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Redefining ‘Domestic Violence’ as 'Coercive Control'

In September 2012, the Government announced changes to the definition of domestic violence to now include ‘coercive control’. The previous definition defined domestic violence as a single act or incident. The new definition has been expanded to include young people aged 16 and 17, which has been welcomed. However in this new definition gender has disappeared; obscuring the fact that women are the majority of those who have been abused by their intimate partners.

A recent talk by US based Professor Evan Stark on 'coercive control' was challenging. Stark talked us through some of the issues around using terms such as 'domestic violence'; what this term conjures up for us, what it includes and excludes. This 'violence' based model often counts the number of 'incidents' and physical injuries, which is often defined by what can be captured with a camera. Stark urged us to look beyond the violence.

In his extensive experience of working with women as a therapist, women repeatedly stated that 'it was not so much the physical violence but the sense of entrapment that was so devastating’. Stark described a case of a woman he worked with in a therapeutic session who suddenly looked terrified when the phone rang; her level of fear was palpable. Stark described how she rationalised the control maintained by her male partner who was a Judge; 'at home she had to answer the phone on the 3rd ring- or else'.

Hiding in plain sight

Stark's work has implications on our understanding of the issue - which often focuses on physical violence and incidents. This pattern of men's coercive control[1] over their partners is much more menacing as it hides in plain sight, reinforced by a look or a wink to remind women of what they may face at home.

The danger of taking gender out of the picture..

Particular concerns according to Stark are where domestic violence has become 'de-gendered' (as we don't know who is doing what to whom). He was clear that coercive control was a pattern of male violence against their intimate female partners. He stated that this was somewhere between 60-80% of all cases he has researched in the US. Stark reiterated that this is an issue of power and control; rooted in gender inequality. 'Men abuse women because they can' he said.

Stark talked of uncovering the stereotype of women who face abuse, often portrayed as an 'uneducated woman'. However the women described by Stark were often highly educated, and had a high earning potential, as Nigella Lawson has recently demonstrated to us here in the UK (see our blog here).

With your help Restored wants to continue to ensure the church is a safe place for those experiencing this pattern of coercive control. We also offer training for churches on ending domestic abuse. If your church is interested please contact us here. For our resources look here.

For more on coercive control, Evan Stark's chapter found at:


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[1] Stark defined this as ‘a pattern of 'coercive control' which can be described 'as a strategic course of self-interested behaviour designed to secure and expand gender-based privilege by establishing a regime of domination in personal life.'