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Changing the Domestic Violence Conversation: Coercive Control

Dr. Evan Stark

The very first seed from which this film grew, was an interview I conducted with Dr. Evan Stark, who is a sociologist and a domestic violence pioneer. He helped built the first battered women shelters in 1970s and has spent his life doing groundbreaking research into the root causes of domestic violence. He had written a book on the subject, called Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, and I had become obsessed with the main premise of the book, which is that – 50 years in, the domestic violence revolution has stalled, because we are monumentally failing to understand what domestic violence actually is.

That’s right, we have a vast and intractable problem that we’re spending billions of dollars on, and enormous human resources, but we are not actually solving the problem, only mitigating it.

While domestic violence is a complex problem, in our interview, Dr. Stark broke it down for me in the simplest possible way: We think of domestic violence as one incident of assault. Each punch in the face is treated as one isolated event without context. “When men are arrested, they’re not arrested for abuse over time, they’re arrested for one domestic incident.”

Moreover, the severity of the physical injury determines the severity of the punishment. “95-99% of domestic violence assaults are minor from a criminal justice or medical standpoint and since we can only assess each incident on its own merits as a crime, it’s not at all surprising that the vast number of these offenders who commit these incidents receive no effective sanctions.” Virtually no abusers go to jail. “Between a domestic violence call to the police and the actual imprisonment of a domestic violence offender, we estimate that there is almost a 98-99% fall-off, that is 99 out of 100 men who are arrested, do not suffer serious consequences as a result if their acts.”

But here is the crux - domestic violence is not an incident-specific crime, it is a pattern of behavior, a range of tactics used to violently subjugate another human being, and deprive them of basic rights and liberties. “Coercive control is a crime that is almost exclusively perpetrated by males against females. And that’s because this is not just a crime that is motivated by a desire for power and control, but it involves an overt exercise of power and control, of domination over another human being.”

I was left with the question – how do we re-orient ourselves as a society, to start actually holding men accountable for the pattern of behavior that is coercive control? What has to happen for the criminal justice system, for the medical community, for public health, in law and in policy – to counter men who seek to subjugate women, with muscular enough counter-measures to take away their abilities to coerce and control.

Well, since that interview, thanks to a tireless international campaign by Dr. Stark and group of incredibly dedicated advocates, including Laura Richards, coercive control is now considered a serious crime in England, Scotland and Ireland. Passing these new coercive control laws were decisive steps towards making this world a woman-friendlier place for all of us. It is possible. Let’s do the same in the U.S.

Read the new Coercive Control Law recently passed in the UK.

Listen to Laura Richards' interview with Dr. Evan Stark in Episode #67 of Real Crime Profile podcast.

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