Coercive control

Coercive control describes domestic violence as a violation of a woman’s human rights.

It helps explain:

  • how women’s experiences of abuse are not just about provable, physical violence
  • why incidents seemingly insignificant to everyone else can be so disempowering to the victim

An emphasis on violence as discrete incidents causing physical injury based has inadvertently contributed to:

  • the invisibility of women’s other experiences of abuse
  • a perception that most allegations of abuse are false

Coercive control defines abuse as a deprivation of a woman's freedom in her personal, social, economic and political life.

Coercive tactics include:

  • domestic violence: ‘violating physical integrity’, causing fear and physical harm
  • intimidation and humiliation: ‘denial of respect and autonomy’ using  threats, surveillance (eg stalking), degradation (eg name calling), emotional withdrawal, destruction of possessions
  • isolation: undermining and deprivation of social contacts and support
  • control: of resources required for autonomous decision making and independence, including
  • deprivation of money and food
  • monitoring of time
  • restricted mobility and transportation
  • restricted access to communication

Coercive control is:

  • ongoing rather than isolated, unconnected incidents
  • multidimensional, involving a range of components, dynamics, and effects
  • extends over time and social space 

Consequences for women and children:

  • intimidation, exploitation, humiliation, isolation and emotional harm
  • deprivation of rights to privacy, self respect, autonomy and equality
  • cut off from family and friends, and other means of support
  • prevented from fulfilling personal goals

Effects are cumulative rather than incident specific.

The frequency and routine nature of tactics is more oppressive than their severity.

‘The combination of coercion and control is the most devastating ... the presence of control in an abusive relationship predicts partner homicide far better than the severity or frequency of violence’.

Coercive control is different from domestic violence because:

  • it defines abuse as is a liberty crime
  • goes beyond what is ‘domestic’ and ‘violence’
  • explains abuse as a deprivation of women’s rights and resources and entrapment in everyday life
  • the cumulative effects of abuse are not proportional to the level of injury inflicted
  • women tend to seek help because they are prevented in accessing their rights and liberties, not because they have been physically harmed

Coercive control explains why women are:

  • often reluctant to leave abusive relationships
  • as, or more, likely to be assaulted and entrapped after separation

Why not all violence is coercive control

Coercive control is different to men and women’s use of violence to express feelings and resolve differences of opinion. Such behaviour:

  • is situational specific
  • may not involve fear or coercion
  • can be associated with otherwise stable, happy relationships

‘Assaults used in coercive control are distinguished by their frequency and duration, not their severity’.

An understanding of coercive control shifts attention from women’s trauma related to violence, to their human rights, and resilience and capacity to resist control:

‘Women’s right to use whatever means are available to liberate themselves from coercive control derives from the right afforded to all persons to free themselves from tyranny.’

Coercive control and children

For children ‘abuse is (also) ongoing rather than episodic and its effects cumulative’.

Coercive tactics threaten ‘children’s social, psychological, behavioural and physical well-being as or even more fundamentally than threats to their physical safety’.

When women separate from an abusive partner with whom they have children, expectations of shared parenting enable the perpetrator to continue to use coercive tactics, ensuring his wishes and needs are routinely prioritised over those of the mother and child.

Perpetrators ‘enlist children in their coercion or control of their mother, make them direct objects of control, and use children to extend and solidify coercive control (and) to sabotage parenting’.

‘This pattern is often signalled by efforts to win custody by a father who has had little previous involvement in parenting’.

Harms caused by coercive control thus extend over time and through social space. Tactics can damage, or lead to a total breakdown of, the mother child relationship.

The complete isolation of the mother from her child - and the child from the mother - can last for years, or even a life time.

‘In custody or divorce cases, a protective mother may be blamed when her expressed level of concern or fear is at odds with evidence of assault: in family court, she is alleged to be engaged in alienating her children from the “good enough father.” ‘

Coercive control and inequality

To succeed, coercive control relies on persisting sex inequality and discrimination.

Abusive men adopt ‘self-interested behaviour’ to secure privileges, by the ‘micro-management of everyday behaviours associated with women’s roles’, particularly child care, housework and sexual services.

Many of the rights violated by coercive tactics pass ‘largely without notice’ as part of gendered roles in everyday lives.

Women often describe coercive control as not being ‘allowed’, or having to ask permission, to do everyday things, such as:

  • accessing finances
  • wearing certain clothes or makeup
  • making decisions
  • going to work, or out with friends
  • ringing family

‘Always with the “or else” proviso hanging over their heads ... indignities ... against which a slap, punch, or kick pale in significance’.

'Most of the harms involved in coercive control are gender-specific infringements of adult autonomy', which entrap women in personal and public life.

Coercive control can only be reduced if gender inequality is addressed simultaneously.


Our thanks to Evan Stark, author of Coercive Control, whose research we have summarised here, with additional examples from Maypole Women.

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The legal definition of domestic violence includes coercive control, as:


  • Any incident or pattern of incidents

  • of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse

  • between those aged 16 or over

  • who are or have been intimate partners or family members

  • regardless of gender or sexuality.


Coercive behaviour is defined as:

an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.