The United Kingdom’s New Domestic Abuse Law
In December, the United Kingdom announced a new domestic abuse offense targeting “patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour,” commonly referred to as coercive control. Coercive control is broadly defined as an act or pattern of acts of assault, sexual coercion, threats, humiliation, and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten a victim. Domestic violence offenders who engage in coercive control do things like limiting the victim’s contact with friends and family, controlling her access to money, and determining aspects of the victim’s everyday life, such as when and what she eats.
The United Kingdom previously expanded its cross-governmental definition of domestic violence to include coercive control. The cross-governmental definition was used by government departments to target support services but was not a legal definition or part of the criminal law’s definition of domestic abuse. The criminal coercive control law is expected to come into force this year. It will serve as a model of domestic abuse legislation to other countries.
By adding coercive control to its criminal law, the UK is adopting an international best practice. In doing so it is shifting the emphasis from single incidents of physical or psychological violence to patterns of conduct that are more typical of domestic violence. Although many domestic violence laws currently criminalize non-violent offenses such as psychological or economic abuse, those definitions are usually vague, causing problems for both the victim and the government. Abusers often manipulate these laws, claiming that the victim psychologically abused them by doing things like name-calling or nagging, thus provoking the abuser to use physical violence. Even if psychological abuse laws are used to protect—not target—victims, these violations are hard to prosecute because of their broad and ambiguous definitions.
By focusing on a pattern of domination instead of individual acts of psychological violence, the concept of coercive control is designed to avoid turning the law against the victim and treats the assault on the victim’s autonomy with the seriousness it deserves. Identifying coercive control as domestic violence validates the experiences of many victims, some of whom report that the cumulative impact of controlling behavior is more harmful than isolated incidents of physical violence. Criminalizing coercive control provides a tool to redress the experiences of many victims of domestic abuse,
The Theory of Coercive Control
Coercive control emerged as an alternative to the violence model of domestic abuse in the 1980s. It is understood as a gendered offense because it aims to reinforce gender stereotypes and broader sexual stereotypes within a society, although the UK’s cross-governmental definition is gender-neutral. The theory has been developed primarily by Evan Stark, a professor at Rutgers University, with a background in sociology and social work.
The coercive control concept recognizes and corrects the limitations of the “violence model” of domestic abuse. The violence model presumes that isolated acts of violence are the primary way in which an abuser asserts power over the victim. Even though this assumption is at the core of almost all criminal definitions of domestic abuse, the reality of the violence model has been repeatedly refuted. First, physical abuse most often occurs repeatedly over the course of long-term relationships. As Stark explains, it is more of a “chronic” than “acute” problem. Second, the violence model treats serious physical injury as the most important type of domestic violence, even though most victims experience only light injuries. Although a single push or a grab may seem insignificant, it is likely reinforcing non-physical tactics used to intimidate and isolate the victim. Between 60 percent and 80 percent of victims who seek assistance report such non-physical abuse tactics, according to Stark. The violence model also fails to distinguish between various forms of physical violence. Because victims may use physical violence in self-defense or to fight back, the result may be that they are punished instead of, or along with, their abusers.
Because the violence model fails to capture the majority of harm experienced by victims, governments must find new ways to describe, define, and prosecute domestic violence. Coercive control provides a potential new paradigm for conceptualizing domestic abuse. Coercive control closely follows the widely accepted concept of power and control developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota in 1982. The Power and Control Wheel illustrates the way that violent incidents are accompanied by an array of other types of abuse to establish a pattern of domination and control in a relationship.
Coercive control can be divided into two patterns of behavior: (1) coercion meant to hurt and intimidate the victim and (2) control meant to isolate and regulate the victim. Patterns of coercion and patterns of control overlap and reinforce each another. They often result in a victim who is extremely vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse but is unable to leave a relationship or able to seek assistance from the government because the harm she is suffering does not fit into a standard, legal definition of domestic violence.
Coercion tactics include physical violence, but also consist of non-physical intimidation tactics. Stark explains that intimidation is used “to keep abuse secret and to instill fear, dependence, compliance, loyalty and shame.” An abusive partner may intimidate the victim by threatening to harm himself or a child unless the victim complies with the abuser’s wishes. Abusers may also intimidate the victim through stalking and other forms of surveillance. Abusive partners may coerce the victim by shaming and degrading the victim, establishing the partner’s dominance and superiority over the victim.
While coercive tactics are used to harm and intimidate the victim, patterns of control are used to compel obedience by isolating the victim, leaving the victim dependent on the abuser. An abuser may isolate a victim in a variety of ways, including limiting access to transportation and money, and prohibiting contact with friends and family. For example, according to Stark, in both the United States and the UK, abusive partners prohibited almost half of all victims of domestic violence from seeing their families. Once the victim is isolated, the abuser establishes dependence by depriving the victim of basic resources, such as money, food, and access to health care; exploiting the victim by taking her money; and micro-managing the victim’s behavior. Abusers often focuses on reinforcing gender norms and stereotypes, by regulating the manner in which the victim conducts housework, cares for children, and performs sexually.
The coercive control framework marks a significant development in the framing of domestic violence. It shifts the focus from isolated incidents of violence or the psychological effects of violence on the victim (such as post-traumatic stress disorder and battered women’s syndrome) to the abuser’s pattern of behavior. Criminalizing this conduct means including behavior under the criminal code that has not previously been considered illegal (for example, controlling what a partners eats or wears) or has previously been limited to non-domestic situations, such as stalking. These challenges are heightened for communities that follow traditional roles for women. However, just as these communities have become subject to laws that criminalize physical violence, they must also comply with prohibitions against other forms of abusive behavior.
Resources on Coercive Control
Strengthening the Law on Domestic Abuse Consultation – Summary of Responses 5, Home Office (Dec. 2014), available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/389002/StrengtheningLawDomesticAbuseResponses.pdf.
Evan Stark, Re-presenting Woman Battering: From Battered Woman Syndrome to Coercive Control, 58 Alb. L. Rev. 973 (1995).
Evan Stark, Re-presenting Battered Women: Coercive Control and the Defense of Liberty, Les Presses de l’Universite de Quebec (2012)
Definition of Domestic Violence, UN Women, http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/398-definition-of-domestic-violence.html.
Dutton et al., Development and Validation of a Coercive Control Measure for Intimate Partner Violence: Final Technical Report, National Institute of Justice (2006).