Coercive Control, Safety Zones, and Search and Destroy Missions — insights from Evan Stark

Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life by Evan Stark (Oxford University Press, 2007) [Affiliate link].

Evan Stark brings illuminating analysis and insight into the topic of coercive control as it takes place in domestic abuse.  And as the subtitle How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life makes clear, he focuses on how men coercively control women in personal relationships.

It’s a demanding book to read. It’s written for domestic violence professionals, not victims, and it covers a lot of the history of professional and academic thinking and research on domestic abuse/domestic violence. But survivors of domestic abuse who love reading or are happy to skim the more academic passages, can find many gems and case studies within it. I’m going to start with one gem, a case study that I think many of our readers will relate to.

Note: in my quotes from the book, for ease of reading on this blog, I have added more paragraph breaks than Evan Stark had in his text. Trigger warning: this case study may bring up painful memories for many of our readers.

Arlene and John

Arlene D’s physically abusive husband, John, was a successful contractor in Iowa. John’s lavishly decorated home office contrasted markedly with the family’s living room, where stuffing was visibly coming out of the couch and easy chairs. Arlene homeschooled their five children, one of whom was learning disabled.

When John  felt she had neglected her household obligations, he went from room to room gathering up “unnecessary” toys, books and furniture (including the family TV), threw them into the yard and burned them. One of his punishments was to make the family dog “disappear.” Despite a hefty income he insisted that household help was not needed. At one point when he had $70,000 in his account, Arlene was forced to sell math curricula to buy milk.

Arlene drew enormous support from her leadership in the state’s homeschooling movement and from the evangelical religious community of which the homeschooling was a part.

As soon as the oldest boy went on to college, John declared the children would now go to public school so Arlene could attend properly to his needs. He also made his family leave their church after a visitation in which [he claimed] Jesus revealed to him that the minister and the other congregants were homosexuals. In response to Arlene’s pleas, John agreed she could continue the homeschooling, but only if she left her leadership position, stopped attending homeschooling meetings, and completed all household chores (laundry, shopping, cooking and the like) before 5pm, so she could devote herself fully to him in the evening.

Trying to keep her agreement while attending properly to schooling led to frequent fights with the children, whom she tried to enlist in the housework, a point the evaluating psychologist emphasised, along with Arlene’s growing depression, when he recommended the father get custody.

John’s victimization of Arlene was designed to enter and deconstruct the agency she had carefully built to resist his coercive control. She thought of her housework as a service she performed for the family so the children could get the best education possible; both [housework and homeschooling] were a continuation of her calling. Her connections to the church and school network allowed her to retain a feeling of competence despite John’s physical assaults, his disdain for her work, continued ridicule, and his denying her money.

The coerced agreement changed all this. It transformed her housework into payment to John for the right to teach the children, and it turned homeschooling into a problem of time management. By simultaneously cutting Arlene off from the two external sources of support and recognition, the church and the homeschooling network, John left her feeling frozen and alone, the source of her depression.

In contrast with Arlene, John’s world was sharply divided into work and home, a separation symbolized by the contrast between his well furnished office and a home in disrepair, and his periodic purges of toys and household goods were designed to reconcile his rigid view of women’s work — to cook, clean, and be able to devote herself to him in the evening — with the chaos created by his insistence that Arlene raise and school the five children with no allowance and no help.

His best efforts went to naught, however. The fundamentalist congregation provided the only social setting in which John’s patriarchal worldview got any support. Because Arlene drew sustenance from the congregation, however, continued membership threatened to undermine John’s control.  In [John’s claim of Jesus] revealing that the church was filled with homosexuals, Jesus [purportedly] gave John a means to tighten his hold on Arlene that was consistent with his hypermasculine fantasies. (p214-15)

Evan Stark goes on to discuss (p215) “John’s meticulous deconstruction of Arlene’s autonomy. … the controller’s oppression as an attempt to co-opt and deconstruct a woman’s personhood.” With deft concision, Stark points out (p215-6) that “many victims feel they are living in a conscious and self-determining relation to domination, albeit a relation that is severely constrained by objective limits on their choice and action.” He dissects the complex dynamics of domestic abuse:– how victims resist oppression to maintain their personhood, and how abusers search out and destroy the agency, liberty and personhood of victims. This is gold:

Safety Zones

Nowhere is the struggle between agency and victimization more apparent than in the process by which women forge safety zones to secure moments of autonomy, rehearse survival or escape strategies, plan resistance, regain a momentary sense of control or self-worth, and recover pieces of their lost voice or subjectivity.

These zones can consist of literal physical spaces at home, work, church, school, or elsewhere where they can garner support or resources to escape; relationships the perpetrator cannot control with friends, family members, co-workers, service providers, neighbors… As control becomes ever more comprehensive, the refuge in which women seek safety becomes more abstract, more secret, personal or even internal. … When she made her bed according to Nick’s strictures, Laura would maintain a modicum of esteem by “guessing” at the height of the bedspread from the floor rather than measuring it, or by leaving specks of dust underneath the chair to see if he would notice. These specks were her safety zone.

Zones can involve literal time apart from the perpetrator, or a place in consciousness to which a victim retreats during an assault or similarly degrading ritual when they split off from what they are doing or others are doing to them and fix on a point, a crack in the wallpaper, a memory of another time, or some trivial facet of their lives far removed from the present. …

Search and Destroy Missions

Because safety zones offer women an alternative to subordination, they rarely go unchallenged. If abusive relationships were filmed in slow motion, they would resemble a grotesque dance whereby victims create moments of autonomy and perpetrators “search and destroy” them. …

As the homeschooling case illustrates, negotiation and trade-offs around safety zones are continual. John burned Arlene’s high school diploma and photos of her parents. Although he allowed her to retain her role as a teacher, as it became clear that her connections through the homeschooling movement were steeling her courage, he constructed the agreement that set her up to fail with the children. …

Women do not yield up their safety zones easily. Men attack women’s autonomy at their peril. (216-7)

Stark traces the how the DV sector has gradually started to see coercive control as the best paradigm or lens through which to understand both the perpetrators’ conduct in domestic abuse and the victims’ responses.

He talks about the structural dimensions of control that constrain a victim’s freedom of choice, action and movement whether or not she loves or is emotionally attached the abuser —

To help clarify this dimension of abuse for judges, erstwhile prosecutor Sarah Buell has them remove their wallets, car keys, and other personal items. Then she asks them to reconsider their belief that the victim should “just leave.” (202)

I found his discussion of the generality of coercive control very helpful. Some gems:

At the core of coercive control theory is the analogy to other capture crimes like hostage taking or kidnapping. … The analogy also supports the belief that battered women are “hostages at home,” suggesting domestic abuse is a crime like terrorism. (203-4)

Emphasizing its generality has enormous heuristic value [it stimulates people to learn and discover more about coercive control and domestic abuse] because it exposes dimensions of partner abuse that have gone largely unnoticed and that are not normally associated with assault, such as the monopolization of perception or “ways to make me crazy” as well as tactics used to isolate victims, monitor their behavior or break their will. (204)

Thinking of women as victims of capture crimes also helps reframe their reactions. (204)

What hostages and POWs lack is the opportunity to escape or otherwise act effectively on their own behalf, not the will to do so. (205)

Another thing the author rightly emphasises is the personal nature of coercive control.

The personal nature of coercive control begins with the controller, whose individual needs are the focus of everything he does. Only in coercive control do perpetrators hone their tactics to their special knowledge of everything from a victim’s earnings and phone conversations to her medical problems, personal fears, [and] sexual desires …(206)

Stark talks about how abusers use “diffuse regulation” and “microregulation to quash the last vestiges of free time and space”, the safety zones that the victim tries to maintain for herself.(208-9) The abuser works to make the victim feel like she can keep no secrets from him, that he is able to spy on her and forestall her every move and trip her up after she has made a move.

While domestic abuse is intensely personal, Evan Stark also draws our attention to sociological aspect of coercive control —how widespread it is in society, and how genders structures in our society enable men to abuse their partners. “Coercive control is predicated on the devalued status of women.” (210). I think this is true in the church just as much if not more than in general society. Certainly the devalued status of women in the conservative evangelical church makes it harder for women’s voices to be heard and believed, and harder for women victims of abuse to get justice from the church.

Listen to what Evan Stark says here:

Gender Entrapment

The most dramatic facet of control strategies is their focus on responsibilities linked to women’s default and devalued roles as homemaker, caretaker, and sexual partner, the dimension of sexual equality that has least been affected by women’s gains in the public arena. (211)

Now, the complementarian mantra is: “We are countercultural! We don’t devalue women’s homemaking and caretaking roles! We highly value them!” But we have to question this: rhetoric can a great mask to hide what goes on in reality. Certainly we know that abusive men who claim to be complementarian in their theology DO NOT value their wives’ homemaking and caretaking roles. For the abusive man, those domestic roles his wife may take are, like everything else she may do, are just fuel for the abuser to criticise, demean, belittle, terrorize, confuse and control her with. Abusive men can say “I love my wife; she’s so beautiful! I really value her role as a mother and homemaker!” while treating their wives like slaves and expecting them to give sex on demand like prostitutes.

I have only read up to chapter seven in this book so far and this review is long enough already. I’ll just end it by giving you a few of the headings and subheadings from the rest of the book, to further whet your appetite:

The technology of coercive control (title of chapter 8)

The dance of resistance and control

Partner assault in immigrant and fundamentalist communities

Sexual coercion

The contradictory pretexts for violence

Is violence cyclical?

Child abuse as tangential spouse abuse

The battered mother’s dilemma

Anonymous threats and ‘gaslight’ games



The universal masculine: The irrational foundation of control

When battered women kill (chapter 9)

For love or money (chapter 10)

The special reasonableness of battered women (chapter 11)

Conclusion: Freedom is not free

The dance of justice: law, services and political change


Further Reading

Abuse Is a Pattern.’ Why These Nations Took the Lead in Criminalizing Controlling Behavior in Relationships – Time Magazine, June 21, 2019

21 thoughts on “Coercive Control, Safety Zones, and Search and Destroy Missions — insights from Evan Stark”

  1. I’m not sure why this particular article is prompting me to share this so I’ll just put it out there. I have been drawn to abduction stories lately (because of the similarities with coercion and control tactics, I guess) and I saw Elizabeth Smart in an interview. She was describing the scene when she was finally rescued. She said, “I was standing next to (the bad guy and bad lady, can’t remember their names, I’ll call them Joe and Betty) and the police were asking them questions. They asked me the same questions and I answered with what I had been told to say. They kept questioning Joe and Betty and questioning me and we all gave the same answers several times. Finally one of the police walked away with his partner and said, “I think she is too scared. We need to separate them.” And when they did that, she finally told them who she was.

    So here is my observation: Why in the world would they not figure out they needed to separate them sooner?! This misconception that if abuse victims have it so bad, they should just leave is so pervasive, even the police, trained in trauma, did not think to separate her from the control of the abuser. Why is that so hard to figure out? Why do counselors continue to expect couples to counsel together when one is an abuser? Because of the relationship, (man and underage girl) nobody expected her to reconcile with him to “prove she had forgiven” (which she clearly has when you hear her, she is amazing and very empowering to abuse victims) but if you are MARRIED to an abuser, it is assumed you “knew what you were getting” and “its a covenant” and blah, blah, blah.

    The abuse should be the FIRST go-to issue, not the last one after dragging an abuse target through the “you need to try harder, what are you doing wrong, trust in God alone,” sludge before they either give up on you bc of your “hardness of heart” or finally concede a tiny little bit that maybe, perhaps, there is some validity to your “claim.”

    Anyway, it just really blew my mind. But nothing really surprises me any more. Sorry for the vent.

    1. Debby, Barb was right. What you shared was very good. Personally, I still find myself wanting to “protect” and not reveal all; mainly because I ‘still fear’ that I will be seen as not being appreciative of this ‘quiet man’ since I still remain here.
      I find myself slipping as the abusers who have brought me to this point just carry on with their successful jobs and smile at others who live just like them – taking advantage of others.
      There has only been a ‘select few’ whom I have been able to trust and share the truth with and yes, I was not with my abusers as I finally revealed the truth. I could speak freely.

    2. Barb is right that your comment is helpful to many readers (like me). You summed it up well with this:

      “blah, blah, blah”

      That about sums up what “the teachers of the law” teach as they parade around in their flowing robes and like to be noticed for their pomp and power. Without humility and love for the brokenhearted it amounts to NOTHING…no matter what “mysteries” they think they can unravel. 1 Corinthians 13.

    3. Thank you so much for posting this, debby. I’m still mentally stuck in the swill of my abusive environment.

      “you need to try harder, what are you doing wrong, trust in God alone,” sludge before they either give up on you b/c of your “hardness of heart” or finally concede a tiny little bit that maybe, perhaps, there is some validity to your “claim.”

      I have been excavated and condemned by each single one of these comments.

      It’s good to hear the truth over and over again to dismantle the insipid looming tower of deceit and false justification people in our circles (and society at large) build around the more empathetic demographic of humanity. I fear the reprogramming will take longer than I have years to live sometimes! However, hearing it over and again, especially from people who have lived it, it is a comforting beacon through the fog that I often need more than I realize.

  2. This, exactly!

    For the abusive man, those domestic roles his wife may take are, like everything else she may do, are just fuel for the abuser to criticise, demean, belittle, terrorize, confuse and control her with. Abusive men can say “I love my wife; she’s so beautiful! I really value her role as a mother and homemaker!” while treating their wives like slaves and expecting them to give sex on demand like prostitutes.

    1. Being a victim of a “Christian” abuser is worse than being a POW because your own side joins in with the abuser, enabling him, making him feel justified and working to prevent your ever getting free.

      1. This is very true. And the mind games are worse because the abuser is not obviously the enemy. In a true POW situation, you know you are being held captive by the other side, a known enemy. In an abusive “marriage” the captor masquerades as a friend, and fools those who could otherwise help you gain your freedom. Everyone is confused, even the victim.

    2. And in my experience the many Christian allies of the abuser will also continue their oppression of a victim for decades, all the while congratulating themselves on what good people they are.

  3. Coercive control is extremely evil. Some of the damage that was done to me in this way is truly irreparable. That includes emotional, social, financial and physical harms, all of which will be with me for the rest of my life. I experienced having all my safety zones found and destroyed, one after another. I did lose my autonomy and sense of identity, and I’m still struggling to reclaim them.

    The one safe place that my jailer could not reach was my faith. He could never touch that because he had no understanding of it, even though he thought he did. He knew all the evangelical rules and Bible verses but he had no experience of the great depth and power of the living Word of God. He didn’t know my God, he couldn’t see that it was Him who was setting me free.

  4. Barb, thanks for wading thru this scholarly material on our behalf. I know it would’ve went over my head. Your dumbed down version was good. Real good.

    1. Hi Ruth, please check the ‘name’ field and the URL field in the comments box before you hit Submit. And please manually edit them. We have so much to do as admins on this blog, and checking and editing screen names takes time for us, time which we sorely lack.

  5. I just wanted to point out in response to Evan Stark’s statement that:

    [Safety] Zones can involve literal time apart from the perpetrator, or a place in consciousness to which a victim retreats during an assault or similarly degrading ritual when they split off from what they are doing or others are doing to them and fix on a point, a crack in the wallpaper, a memory of another time, or some trivial facet of their lives far removed from the present.

    This is also known as dissociation or the freeze response, and while it helps (in a way) at the time, dissociating during trauma is actually the biggest predictor of going on to develop PTSD… something that anyone who recognizes themselves in that description should be aware of.

    It has become clear that, as Janet observed one hundred years ago, dissociation lies at the heart of the traumatic stress disorders. Studies of survivors of disasters, terrorist attacks, and combat have demonstrated that people who enter a dissociative state at the time of the traumatic event are among most likely to develop long-lasting PTSD.
    —Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery

  6. Could someone help me understand something I experienced with my coercive controlling husband? A little background – he was heavy into pornography 10-15 years before we met. The first 7 years of our marriage was awful in the sexual area, because he would get angry with me if I didn’t like the way he touched me or if I tried to show him what I needed, he would shame me for not “being passionate enough”, etc. Then suddenly he started being “nice” to me during sexual encounters, saying he wanted to put my needs first and please me sexually. And he did. Meanwhile he would still exert emotional and spiritual coercive control outside the bedroom in abuse cycles, as he had done since I had become pregnant the first time. This double-ness continued for the next 13 years. I would cry after sexual encounters because I wished he’d be that nice and caring to me during non-sexual times. I’ve wracked my brain trying to figure out, why did this happen? Was he just trying to keep me confused about the emotional and spiritual abuse? Was even this “niceness” during sexual encounters a sick form of coercive control? I began to think it was. Did such weird double-ness happen to anyone else?

    1. I don’t have an exact answer to your question(s), but what comes to mind is this —

      Barbara Biggs (author of In Moral Danger) was at age 14 sold by her grandmother to a barrister (very wealthy lawyer) who used her as a sex slave and a nanny for his two daughters from his failed marriage. In that book, she describes how the first time the barrister had sex with her, he was exceedingly tender and sensitive towards her, so that she ‘fell in love’ with her him and was ‘bonded” to him for years thereafter, suppressing her real feelings about the abuse to mould it into a ‘love story’. She said this was the most damaging aspect of her abuse, the effects of which lingered for decades. (link). The barrister-pedophile was NEVER that kind to her ever again. He did unspeakable horrible things to her sexually after that. He had deliberately been kind and sensitive once in order to bond this fourteen year old girl emotionally to him.

      Perhaps your abuser had read up on that tactic of how to evoke his victim to bond with and long for him (his ‘sensitive’ side)… and he decided to use that tactic on you, to get you more entrapped as a slave to him and thus reduce the likelihood that you would ever become strong enough to voice your grievances and escape from his slavery…

      Barbara Biggs’ book In Moral Danger is a compelling account of what it’s like growing up with your mother a prostitute and all your siblings have different fathers, and you are given no example of a sound moral compass, and are gang raped at puberty, and then your grandmother sells you to a pedophile… and the impact those things can make on a person.

      Her book had a positive galvanising effect on one of Australia’s Governor Generals. He was notoriously insensitive to survivors of child sexual abuse, and when Biggs left her book at his gate, challenging him to read it, he did so and realised how foolish he had been and he publicly admitted that he had been wrong. All thanks to Barbara Biggs!
      She lives in a suburb next door to where I live in Melbourne. 🙂

    2. Heather, you are not alone.

      Before I went through my divorce there was a time- my abusive ex knew that he could treat me with contempt and malice all day, only to act like everything was ok later in the evening when he expected something.

      It required me to employ cognitive dissonance and forget everything to go through with it.
      I felt like being a prisoner.

      Afterwards I would have to go somewhere alone and cry to try to reconcile my thoughts because I hated this cycle.

      I knew it was messed up, but if I did not go along with it, he would amp up the phychological, verbal, and emotional warfare to make the next day a nightmare until I capitulated to his demands.

      Only then would he allow a small repreive of time where there wouldnt be punishment or pressure towards me or the children..
      This was my only reward.

      One thing you will find an abuser will not do is to look in the eyes of their target and ask the question-
      “How are we doing as a couple?”
      They know full well that the answer to that question would incriminate them.

  7. Dissociation wasn’t a safety zone for me. I had none.

    Security was lost before I learned to walk. The one steam-rollered and flattened emotional boundary I could never develop.

    This non-existent boundary set me up for a lifetime of abuse.

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