Domestic abuse is not always verbal or physical. There is a more subtle type of abusive behavior that is equally harmful: coercive control. Coercive control is the strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism used to instill fear. More specifically, it can be any pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten victims. While this form of abuse has been illegal in some countries for many years now, it is still not considered illegal in the United States unless a crime has been committed. Until the abuse falls under criminal coercion, those who experience coercive control are often brushed off by the courts because the abuse they suffered doesn’t rise to the level of domestic abuse under the current law.
Signs of Coercive Control
Coercive control can include:
- Isolating you from your support system. An abusive partner will cut you off from or limit your contact with friends and family, so you don’t receive the support you need.
- Monitoring your activity throughout the day. Wiring your house with cameras or recording devices is a way for abusers to seem omnipresent.
- Denying you freedom and autonomy. Someone exerting this type of coercive control might do so by restricting where you can go, who you can see, and what you can wear. This can also include taking your phone and changing all your Passwords.
- Repeatedly putting you down. Name-calling, put-downs, and frequent criticisms can all be forms of coercive control designed to make you feel unimportant and Deficient.
- Controlling aspects of your health. Abusers might control which medications you’re allowed to take and whether you go for medical care or not.
- Controlling your finances. Controlling finances is a way of restricting your freedom and ability to leave the relationship. Some ways abusers exert financial control can include limiting access to bank accounts, hiding financial resources, and monitoring what you spend.
Laws Against Coercive Control
While domestic violence laws usually focus on discrete physical assaults, coercive control laws encompass a broader range of abuse behaviors which can often occur before or in conjunction with physical violence. Some believe coercive control to be a gateway to physical violence which is why coercive control laws play an important role in preventing physical violence and saving lives. Despite this, the United States has been slow to act. No federal legislation has outlawed coercive control, and only Hawaii and Connecticut have acted on the subject to date.
Protections Under a New NJ Bill
In New Jersey, there is a new bill in the works which could offer victims of coercive control some protections by specifically adding coercive control to the definition of domestic violence. This legislation would require courts to consider evidence of coercive control when overseeing domestic violence proceedings. Supporters believe the bill’s inclusion of ways abusers use coercive control could be helpful to judges, especially for judges who might be numb to domestic violence cases, since they see thousands of them a year.
On the other hand, some feel as though abusers would just find other ways to abuse their partners not specifically prohibited by the bill. Others argue that criminalizing coercive control is not a complete solution to domestic abuse because many criminal justice systems are not equipped to make judgments on it. Most justice systems rely on physical evidence to charge people with specific criminal acts, but coercive control is not a specific act. It is typically a pattern of acts that tend to leave less physical evidence.
Documenting Coercive Control
Coercive control is often a nonphysical abuse tactic that doesn’t leave behind the bruises, broken bones, or other injuries that could be photographed and used as evidence later. If this new bill passes in New Jersey, it’ll be important to know different ways to prove coercive control in court. Forms of nonphysical proof may include:
- Keeping a detailed journal of all abusive incidents
- Using smartphone apps to safely record incidents including phone calls, background audio, and images
- Taking pictures of the home after incidents
- Telling a family member or friend
- Taking screenshots of threatening text or social media messages
Escaping Coercive Control
Regardless of the history with the abuser, including some happy moments, its important to remember you don’t deserve this treatment. Getting out of an abusive relationship can be complex, but with a bit of planning, you can make a safe exit from the situation. Reaching out to an advocate at the domestic violence hotline can walk you through your options. One of the most important things you can do is maintain communication with your support systems, ensuring they check in on you on a regular basis.
In Immediate Danger?
Call 911 if you’re able to. If you can’t call or text 911, try to remove yourself by getting to a neighbor’s house or a nearby business.
Staff Writer Brooke Rotheram is a third-year law student at Rutgers Law School, where she is an Associate Editor for the Women’s Rights Law Reporter.