Domestic abuse is about a pattern of domination, intimidation and deliberately impeding the rights of one’s intimate partner; this is called coercive control. Increasingly, legislatures across the United States are passing laws that include explicit references to coercive control. These laws are designed to address damage inflicted apart from physical violence.
A pattern of coercive and controlling behavior precedes, motivates, and increases the likelihood of physical violence in relationships. Offenders who exercise control over their partner’s daily activities are more than 5 times more likely to kill them than other domestic abusers. In a remarkable 20 percent of domestic homicides, the murder was the first act of physical violence—but these were almost always proceeded by coercive and controlling behavior. It’s important to address coercive control not only because it will reduce intimate partner homicides; it’s essential because one person should not be able to deny another person’s basic freedoms with the excuse of being married or in a relationship.
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Laws That Cover Coercive Control
Most of today’s proposed and approved laws expand states’ definitions of domestic abuse to include coercive control. States vary in their exact provisions. Below are some of the more notable provisions in current laws and proposals. If you see a provision that you think should become law in your state, contact your state domestic violence coalition and your legislators and urge them to update domestic abuse laws to include these:
- Definitions: Coercive control laws in most states update existing domestic abuse legal definitions to include coercive control. Hawaii’s law specifies a wide range of behaviors that might be considered coercive control including isolation, economic abuse, monitoring, degradation and verbal abuse, threats of harm, threats to release private information, damaging property or forcing the individual to take part in criminal activity or child abuse. Other state laws are less specific and might refer to acts against an intimate partner limiting that person’s right to freedom of movement and association. Massachusetts Bill S. 1014 would consider “controlling or coercive behavior” as a form of domestic abuse if it causes the recipient to experience fear of violence on at least two occasions, or “causes serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on the recipient’s usual day-to-day activities.”
- Who Is Covered? Many state definitions of domestic abuse are restricted to “household members” and/or “family members.” This leaves less protected those people who do not (or no longer) share a home, or who are not married. The best laws on coercive control include situations “where the perpetrator and the victim are personally connected.” This acknowledges that abuses often occur after separation, and that abuse is sometimes perpetrated by members of the abuser’s circle, in addition to the primary abuser.
- Child Custody: California’s law includes a “rebuttal presumption” that awarding child custody to someone who has perpetrated coercive control is “detrimental to the best interests of the child.” This means that the responsibility falls on the coercively controlling person (and their attorney) to prove why they are safe to receive (shared) custody. This law makes it more difficult for judges to award child custody to coercively controlling domestic abusers. Connecticut’s law guides judges to include coercive control in considering the “best interest of the child” in custody deliberations.
- Technology: Several laws elaborate on the definition of coercive control to include abuse through technology. (e.g. Washington State’s law). Abusers increasingly torment their partners, exes and children through computers, cell phones, smart homes and the internet.
- Damaging Property: Some laws consider destroying or threatening to destroy property a form of domestic abuse for the purposes of protective orders. (e.g.,Washington State’s law)
- Abusive Litigation or Legal Abuse: Several proposed and approved laws prohibit a person found to have abused an intimate partner from filing a frivolous lawsuit against their victim for the purpose of “harassing, intimidating, threatening or maintaining contact with the other party” (e.g., Massachusetts H4149).
- Sexual Abuse by the Intimate Partner: Connecticut’s Jennifer’s Law expands the definition of domestic abuse to include forced sex acts and threats of a sexual nature, including threatening to release sexual images.
- Remote Testimony: To further protect victims of domestic abuse from the potential terror of confronting their abusers face-to-face in court, Connecticut’s law allows people who have a restraining or protective order to file charges and give testimony remotely.
- Exceptions to Laws Against Wiretapping: In eleven states, the permission of all parties is required to record a video or phone call. Domestic violence victims have been charged with wiretapping felonies related to recording their (ex)partners’ threatening calls—recordings that judges have found extremely useful for issuing protective orders. Coercive control domestic abuse laws should include a carve-out for people who recorded another party to protect themselves or others from a domestic abuse crime.
- Statute of Limitations: Selected states have passed versions of The Phoenix Act, which extends the statute of limitations for crimes of domestic violence and sexual assault. (See, for example, California and New York’s Phoenix acts). While these laws typically do not mention coercive control specifically, they implicitly acknowledge that targets of coercive control will often refrain from prosecuting their domestic partners for abuse and sexual assault during a relationship but may want to pursue these charges once they have achieved safety.
Civil Or Criminal Laws?
Coercive control is considered a crime in several countries outside the U.S., punishable by up to five years in prison in the United Kingdom and 14 years in Scotland. The United Kingdom implemented coercive control legislation in 2016 as part of its Serious Crimes Act. Every year, as more members of the police and public are trained to understand coercive control, more cases are reported and tried. Criminal coercive control laws allow for criminal charges based on a pattern of incidents, not just a single incident.
Victims report that coercive control can feel like death by a thousand small cuts. That is, any incident in and of itself may not seem like a big deal to outsiders, but the pattern of these abuses can criminally deprive another person of their human rights.
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With one exception, coercive control laws passed in the U.S. concern civil matters (such as child custody and protective orders) and do not expand prosecution of domestic abusers under criminal charges. Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that exposes coercively controlling abusers to prosecution under new criminal charges. In New York State, Senate Bill 5650, would establish coercive control as a Class E Felony, which is the lowest felony charge available. This bill—like many across the nation—awaits consideration by the legislature and governor. While these lower-level felony charges may seem minor, they can increase the likelihood of jail time for people who have prior (or future) convictions.
Some people have been concerned that criminal laws on coercive control regulate “being nice,” misconstruing things like love-bombing as non-abusive red flags. Coercive control covers behaviors that are extreme or which become extreme when viewed together. The prosecutor always has discretion about what charges to pursue, if any. And the judge and jury have discretion about sentencing. Convictions in the U.K. have involved cruel behaviors—such as not allowing a partner access to money, obligating sex, causing a partner to live in fear, and regularly interfering with the partners’ basic human rights such as access to friends and food.
Evolution of Domestic Abuse Laws
Domestic abuse advocates say new state legislation on coercive control could substantially change the way domestic abuse is handled by police and the courts. In May 2021, Philadelphia passed legislation providing protections for persons affected by coercive control, including in the context of housing and employment discrimination and leave.
The above suggestions would help protect adult and child victims from domestic abuse, they could prevent serious injury and homicide and protect everyone's right to live as a free person.
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