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Coercive Control and Intimate Partner Violence

Just before ringing in 2016, the United Kingdom announced that new legislation would make coercive, or controlling, abuse in domestic relationships a criminal act, carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The legislation reflects what feminist advocates have been claiming for decades – that intimate partner violence (IPV) is not limited to physical or sexual abuse. Additionally, IPV includes a wide range of non-physical but highly influential behaviors that enable one intimate partner to control the other, and keep the victimized partner ensnared in an abusive relationship. Here, David Mayeda discusses Evan Stark’s concept of coercive control to illustrate how widespread gender norms in society contribute to men’s control over women in intimate relationships.

When people hear the words “domestic violence” or “intimate partner violence” (IPV), the first images that come to mind are typically those involving physical violence between intimate partners. However in 2007, Evan Stark published Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, a book which illuminates how violence in intimate relationships is sustained largely by acts of control, which do not always carry physical violence. Stark’s work has also been influential in showcasing how coercive control is shaped by society’s gendered expectations of men and women.

In many countries, women and men share equal rights, and no doubt over the years, women have narrowed the gender gap considerably. Furthermore, discrimination based on sex is no longer legal or socially acceptable in most societies. But with women’s upward social mobility, Stark argues that men who abuse their partners often times feel threatened by women’s rising status, and since these men cannot legally abuse their intimate partners, they figure out ways to keep them subordinated by relying on society’s ongoing expectations of women.

Male Privilege in the Workplace

Despite the progress shown by women to narrow the gender gap, traditional gendered stereotypes and disparities persist. To this day, men are still more often than women expected to control household finances, while women are expected more often than men to fullfil domestic, motherly obligations (e.g., preparing meals, performing various cleaning tasks, caring for children).

Because men are expected to work and earn income in the public sphere, and women are expected to stay home, nurture children and maintain the household, the man in a relationship can more easily wield power over his intimate partner by keeping her financially dependent. If he is physically abusive, but she has no income and/or minimal control over the family’s finances, her options of leaving are reduced significantly.

Thus, it is not only acts of physical violence that may keep a woman in an abusive relationship. From a structural point of view, patriarchal norms that privilege males in the workplace and reduce women to the domestic sphere also act as societal forms of coercion that facilitate male control over female partners.

Being a “Good Mother”

Men may further coerce female partners into domestic roles by enforcing women’s assigned roles as mothers. Although it is socially acceptable for fathers to leave home for work and engage in leisure activities, mothers who leave their children for work or relaxation face much harsher social penalties. A woman leaving the household for whatever reasons is far more likely to be labelled a bad mother than a man who leaves the household to be labelled a bad father.

These gendered norms are still manipulated to keep women restricted to the domestic sphere. As many in the domestic violence field have noted, when women’s occupational and educational endeavors are limited, their chances of exiting a violent relationship likewise diminish. Without work colleagues, educational peers and the social capital that accompanies these institutional domains, women’s social networks and knowledge of personal rights are contracted severely, thereby increasing their social isolation.

In short, an abusive father can draw on the societal notion that a “good mother” should stay home to care for the children as a way to diminish her physical movements, knowledge-base, and access to others. Consequently, “good motherhood” is turned into a source of coercion, used to control abused women.

Chivalry and Micro-regulation

Even notions of chivalry maintain unequal gender roles – men act as active participants in a relationship when they open the door for women, who in turn walk through passively. This example may seem benign, but over time, abusive men figure out ways to manipulate male chivalry as a means to control their intimate partners.

An abusive male may, for example, constantly monitor his intimate partner by dropping her off and picking her up whenever she leaves the house. He may limit her access to other men or family members. Initially, these acts might be viewed as signs of caring or love. But over time, abusive men will increase and intensify these actions such that they become incessant forms of surveillance that also involve strict monitoring of communication (cell phone and social media usage) and critiques of women’s appearance that damage self-esteem.

Stark refers to these patterned actions as micro-regulations, where women held hostage in abusive relationships feel that their every move is being regulated. Again, men’s ability to engage in these controlling behaviors is facilitated by broader gender norms that view proper femininity as passive and appropriate masculinity as active.

The Personal is Political

In the 1970s, feminist activists asserted that women’s personal subordination in society was shaped by politically gendered social norms. Evan Stark’s concept of coercive control effectively demonstrates how contemporary gender norms still shape IPV, enabling men to be much more abusive partners than women when relationships turn violent. Thus on the one hand, it is crucial that law makers understand how coercive control functions in abusive relationships and take non-physical forms of abuse seriously in legal circles. Additionally, society must alter the cultural attitudes toward gender that allow coercive control over women to persist.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe how macro understandings of gender in society influence the way some men control women in violent relationships.
  2. If men’s controlling abuse in relationships is so widespread and effective, why has it not received significant attention in the mainstream media?
  3. Should women in violent relationships come forward, what might make it difficult for law enforcement and courts to prosecute forms of coercive control?
  4. This post assumes a heteronormative world view. Explain whether or not you feel coercive control can influence same-sex relationships.

Further Reading:

Videos courtesy of New Zealand’s Family Violence: It’s Not Okay Campaign