Update 5/24/22: Since this piece was published, coercive control laws have since been enacted throughout much of the U.S. making the act illegal. An update of this article is coming soon.
New Russian laws decriminalizing some forms of domestic battery can make us feel smug about victim protections in the U.S. In some parts of Europe, however, victims of domestic violence are far better protected than they are here.
About 100 men have been convicted and sentenced for “coercive and controlling behavior” in England and Wales since a 2015 law made controlling one’s partner a serious crime. Many domestic violence survivors say the “violence wasn’t the worst part“ of their abuse. The constant control and intimidation caused them to suffer most (see survey results).
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Consider Anwaar. The 27-year-old wanted his wife to have an “ass like Kim Kardashian.” So he forced her to burn 500 calories a day on a treadmill, and allowed her to eat only canned tuna and beets. He also told her what clothes to wear and when she could see her family. He enforced these rules with isolation, beatings and intimidation. “I was nothing but his property,” his wife, Gemma, told the judge who sentenced him to twenty-eight months in prison.
Anwaar was using a strategy called “coercive control” to regulate Gemma’s life. Coercive control combines tactics designed to instill fear (such as violence and threats) with tactics that isolate a partner, degrade them and deprive them of basic rights. Until England made it a crime, coercive control had no legal standing. It still has no standing in the U.S., yet we estimate that 80 percent of abused women are being coercively controlled and not simply hit.
Control tactics start with basic necessities—money, food, or access to a car or phone. Controlling partners dictate choices that most of us take for granted, such as who we see, how we dress or talk, and which websites we frequent. Men convicted under the new law in England controlled their partner’s’ access to their own money, phone, and computers; they prohibited contact with friends, family, and health services; they monitored and made demands concerning their partner’s activities and belittled them continually; they threatened to harm children and made constant jealous accusations. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Taken alone, these behaviors can hurt or cause shame. Taken together, they can lead to hostage-like entrapment.
U.S. Law Ignores a Pattern of Intimidation
Laws in the U.S. that are currently used to tackle domestic violence were developed for an entirely different purpose—to address a single violent assault by a stranger. They don’t work so well for what happens in couples. A bar fight is over when the violence ends. But abusive violence in couples doesn’t end. In as many as 40 percent of cases, the abuser assaults his partner several times a week and sometimes daily, often over many years. Millions of abused women report being assaulted dozens, even hundreds of times by their partners. In most states, the law applies to each incident as if it was the one and only.
Most domestic violence incidents are about intimidation. They involve pushes, slaps, kicks, and the like. Wait for broken bones and you will miss more than 95 percent of domestic violence assaults. U.S. law does not adequately address these “minor” violent incidents, nor the constant harassment, monitoring, and limiting of a partner’s freedom. Laws against “coercive and controlling behavior” allow a judge to consider those “minor” violent incidents as a tactic of intimidation within a larger web of control.
The British statute defines controlling behavior as “making a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance, and escape, and regulating their everyday lives.” The new law allows for charges based on the pattern, not just a single incident. Police have learned to view an incident in a couple as a window through which they can learn more about a pattern of violence and control.
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Consider 30-year-old Nigel Wolitter who was arrested after pouring paint on machinery belonging to his partner’s family. Newly trained to look for patterns of violence, police traced his vandalism to a strategy of oppression extending back 13 years. The prosecution linked photos of injuries from his partner’s cell-phone with her compelling testimony that he had “controlled every aspect of my life from where I went to what I wore, to what possessions he allowed me to own.” Wolitter received a four-year sentence. Prosecutors were able to better protect Nigel’s partner, Bella, because they could identify his vandalism as part of a broader pattern of abuse.
Prior to the new law in England, only 3 out of every 100 men reported for domestic violence were convicted and almost none were jailed. Abusers reported for 50 or more offenses were no more likely to be punished than those who committed a single offense. The same injustices prevail in the U.S. Police and other front-line professionals see the same couples week after week. Many become frustrated. Some blame the victims for "staying." If an assault did not result in clear and documented physical damage, the police and court system are likely to view it as trivial.
The bottom line? Despite all the resources allocated to domestic violence, many victims are entirely alone when facing an abusive partner. U.S. victims remain unsafe because their abusive partners are not held accountable.
Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD is a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts and the author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. Evan Stark, PhD., is the author of Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life.
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