Coercive Control

Coercive Control: Update and Review

Violence Against Women
2019, Vol. 25(1) 81–104
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1077801218816191

Evan Stark1 and Marianne Hester2


This article reviews the background, introduction, and critical response to new criminal offenses of coercive control in England/Wales and Scotland. How the new Scottish offense is implemented will determine whether it can overcome the shortcomings of the English law. We then review new evidence on four dimensions of coercive control: the relationship between “control” and “violence,” coercive control in same-sex couples, measuring coercive control, and children’s experience of coercive control. Coercive control is not a type of violence. Indeed, level of control predicts a range of negative outcomes heretofore associated with physical abuse, including post-separation violence and sexual assault; important differences in coercive control dynamics distinguish male homosexual from lesbian couples; measuring coercive control requires innovative ways of aggregating and categorizing data; and how children experience coercive control is a problem area that offers enormous promise for the years ahead.


coercive control, violence, same-sex couples, measurement, children
In December 2009, Violence Against Women published a special issue titled, “Focusing on Evan Stark’s Coercive Control.” Since then, advocacy-driven public law-making based on coercive control and the critical response have spun far ahead of evidencebased research building or testing the model. This article describes this process, considers the implications of recent research for conceptualizing and measuring the construct, and applies coercive control to new research on violence in same-sex couples and the coercive control of children.

1Rutgers University, Newark, NJ, USA
2University of Bristol, UK

Corresponding Author:
Evan Stark, School of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ, 07102, USA.

Critical scrutiny of the ways in which the law responds to partner abuse continues to animate academic, legislative, and policy debate internationally (Burman & Brooks-Hay, 2018; Walklate, FitzGibbon & McCulloch, 2017; Stark, 2018; Tolmie, 2018; Wiener, in press). The co-authors have a stake in the policies we describe as well as in thoughtful criticism of these policies that lead to new directions in research.

The Adaptation of Coercive Control in Criminal Law

The creation of a new criminal offense of “coercive and controlling behavior” in England in 2015 (Stark, 2016a; Wiener, 2019); a more comprehensive offense of partner abuse in Scotland in 2018 (Burman & Brooks-Hay, 2018); and passage and/or consideration of similar laws by the Irish Republic in 2018, Northern Ireland in 2019, and Tasmania and Australia (Douglas, 2015) have made the coercive control model of partner abuse a topic of legal controversy.

The Crisis in Domestic Violence Policing

The particular circumstances that led governments with very different political orientations to reform their criminal laws related to partner abuse are beyond our scope (but cf. Stark, 2016a, 2016b, 2018). However, the decision to craft new law reflected the shared perception that the focus of the existing criminal justice response on discrete, injurious assaults was too narrow to capture the patterns of coercion and control growing body of research and personal testimony showed were experienced by many abused women who seek protection.

The hiatus between women’s lived experience of abuse and the narrow window to this experience afforded by law and policy was politically manifest in growing tensions between women’s wide-ranging and multi-faceted demands for help and the response, in which criminal sanctions were rare and limited to egregious assaults. In their study of policing in Northumberland, Hester (2006) and Hester and Westmarland (2006) reported rates of attrition of more than 96% from police calls for offenses related to domestic abuse to conviction or punishment for any crime. A large proportion of the male offenders (but not the female offenders) were “repeaters.” But because police responded to each complaint de novo, criminal sanctions were no more likely after a man’s 50th offense than his first (Hester, 2006). A similar pattern has been found more recently for sexual assault.

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Toward a New Research Agenda

Efforts to frame an appropriate legal response to coercive control should not discourage sustained work to flesh out the original construct, whether as part of a useable typology or as a stand-alone paradigm of partner abuse. At a minimum, qualitative and quantitative research is needed to clarify the interplay of violent, merely coercive, and psychological dimensions of this form of abuse in different population and relational contexts; specify which elements of coercive control, either separately or through their combination, elicit which outcomes and for whom; determine which elements/effects are contingent on preexisting status vulnerabilities (such as inequality) and which are relationship or context-specific; and map the survival, coping, resistance, and accommodation strategies as victimized partners (and children) craft “space for action” in the face of tyranny. The most obvious evidence of “control” is provided by abusive tactics, such as “he monitored my time” or “denied me money.” But in the most vulnerable populations—undocumented women or women of color, for instance—individual deprivations are confounded by economic inequalities, cultural bias, and institutional barriers that have yet to be integrated into the model of harm, a process that Ptacek (1999) called social entrapment.9

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Violence and Control

Stark (2007) defines coercion as “the use of force or threats to compel or dispel a particular response” (p. 228), while control refers to “structural forms of deprivation, exploitation, and command that compel obedience indirectly” (p. 229). When coercion and control occur together, he argues, the result is a “condition of unfreedom” (p. 205) that is experienced as entrapment.

Most cases of coercive control include physical and/or sexual assaults, but a significant proportion do not (Lischick, 1999, 2009). Anderson (2008) reported that 3% of the women responding to the National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS) were experiencing high levels of control, but no violence. Control may continue unabated long after violence has ended. In a national sample in Finland, Piispa (2002) found that a population of older women who had not been physically assaulted for an average of 10 years reported higher levels of fear, depression, and other symptoms of abuse than younger women who were still experiencing partner assaults. This raises a question about the importance formerly ascribed to violence relative to “control” and nonviolent coercive tactics in eliciting entrapment as well as the many other negative outcomes linked to abuse.10

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Coercive Control in Same-Sex and LBGT Relationships

Coercion and control may also be used by same-sex partners and by or against transgender males or females or others whose marginalized status gives them little social power to draw on in response. The largest random population survey to date in the United States, the NVAWS (Tjaden, Thoennes, & Allison, 1999), found that the highest rates of rape, physical assault, and/or stalking were committed by men living with women (30.4%), followed by men living with men (15%), women living with women (11%), and women living with men (7.7%). Gender differences also defined the types of coercive control reported, with men far more likely than women to threaten and commit physical and sexual assault/coercion against other men, while lesbians reported being made to do housework and more forms of emotional abuse (Donovan & Hester, 2014). A well-designed study of 184 self-identified gay men and lesbians found that men and women were equally likely to engage in coercive control and that almost 3 times as many couples engaged in “mutually violent control” (12.5%), where both partners used violence and control tactics, as engaged in coercively controlling violence (4.4%) (Frankland & Brown, 2014).

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Measuring Coercive Control

Early critics warned that broadening the definition of partner abuse would put comparability at risk and diminish the public impact of “hard” data on violence and injury (Gordon, 2000). Walby and Tower (2017) raise similar objections to measuring patterns of coercive controlling behaviors on government crime surveys. For the sake of comparability and objectivity, they argue, the focus should be retained on formal legal definitions of physical violence causing physical harm or threat of harm and on sexual violence such as rape, that are more often considered criminal offenses. They also fear that the gender and violence configurations they identified will be lost if all assaults against a given victim are grouped with concurrent violent and other offenses.

While defining physical violence may seem relatively straightforward, otheroffenses such as sexual violence may be less so. For instance, in England and Wales, the offense of sexual violence is linked to consent (whether or not the victim consented to the event), and interpretation is subject to gendered bias (Hester & Lilley, 2016). Using physical injury as a key measure of severity also has limitations, as some of the most injurious violence involves women using weapons against their male partners in protection and/or self-defense (Hester, 2013; Johnson, Leone, & Xu, 2014). In the context of coercive control, meanwhile, the cumulative effect of repeated low-level assaults can be more devastating than injurious, but isolated attacks (Stark & Flitcraft, 1996).

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Children Experiencing Coercive Control

The new understanding of coercive control extends to how we understand the nature, causes, dynamics, and consequences of child harms in abusive situations as well as to how we gauge children’s responses. Based on the known overlap of domestic violence with coercive control and child maltreatment, we can anticipate that coercive control extends to children in a sizable proportion of cases. Counted alongside forms of direct abuse are the many ways in which children are exposed to the coercive control of their mother, used as pawns in control strategies, or are “weaponized” as instruments of the coercion and control. Even when children are direct targets, we consider them “secondary” victims. This is not because the harm they suffer is “collateral damage” or of secondary importance—it is not—but rather because the children are almost always being harmed when, why, and how they are to subordinate the mother. While the strategic logic operating here need not deter emergent child rescue, it highlights the importance of managing coercive control as a spectrum of interrelated harms stemming from a single source.

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