Woman sitting before looming male shadow
What is Coercive Control?
Domestic violence comprises a range of behaviors beyond physical and emotional abuse. Abusers often use violence, intimidation, degradation, and isolation to deprive victims of their rights to physical security, dignity and respect. Evan Stark has been encouraging the use of “coercive control” to describe a course of oppressive behavior grounded in gender-based privilege. While all forms of abuse are about power and control, coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism that invades all arenas of women’s activity by limiting access to money and other basic resources. In addition, few elements of coercive control are currently considered criminal, or are only crimes when committed against strangers, which further complicates this issue within the context of domestic violence.
It starts as an overly attentive boyfriend. He wants to know where I am all the time. He shows up unexpectedly to pick her up from work. He encourages her to stay home and not work, he’ll take care of her. He wants to pick out her outfits. And then it all changes …
Women are Afraid to Tell Their Stories: No physical scars, bruises, broken bones or cuts.
HJ, a teacher, had to walk around the house at night ten times because her husband, a priest, was frustrated that he couldn’t correctly swaddle their newborn (one week old) baby. He blamed her. She had to write 1000 times I will not lie because he wanted to control the newborns eating habits and wouldn’t let her breast feed on demand. When she did so, he accused her of lying. She gave me a copy of her papers with written 1000 times “I won’t tell a lie.” She left him.
DR, a social worker, took her newborn to the pediatrician for his 3-month checkup. Her 3 yr old was left with relatives and her husband. The 3yr old wanted to open a gift in advance of when it was to be opened. As punishment for this “offense”, the Father, a businessman and a lawyer, took 3yr old PR into a room and methodically smashed his favorite airplane toy as “punishment”, sadistically saying” there goes the wing” to the shrieking child. The visiting relatives tried to stop him but when their intervention was unsuccessful, they recorded it. I can still hear the shrieking child. Prior to this he smashed a bed frame and chair. She had photos of the broken furniture. She left him.
LS walks with the father of her two children who carried a “walking stick” to school every day at his insistence. What passersby can’t see is what looks like his hand gently on her back is actually him poking her and directing her as to where she can walk and who she can address while walking. He uses the walking stick as a weapon. She is trying to leave him.
Each of the above women had two boys, all under the ages of five. None of these women wanted to tell me what had happened to them or what they experienced in their marriages. All of them protected their abusive partners. I saw the fear in their eyes or heard it in their voices or both. All were afraid their abusive partners would control the narrative if I presented their stories in Court. All of them suffered memory lapses but all also kept a personal diary in which they recorded their inner most thoughts and recorded events. Most had spoken to a close friend or family member who could assist them in their recall of events and help create a narrative timeline.
None of them wanted their sons to be influenced by their abusive partners. All were afraid he’d get custody. None felt they had any personal “freedom.” All felt they were trapped.
Fear of Courtroom “Bullying” and Further Abuse
When presenting their stories in a Court, the women must explain why they didn’t call the police, why they didn’t ask for an order of protection two years ago or whenever a particular incident occurred, why they didn’t “just leave” the household? They are subjected to cross examinations that border on abuse when asked questions like, he never hit you, did he? Have you seen a doctor for injuries? You have no injuries, do you? you have no medical evidence, you suffered no harm? In one particularly chilling courtroom scenario, the abuser represented himself so he could question his victim.
A forensic expert is necessary to explain why the women didn’t do all the things they couldn’t do because they were intimidated, because he told her she was smarter than her, better than her, no one would believe her, “I never hit you did I?” “I’ll get custody of our kids.” Or he controlled the money and he never let her out of his sight.
Forensic Experts Can Explain the “Whys”
Dr. Chitra Raghavan, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in New York City specializing in assessment of sex trafficking, domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, sexual assault and their traumatic outcomes. Dr. Raghavan serves as an expert witness often addressing the following topics:
Specific topics addressed:
· How coercive control tactics are often invisible to outsiders
· How coercive control is used to “entrap” or bully victims of sexual harassment, domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking
· Reasons for contradictory narratives of violence and abuse including reporting delays, recanting abuse, and memory issues
· Why survivors return to abusive relationships or won’t testify against abusers
· Psychological impairment and other effects of violence and abuse
· How sexual orientation, cultural identity, and religion factor into trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual assault cases
How Should We Criminally Treat Domestic Abusers Who Use Coercive Control?
Professor Evan Stark is the world’s leading authority on coercive control, a type of physical abuse that doesn’t always involve physical violence. His groundbreaking work on coercive control has had a major impact on approaches to domestic abuse around the world.
He is Emeritus Professor at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Professor Stark’s innovative work has informed governments and domestic violence organizations and has been widely cited in the media.
In his words, “I think that with the 60 percent of battering cases that comprise domestic violence … we need a law that punishes offenders at the same level that we would punish people that take hostages, or kidnap people, because what we’re really dealing with, although the analogy’s by no means perfect, is a kind of domestic terrorism. A kind of domestic hostage taking in which the victim has no outside to escape to, because the supposed safe place, the relationship, the home, the family network, has been identified as the point of imprisonment and entrapment.”
New Laws Being Passed by State
Last year, both California and Hawaii passed anti–coercive control legislation: California’s law allows behaviors that constitute coercive control to be submitted as evidence in family courts, while Hawaii’s amends the state’s domestic violence statutes to account for it. Similar legislation that has been introduced in New York would classify coercive control as a felony punishable by up to four years in jail.
Courts must recognize this form of abuse as readily as they can see bruises, cuts and broken bones and take the necessary legal steps to remove these abusers from their victims, homes, neighborhoods, places of work and schools.
I am the founding partner of Fersch LLC, a family law practice in New York City. I am the co-chairwoman of the Matrimonial Lawyers Pro Bono Law Project, sponsored by the