europe signaled a major turn away from the equation of partner abuse with physical violence. The first comprehensive, legally-binding transnational instrument related to partner abuse defined Violence Against Women as “…a violation of human rights & a form of discrimination against women” that included the range of gender-based acts that caused women physical, psychological or economic harm or suffering, including restrictions on their liberty. The IC lays out detailed protocols for prevention, protection, prosecution, integration and monitoring that are already in place in more than 20 countries.

More recently, on 15 April 2015, the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta’s guarantee of equal justice for all, the British Parliament created the new offense of “controlling or coercive behavior in an intimate or family relationship” (alternately referred to as “coercive control and domestic violence”) carrying up to five years imprisonment. In presenting the new offense, the Solicitor General quoted our contribution to a 2013 Home Office “consultation,” defining coercive controlling behavior as “a course of conduct, knowingly undertaken, making a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday lives.” The offense is being overseen by a newly created Minister for the Prevention of Abuse and Exploitation.

The reconceptualization of partner abuse as coercive control and evidence showing it was the context for most help-seeking by victimized women were important factors in passage of the new law. Equally important were grass roots activism, the decision by the Home Secretary Theresa May to make this her issue, and the felt need for the Tories to win back female constituents alienated by draconian cuts in services. The forces of law and order also favored reform. The incident-based response did little more than create a revolving door of offenders that left police frustrated, courts overwhelmed, and victims and their children at extreme risk.

Depicting a pattern of privilege-driven oppression designed to secure domination goes a long way towards capturing what women have been telling us for decades. Simply announcing the new offense has led to a sharp spike in reporting of abuse and has already expanded the narratives of abuse in the media to include stories of domination and control as well as violence. The new spirit among women’s groups reeling from the government’s austerity policies has extended to dance, theatre, and even to the fabric arts, where creative artists have produced works portraying how coercive control constrains women’s imaginative domain as well as their spatial movement and other expressions of personhood.

But the challenges ahead are enormous. Defining coercive control as a “course of conduct” that encompasses a broad range of oppressive behaviors gives police, prosecutors, and the judiciary power to arrest, charge, and convict perpetrators for all of their coercive and controlling acts, including those committed against previous partners, what is termed “historical abuse.” If men responsible for dozens of offenses are removed from the community, caseloads and the associated costs should drop, improving the overall quality of life in communities.

But the coercive control offense will only succeed if there is sufficient new funding for police training and their expanded role in abuse cases; advocacy groups reach out to hold law enforcement accountable; and police accept a cultural shift that requires them to “open a window” to a victim’s history of abuse rather than merely “take a picture” of her injuries. None of this is guaranteed.

The new offense is not a panacea. It omits gender, allows men to claim their controlling behavior was needed to “protect” their partner, and does not extend to couples who are separated. But it is a reminder of how much can be achieved when social scientists, feminist advocates, and policymakers enter the dance of justice as a team.

Featured image credit: Abstract star. (c) Osipets via iStock.

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