Domestic Violence: It’s All About Control
Exposing the invisible violence of coercion and control
by Kristyn Komarnicki
I was fortunate to be able to attend an event held earlier this week, sponsored by University of Pennsylvania’s Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence, issuing in October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It featured a lecture by Dr. Evan Stark, a “forensic social worker” whose primary professional work since retiring from his Rutgers University professorship is as an expert witness on behalf of women charged with crimes committed in the context of their being abused. Stark is an expert on domestic violence and the author of the award-winning Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life.
Stark says that our goal must not be end violence against women but to end domination of women. Focusing exclusively on physical violence distracts us from the underlying issues that plague domestic partnerships around the world: coercion and control. Because so much of the violence that women endure isn’t physical, he calls on law enforcement officers not to “take a picture” of physical injuries when they document domestic abuse but to “open a window” instead by looking at the myriad ways that an abuser seeks to control his partner.
A passionate feminist, Stark insists that we will make no headway on the issue of intimate partner violence (IPV) until we start viewing it as a political issue, much as we do when a racial minority is abused by a racial majority. When a person of color gets attacked, who gets interviewed on the news? The mayor, the police chief. It’s a political event. When a woman is battered, who gets interviewed? The director of a battered women’s shelter. Stark urges us to consider the shocking lack of rights for women—and the dynamics, duration, scope and consequences of coercive control—when compared to the tactics we take when dealing with hate crimes, torture, and terrorism.
Stark marvels at the lack of public outcry against lawmakers. He points out that when the domestic abuse charges against professional athlete Ray Rice were dismissed by the judge after Rice completed a pretrial intervention program, people were angry with the NFL for suspending Rice from so few games but not with the judge who failed to sentence him.
Up to 99% of domestic violence does not involve severe physical injury, according to Stark, but all of it involves significant to severe psychological injury. Yet a man is no more likely to go to jail for his 50th offense than for his first. For the victims, on the other hand, the fear and trauma are cumulative. The police officer answering a call for a domestic dispute may record “only” threatening movements or abusive language from the man, but the woman on the receiving end is experiencing the cumulative effects of months or years of debilitating control.
- sexual coercion
- intimidation, threats (to take child, commit suicide, hurt a loved one, destroy property)
- social isolation
- control of money, time, movement, decision-making
While sexual assault and stalking are common among abusive men, neither is considered illegal when they occur within a domestic partnership. Domestic violence in the United States is treated as a second-class misdemeanor, says Stark. “We need to move from a [physical] injury model to entrapment model,” he asserts.
“It’s not what the man does to her, it’s what he prevents her from doing for herself,” says Stark. “Every battered woman I’ve ever met has a dream, plans for her life, but her partner responds with coercive control. It’s the level of control, not the level of violence, that predicts how much danger she’s in.”
Stark says that the limitation of women’s freedom of speech and freedom of movement—the essential “rightlessness” of women abused through coercive control—represents a “fundamental violation of the human rights without which we can not practice citizenship.”
He points out that in Europe, the legal system treats victims of domestic abuse as hostages rather than unfortunate women who are unlucky in love.
“Coercive control is now a criminal offense in England, where my work is very influential, with penalties of up to 5 years,” Stark explains. “In addition, the Istanbul Convention approved by the European Council in 2011 and adapted by the parliament of 20 countries basically adapts a coercive control definition, highlighting economic violence and defining violence against women as a form of discrimination. The US is the outlier in not recognizing the historical, gender-specific, and comprehensive nature of partner abuse.”
“Just like white privilege, male privilege and normative masculinity need to be challenged,” concludes Stark.
Kristyn Komarnicki is ESA’s director of communications.
The Abused Bride of Christ by Catherine Clark Kroeger
October Is Domestic Violence Awareness Month by Kristyn Komarnicki
Addressing the Root of Abuse by Catherine Clark Kroeger
Terrorism in the Home: 11 myths/facts about domestic violence by Victor Parachin
Power and Control: Domestic Violence in America is a documentary that includes an interview (see above) with Evan Stark.