Selections from “Coercive Control” by Evan Stark

What marks control is not who decides, but who decides who decides;  who decides what, whether, and how delegated decisions are monitored;  and the consequences of making “mistakes.”

The following selections from Evan Stark’s excellent book, Coercive Control,  are reproduced here as an temptation to buy the book if you can, and, if you can’t, to give you the benefit of some of his insights.  We also recommend watching a video of  Dr. Stark explaining coercive control.

Coercive control shares general elements with other capture or course-of-conduct crimes such as kidnapping, stalking, and harassment, including the facts that it is ongoing and its perpetrators use various means to hurt, humiliate, intimidate, exploit, isolate, and dominate their victims. 

Like hostages, victims of coercive control are frequently deprived of money, food, access to communication or transportation, and other survival resources even as they are cut off from family, friends, and other supports.  But unlike other capture crimes, coercive control is personalized, extends through social space as well as over time, and is gendered in that it relies for its impact on women’s vulnerability as women due to sexual inequality. 

Another difference is its aim.  Men deploy coercive control to secure privileges that involve the use of time, control over material resources, access to sex, and personal service.  Like assaults, coercive control undermines a victim’s physical and psychological integrity.  But the main means used to establish control is the micro-regulation of everyday behaviors associated with stereotypic female roles, such as how women dress, cook, clean, socialize, care for their children, or perform sexually.  This is accomplished by exploiting the benefits women derive from their newfound equality — taking the money they earn, for instance — and the disadvantages they suffer because of persistent sexual discrimination in the market and their consignment to default domestic roles.  These dynamics give coercive control a role in sexual politics that distinguishes it from all other crimes. (p. 5)

The entrapment of women in personal life is also hard to discern because so many of the rights it violates are so basic — so much a part of the taken-for-granted fabric of the everyday lives we lead as adults, and so embedded in female behaviors that are constrained by their normative consignment  to women — that their abridgment passes largely without notice.  The  following chapters [of the book Coercive Control] will introduce women who had to answer the phone by the third ring, record every penny they spent, vacuum ’till you can see the lines,’ and dress, walk, cook, talk, and make love in specific ways and not in others, always with the ‘or else’ proviso hanging over their heads.  

What status should we accord Terry Traficonda’s right to have toilet paper in the downstairs bathroom or to Laura’s right to go to the gym without being beeped home?  Given the prominence of physical bruising, how can we take these little indignities seriously or appreciate that they comprise the heart of a hostage-like syndrome against which the slap, punch, or kick pale in significance?  Most people take it for granted that normal, healthy adults determine their own sleep patterns or how they drive or laugh or make love,  The first woman who used our home as her safe house described her partner as a tyrant.  We thought she was speaking metaphorically.

Violence is easy to understand.  But the deprivations that come packaged in coercive control are no more a part of my personal life than they are of most men’s.  This is true both literally, because many of the regulations involved in coercive control target behaviors that are identified with the female role, and figuratively, because it is hard for me to conceive of a situation outside of a prison, a mental hospital, or a POW camp where another adult would control or even care to control my everyday routines.

What is taken from the women whose stories I tell — and what some victims use violence to restore — is the capacity for independent decision making in the areas by which we distinguish adults from children and free citizens from indentured servants.  Coercive control entails a malevolent course of conduct that subordinates women to an alien will by violating their physical integrity (domestic violence), denying them respect and autonomy (intimidation), depriving them of social connectedness (isolation), and appropriating or denying them access to the resources required for personhood and citizenship (control).  Nothing men experience in the normal course of their daily lives resembles this conspicuous form of subjugation. (p. 15)

Emphasis in the civil arena has been on relief, primarily through protection orders, and on making domestic violence a consideration in the award of custody and alimony.  A criminal act (though not necessarily an arrest) is the usual ground for securing civil orders.  But which acts defendants are ordered to cease differ markedly from one jurisdiction to another and can encompass threats, harassment, stalking, and emotional abuse. 

The personal nature of coercive control. …everything about the experience of coercive control reflects its personal and individualized nature, from its proximate motives and relationship — specific organization through the tactics deployed.  The victim’s agency is its principal target, and its familiar setting is critical to instilling fear. 

The personal nature of coercive control begins with the controller, whose individual needs are the focus of everything he does, and extends to the means deployed.  Only in coercive control do perpetrators hone their tactics to their special knowledge of everything from a victim’s earnings and phone conversations to her medical problems, personal fears, sexual desires, and illicit activities.  One husband in my practice would jump out of a closet where he was hiding to “surprise” his wife when she returned home.  Although he claimed this was only a joke, he knew his action terrorized her because she had shared a childhood experience when an uncle had lain in wait in a closet, then raped her.  The sudden destruction or unexplained disappearance of familiar objects that have a special meaning to the victim is a related tactic.  (p. 206)

The sweatshirt case. Cheryl was the star pitcher for her factory softball team. After several innings when she pitched well, her boyfriend, Jason, would come into the field and offer Cheryl her sweatshirt, saying, “Darling, you’re cold.  Why don’t you put this on?”  To the dismay of her teammates, Cheryl would “fall apart.”

Cheryl’s teammates interpreted Jason’s gesture as caring.  But to Cheryl, the message was that she had violated an agreement not to make him jealous.  The sweatshirt was his warning that, because of her infraction, she would have to cover up her arms after he beat her.  Cheryl’s “mistake” was to draw attention to herself by striking out the opposing batters.  She quickly corrected this fault by falling apart.  She was also too frightened to pitch well.

Cheryl recognized that her panic was induced by Jason’s offer,  But when Donna [chapter 9] curtailed her eating to placate her husband’s obsession with her spending and her weight, she truly believed this was a “good way to economize.”  When she shared this at a family dinner, Frank (correctly) interpreted this as a plea for help and beat her for being “so stupid.”  These control  tactics centered on gendered enactments.  But they also targeted mundane areas of everyday life that are not normally thought of as norm- or rule-governed.

In most crimes, we work backward from the outcome to those responsible.  Money is missing from the till, and we look for the thief.  Control often is literally hidden “behind closed doors.” 

… Control can also be difficult to detect because its means and effects merge with behaviors widely associated with women’s devalued status in personal life — being deferential, thrifty, thin, and unnoticed.  The tactics involved are easily confused with the range of sacrifices women are expected to make in their role as homemakers, parents, and sexual partner.  Anthropologists have been particularly sensitive to what Nia Parson calls “the banality of sexism” because their training prepares them to look critically at how our usual practices of casting experiences as “natural” or “normal” obscures the greatly consequential workings of power in social life. 

The hyper-regulation of everyday routines typical of coercive control works because the normative constraints already embedded in women’s performance of everyday chores merge with their fear of not doing what is demanded.  Because similar performative constraints are also linked to how men and women enact love, regulatory strategies are often disguised as expressions of affection, as in the sweatshirt example.  Abusive partners have bought my clients clothes, asked them to quit waitressing at a strip club, begged them to leave the phone off the hook when they’re apart so “I know you’re there for me,” asked that their daughter adopt their grandmother’s name, or shown up unexpectedly at their job. 

The only clue that something is wrong in these cases may be the victim’s inchoate sense that it is dangerous to refuse the request or that this is about him, not her.  A woman described negotiating custodial issues with her ex-husband.  “After talking for an hour about what I wanted and needed,” she reported, “he announced ‘Now let’s talk about me’.”  If those who bear its brunt or witness these events are unclear about whether they are loving or controlling, imagine how difficult it can be for researchers, police, health providers, or advocates to identify the infrastructure of control.

How should we respond to the sweatshirt  incident, or to sexual inspections, or when men monitor the time their partner spends on the phone or regulate how long she and her children can spend in the bathroom?  What makes this sort of regulation more than merely an idiosyncratic variant of the expectation that women will be loyal, obedient, and deferential?  What if the rules appear consensual, like Cheryl’s agreement not to make Jason jealous?  Why should a court take Cheryl’s perception of threat as more credible than Jason’s insistence that he was just being caring?  The answers lie in the interrelationships between these acts, not in the acts themselves, and in their oppressive context and effects.

Regulatory strategies are also commonly confused with the imbalance in decision making typical of heterosexual relationships or are masked by the fact that the supposed victim earns more money than her partner, pays the bills, hires outside help, or makes crucial decision about household purchases, the children’s future (such as which schools they attend), or other aspects of daily living.  What marks control is not who decides, but who decides who decides;  who decides what, whether, and how delegated decisions are monitored;  and the consequences of making “mistakes.” (p. 229)

Another class of threats, illustrated by the meticulously organized cabinets in the movie Sleeping With the Enemy, involves anonymous acts whose authorship is never in doubt.  To frighten their partners, men in my caseload have left anonymous threats on answering machines, removed pieces or clothing or other memorabilia from the house, cut the telephone wires, slashed a woman’s tires, torn up newspapers and left them on the doorstep, stolen their partner’s money or their mail, determined their address by stealing mail from family members, removed vital parts from their cars, or left subtle signs that they entered a home from which they are excluded by court order.  At the other extreme, they exploit secret fears to which they alone are privy, like the man who played peek-a-boo with his wife to remind her of the uncle who had waited for her in the closet, then  raped her.

Anonymous threats and “Gaslight” games. In the 1944 film Gaslight, Charles Boyer created various visual and auditory illusions to convince his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, that she was insane.  Gaslight games are designed with a similar end and are illustrated in my practice by stealing things from a woman’s pocketbook that mysteriously reappear after a desperate search, turning the gas on after she thinks it is off, and re-parking her car during the night. 

Some games are less subtle.  Miguel would put his land over Lavonne’s mouth while she slept so she couldn’t breathe and then pretend to be asleep when she woke up gasping for air.  To cope, she would simply lie awake until he went to work, then be too exhausted to care for the babies.  One husband — owner of a steel company — removed his wife’s expensive camera from their New York apartment, insulted her for losing his gift, and then secretly returned it to its place when the police arrived to investigate.  Forty-seven percent of the English men [in a published study] tried to convince their partner’s friends, families and children that she was crazy (almost 30% did so all the time) and almost a third threatened to have her committed to a mental hospital.

Perpetrators will also threaten their partners by telling transparent or outrageous lies, having affairs they make sure she knows about (30% of the English men), or saying or doing things in a public setting that insult or embarrass them. In one case, the German husband put pornographic shots of him having sex with another woman on the Web where his American wife was sure to see them, then told her, “You’re driving me away with your insane accusations.” The intent is to remind the victim how dangerous confrontation can be and how dependent she is for her well-being on accepting his version of events, however ridiculous. (p. 254)

MORE:  Words that Describe Abuse – Name It to Tame It

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