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