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Behind closed doors: Coercive Control of Women

Updated on June 8, 2015


Domestic violence has long been a concern of society and continues to be a moral dilemma for the government, regarding exactly how involved the public should be in private family lives and what the constraints of this term are. However, while the definition of domestic violence has been limited in the past to battery and physical abuse, Evan Starks asserts in his book Coercive Control that domestic violence extends above and beyond simply the violence. He defines coercive control as a tactic used by men to dominate individual women. While assault is part of this strategy, he suggests that the primary harm abusive men inflict is “political, not physical” (5). While Starks theory has been accepted as having a lot of substance in its exploration of how men dominate women and oppress them through microregulation of everyday activities, it emphasises the gendered differences and ignores other aspects of domestic violence such as the role that coercive control plays in same-sex relationships and on other members of the family.

Starks compares coercive control to an invisible cage, where the bars are “a barrage of assaults, a locked door, missing money or a distributor cap, rules for cleaning, a mysterious text message, a timer set at the telephone…” (198). He argues that state intervention and support for women is insufficient and that while we see the symptoms of control – the suicide attempts, fear, depression, anger, and dependence – we do not see the domination itself. Starks claims that violence does not necessarily play a part in coercive control, but the implicit threat that lurks behind the domination is what creates these structural constraints and maintains patterns of oppression that are political, and therefore, more permanent, than physical abuse.

Although violence does not play a significant role in coercive control itself, it is always an underlying threat and coercive control is the means to achieve subordination. Starks relates analogies of women such as Arlene, who drew support from the work she did with the church and home schooling of her children. However, her husband’s victimization was more effective in controlling her than his physical assaults as he removed her connections to the church and school network that she drew agency from, and cut off her sources of support and recognition (Starks 215). This victim’s story supports Lenore Walter’s categorisation of the social isolation as a ‘foundation of learned helplessness’ (Starks 201). The brainwashing, limitation of movement and access to information, is similar to tactics employed on kidnapped victims and those used in course of conduct crimes. And yet we have no concrete legislation in place preventing these acts which are a violation of our basic human rights. Many sceptics may blame the woman for remaining in the abusive relationship, but Sarah Buell (Starks 202) asserts that the victim’s survival may depend on her interpreting the perpetrators moods and that this is mentally and physically exhausting, but doing so does not mean that she is emotionally invested in maintaining the relationship. The structural controls in place and fear of the consequences of resistance to them, is what makes coercive control stronger than psychological abuse used by women.

According to Starks, coercive control is gendered in its nature because men have the ability to perpetuate control through everyday activities, which is not a feature in women’s forms of controlling their partners. Fanon argues that while a minority of women also inflict physical abuse on their husbands and may hold back on sex as a threat (Starks 199), coercive control is a form of battery that men are uniquely better at using due to women’s sexual inequality. The gendered nature of coercive control due to women’s sexual inequality separates it from other forms of abuse that are physical, emotional or psychological. This political method of controlling and subjugating women used by men is compared by Starks to that of prison guards with their captives, hostages, or kidnapped victims (204). It is a means of systematically degrading them and taking away the rights which they have won such as money they earn, persisting in sexual discrimination or degradation of their domestic roles.

Starks’ discussion of coercive control is important because it exposes the widespread nature of domestic violence if its definition is broadened to include coercive control. The difference between the reality of women’s day to day lives in society and the policies that are in place to restrict violence against them is immense. While some definitions of domestic violence extend to including domination, implicit threats, and micro-regulation, most only refer to the physical act of wife battery and others simply refer to penetration. Starks argues that these narrow definitions of domestic violence in legislation and policy reform is not enough, as it is through this imperceptible control of women, that men are able to carry out physical violence against them and get away with it. The coercive control changes their behavioural and social ideas of what is acceptable and unacceptable. Lewis Okun emphasizes the breakdown of the victim’s personality due to these severe threats and the resulting emotional and behavioural adaptations to their life which create guilt and a loss of self-esteem (200). This suggests that coercive control focuses on the structural and systematic patterns of abuse rather than physical violence which is a grey area that policy makers have failed to address sufficiently.

As a result of Starks’ definition of domestic abuse including coercive control, we are forced to question the legal definitions of domestic abuse and the support that is available to women. In many cases, a lack of understanding of the nature of coercive control has led to disastrous consequences such as the death of the victim, or the victim acting irrationally in fear, or a wrongful verdict on the part of the law. It is only recently that policemen have been trained to respond to every call relating to domestic violence and to take them more seriously, as the helplessness of victimized women is exposed. The correlated findings of how men choose to dominate women, mostly through regulation of how they carry out domestic work suggests that this is the man’s way of “doing masculinity”. In fact, the micromanagement results in the woman’s obedience to her husband, and her “doing femininity” that allow him to express his masculinity in the stereotype that he believes is what real men do (213). It can be seen as a way of proving oneself is male by disassociation with the female, who is regulated to conform to an extremely gendered female role in order to reflect the sexual difference.

However, while Stark’s theory is effective in explaining the gendered nature of coercive control in heterosexual relationships between the male and female, it fails to explain coercive control in same sex relationships and other sites of abuse and conflict in the family. Many other abusive relationships exist in the family such as sibling violence, abuse against the elderly, and child abuse. Nevertheless, Starks claims explain seemingly irrational behaviour on the part of many women, who are portrayed as monster mothers, violent wives, and threats to their family. Such was the case of Girlene Soares who fatally stabbed her husband to death a week after he destroyed her last belonging from her homeland, Brazil, which was a baseball hat belonging to a brother who drowned (206). Events like this in isolation appear to be the homicidal rage of the woman, but systematic patterns of abuse over time result in behavioural adaptations and a rationality that seems like the only alternative to the battered woman. In revealing the structural controls through which these men dominate women, it gives us a better understanding of how people may react when they are physically, psychologically, and politically abused.

Although many studies have identified that the women partaking in the study see psychological abuse as being as harmful, if not more, than physical abuse or sexual assaults, many legal definitions of abuse do not include psychological, verbal, spiritual and economic abuse because they believe this muddies the water (Baker and Bradbury 180). These other forms of abuse have been incorrectly termed “soft-core abuse” which downplays the traumatic effects of it on women. While others agree that violence is multidimensional, most definitions of domestic violence are narrowed down to physical abuse. Starks’ discussion of coercive control and its lack of recognition in society raise important ethical concerns such as the widespread nature of this tactic politicised abuse of women. It suggests that there needs to be greater education of community leaders and policemen to recognise this form of abuse and more legal expansions of domestic abuse to garner severe consequences for this implicit structural control. A redefinition of what it means to be a man is also important (Baker 110), as is a stronger network of support for men to prevent the widespread nature of this kind of abuse.

In our society, great importance is given to protecting the nation from war, terrorist attacks and medical warfare and disease. We are constantly fearful of attacks by the ‘other’ and fear otherness but research has shown that “you are more likely to be physically assaulted, beaten, and killed in your own home at the hands of a loved one than anyplace else, or by anyone else in society” (Baker & Bradbury 180). Growing findings that support this statement such as New Zealand being 3rd on the list of countries in the OECD with high child deaths from neglect/abuse, suggest that family violence is New Zealand’s dark secret. It brings public policy to the forefront and questions government spending and primary focus areas. If 83% of marital violence goes unreported (Baker and Bradbury 181), it appears as though we have only just touched the tip of the iceberg. In the New Zealand context, 30 – 60% of homicides are family violence related. It seems inevitable, that if coercive control is a tactic of maintaining dominance and achieving a continued abuse of women, then this “soft-core abuse” hides a highly developed structural fault in the foundations of our society.

While Starks’ claims usher a move forward in preventing coercive control by presenting it as a significant violation of women’s human rights, there are limitations to his theory due to its focus on gendered differences and women’s sexual inequality. However, the avenues for change that it opens up foresees a future in which our communities and legal system are more supportive of battered women, subjected to physical and political abuse through coercive control, and a greater awareness of the structural nature of this abuse.

Reference List

Baker, Maureen. Families Labour and Love. Crow Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin (2001).

Baker, Maureen. Choices and constraints in family life. Don mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Baker, Maureen and Bradbury, Bettina. Families: changing trends in Canada. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2001. Print.

Stark, Evan. Coercive Control: how men entrap women in personal life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Electronic.


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