Shifting the Paradigm: from consciousness raising to ‘coercive control’

[This article contains information which may cause emotional distress to those who have been affected by domestic abuse]

We see them all the time; stock photos in the media of a bruised and cowering woman, and a man with clenched fists standing above her. These photos reflect an understanding of domestic abuse that prevails in the world today. They reproduce thepar 1 idea of abuse as an incident, or series of incidents, as distinct episodes of physical violence directed towards one partner by another, as taking place behind closed doors between two people who share a domestic space, and as episodes that are gradable in their severity by how much force was used or how much injury was inflicted.

Evan Stark’s model of coercive control ushered in a new paradigm, challenging these myths around domestic abuse and framing it in a way that captured the imaginations of people across the world who were working to end violence against women. The new paradigm countered the dominant idea of domestic abuse as isolated, unconnected incidents and the idea that domestic abuse is a fight or an argument. It highlighted, rather, that it is a pattern of behaviour used to restrict the freedom of those experiencing it. It challenged the idea that domestic abuse is primarily about physical violence and demonstrated how, when physical violence is used, it is used alongside a range of other tactics – isolation from friends, family or the wider society; humiliation; exploitation; degradation; stalking; ‘gas-lighting’ (getting someone to question their own sanity); threats directed at the victim, the perpetrator themselves, or others such as children, family or pets; and other acts which function to undermine confidence and self-esteem, and to increase reliance on the perpetrator.
The model challenged the ‘behind-close-doors’ myth explaining, rather, that domestic abuse is the micro-regulation of everyday life which can occur inside a house, or outside it; when the perpetrator is there, or when they are not; and whether the perpetrator is a partner or ex-partner. It can include telling somebody how to dress, cook or clean; how to perform sexually; or withholding finances, food and transport, taking virtually complete control over their lives. It can include monitoring phone calls and other social interactions; searching through personal materials, such as drawers, phone bills or bank statements; and cyberstalking, using GPS devices or cameras.

This model is not intended to minimise the role that physical violence can play in women’s experiences of domestic abuse but to highlight that what is common across all experiences is fear and control. par 2Importantly, the new paradigm highlighted the gendered nature of domestic abuse, explaining that gender is the most significant risk marker in cases of abuse; it is overwhelmingly experienced by women and children and perpetrated by men, and is caused by gender inequality. In Scotland, 1 in 5 women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Of the 59,882 domestic ‘incidents’ recorded by police in 2014/15, 79% had a female victim and a male perpetrator, 18% had a male victim and a female perpetrator, and 3% of incidents occurred in same sex relationships. Over last ten years 53% of female murder victims were killed by partner/ex-partner, compared with 7% of male murder victims.

As Evan Stark says of domestic abuse, ‘[it] targets the autonomy, equality, liberty, social supports and dignity in ways that compromise the capacity for independent, self-interested decision-making vital to escape and effective resistance to abuse.’ When Stark came up with his theory of coercive control it did reflect the experiences of those affected by domestic abuse but it wasn’t a new idea. The model outlined what women affected by domestic abuse, and those working alongside them, had been saying for decades. Stark was standing on the shoulders of giants. In Scotland, in the late 1960s, the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) met and organised around the issues of women’s rights, challenging stereotypes, laws and practices which impacted negatively upon their lives. One of the seven demands of the WLM was, ‘freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of male violence and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and men’s aggression towards women.’ Many women at this time were engaged in consciousness raising activities, seeking to understand the relationships between aspects of their lives as individual women and the systemic nature of their shared experiences. They saw that the personal was, in fact, political and the private problem of the ‘battered woman’ was a public issue with a structural solution. Domestic abuse was, in other words, a cause and consequence of women’s inequality. From these groups of women, Women’s Aid was born, and there is now a network of 36 groups across Scotland working to end domestic abuse and to support the women, children and young people affected by it. Last year, the Scottish Government published ‘Equally Safe’, Scotland’s Strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls’, an important step in tackling domestic abuse.

Furthermore they recognised that current laws do not reflect the experience of survivors of domestic abuse, in particular those affected by on-going coercive and controlling behaviour, and have been consulting on a draft for the specific offence of domestic abuse. So these are exciting times in many ways, and I’ve been told countless times by workers from other countries how ‘lucky’ we in Scotland are. But there’s no ‘luck’ about it for, as Rebecca Solnit says of political shifts, ‘[n]one of the changes were inevitable […] – people fought for them and won them’.
The women’s movement in Scotland has spent over 40 years fighting for the rights of women and children affected by domestic abuse and fostering understanding of their experiences but, with 97% of Women’s Aid services facing real term cuts last year, it is clear that we still have a lot to struggle for.

Scottish Women’s Aid:

By Orlaith McAree

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