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Domestic Violence and the Focus on Coercive Control

March 5, 2021

For years we have heard the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but this may not really be true. Professionals who work with domestic violence (DV) issues have known for years that abuse encompasses much more than physical violence, and they have been trying to educate survivors, police, attorneys, judges/referees, batterer intervention groups, legislators and anyone who will listen.

Controlling behaviors such as belittling, berating, withholding of funds, etc. break down a person’s self-esteem over time and are often the precursors to the physical acts that lead to hospitalizations or even death. In addition to education of this concept, many advocates are pushing to formally include coercive control as a component of DV statutes.

A recent article in the New York Times[1] highlights these issues and looks at personal accounts from newly-elected Congresswoman Cori Bush and musician FKA twigs. A Court of Appeals in England is considering a group of cases that address whether coercive control can be considered domestic abuse[2].

The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”[3]

In Michigan there is no single definition of DV, but there are variations you can find in statutes and state standards. The criminal statutes focus on the physical acts involved in DV, such as assault, battery, rape, etc. However, the state standards for batterer intervention programs defines DV as “a pattern of controlling behaviors, some of which are criminal, that includes but is not limited to physical assaults, sexual assaults, emotional abuse, isolation, economic coercion, threats, stalking and intimidation. These behaviors are used by the batterer in an effort to control the intimate partner. The behavior may be directed at others with the effect of controlling the intimate partner.”

It is not clear if the criminalization of coercive control actually correlates to a decrease in domestic violence. As the New York Times article notes, coercive control has been illegal in England and Wales since 2015, but 2018 had the highest number of DV-related killings in five years. This is why many advocates would prefer not to divert resources into changing formal definitions and statutes, but rather invest in education and direct services such as housing and employment for survivors. If the police and courts do not understand how emotional abuse can lead to the physical violence, the laws are not impactful. If victims and survivors do not appreciate the seriousness of their situation, they may wait too long to seek assistance.

If you believe you are the victim of domestic abuse, please reach out to your community’s resources.

[1] The New York Times, “What Defines Domestic Abuse? Survivors Say It’s More Than Assault”, by Melena Ryzik and Katie Benner, published January 22, 2021 and updated January 23, 2021.

[2] The Law Society Gazette, “Court of Appeals Considers Family Court’s Approach to Domestic Abuse”, by Monidipa Fouzder, January 20, 2021.

[3] United Nations. Declaration on the elimination of violence against women. New York: UN, 1993.

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