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Evan Stark, Coercive Control—Revitalizing a Movement

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BOOK REVIEW
Evan Stark, Coercive ControlRevitalizing a Movement
Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. By Evan Stark. New York,
New York, Oxford University Press, Inc., 2007. 452 pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-515427-6. $35.00
Lauren Bennett Cattaneo
Published online: 15 January 2008
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Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2007
Introduction
In Coercive Control, a book of tremendous import to
anyone working with the issue of domestic violence, Evan
Stark does not introduce entirely new ideas. Instead, he
amplifies and expands what has long been understood as
central to the experience of abuse in person al relationships,
but over time has been marginalized in our work and in our
thinking. The domestic violence revolution transformed
societys standards for acceptable behavior in relationships.
But its focus on physical viol ence, born of its effectiveness
in drawing attention and resources, has taken us away from
womens true experience of which bodily injury is only one
piece. The evolution of research, theory, intervention and
advocacy has been tied to this focus on physical violence,
and has led to the current state of affairs: the revolutio n is
stalled, and efforts in all spheres that are meant to stop
violence against wom en do not fit the majority of victims,
and do not address the true scope of the social problem.
Stark argues that we need to focus law, policy, research,
and intervention on coercive control instead of physical
violence, with a renewed understanding of how the abuse
of women is tied into social context. This focus utterly
recasts the landscape of our field. Coercive Control is a
sweeping, compelling, meticul ously detailed argument that
such a sea change is warranted. If, as Stark suggests, the
domestic violence field is on the verge of a Kuhnian
revolution, this book is the bugle blast.
How Did We Get Here?
Stark begins by detailing the evolution of the domestic
violence revolution, from the establishment of the first
shelters in private homes often through the efforts and
donations of battered women themselves, to the creation of
what he calls Domestic Violence Inc.- dramatic changes to
the professional response to domestic violence in multiple
systems including the courts, health care, child welfare, and
academia. Stark notes that the cultural shift accompanying
this revolution is of major consequence: Have we been here
before? Absolutely not. Unlike my grandmother, mother, and
even my sister, our children understand that if a partner uses
violence to hurt or control them, our community will treat
this as a criminal act rather than as their prerogative (p. 49).
While tipping his hat to the domestic violence revolu-
tion, Stark reviews epidemiological d ata and rese arch
across fields to argue that it has gone as far as it can go
in the current paradigm, and that women as a group are not
saferneither from physical violence nor from coercive
control. He traces the origins of our current failings to a
central issue: The equation of abuse with physical force in
relationships has helped the domes tic violence revolution
access a range of professional and political agendas. But it
has failed victim ized women in critical ways (p.85).
Stark is certainly not the first to recognize the significant
problems the field has had in defining the phenomenon of
interest. In fact, to address this issue the Centers for Disease
Control assembled a task force and disseminated a definition
of abuse that essentially encompassed all of the competing
definitions: both severe and minor, actual and threatened,
physical, psychological, sexual abuse and stalking (Saltzman
et al. 1999). The problem with such breadth is that it
hopelessly muddies the waters, and has not allowed us to
establish with any degree of certainty the most basic
Sex Roles (2008) 58:592594
DOI 10.1007/s11199-007-9378-y
L. B. Cattaneo (*)
George Mason University,
Virginia, Fairfax 22030, USA
e-mail: LCattane@gmu.edu
foundation for our effortsprevalence, incidence, the course
of the phenomenon, and the nature of its effects.
In particular, Stark argues that putting this wide range of
behaviors under one umbrella and then using severity of
injury as the metric by which we judge need for resources
misses the entire context of abuse that battered women have
been describing since we began bothering to ask. Further,
he argues that by failing to provide a narrative for the
common experience of coercive control that frames
violence of varying degrees of severity, we leave battered
women in a quandary. In order to deserve resources, they
must somehow twist their stories into the dominant
framework, or concede that they must not be deserving at
all. Leaving their experience unnamed is antithetical to the
empowerment agenda that was the original engine for the
movement.
Changing Our Course
Stark reviews the work of Michael Johnson, who recently
made an enormous contribution in redefin ing abu se
(Johnson 1995, 2006). Johnson disentangled conflicting
findings about prevalence and mutuality by suggesting two
distinct types of abusive relations hips, differentiated by the
degree of control exerted by one partner over the other.
Stark takes this differentiation further with two important
differences from Johnsons work. First, he argues that
coercive control (Johnsons intimate terrorism) does not
necessarily include severe violence. In fact, violence may
be consistently low level, though frequent. Second, he
argues that abuse that does not occur in the context of
coercive control (Johnsons situational couple violence)
should be divided into fights and partner assault. He argues
that separating fights from our consideration of abuse is an
important first step to reworking our definition. Partner
assault is often severe, and uses physical force to achieve
domination. In contrast, both coercive control and fights
can invol ve minor violence. Without a new definition of
abuse that places coercive control at its center, we risk
confusing the two, and we deny the majority of battered
women voice. Stark spends the rest of his book describing
how to extricate ourselves from the current quagmire.
Stark sees coe rcive control as a relatively modern
phenomenon, related in two important ways to womens
social status. First, he argues that men have devised
coercive control to offset the erosion of sex-based privilege
in the face of womensgains (p.171). In cultures where
mens domination is legitimized by law and custom, coercive
control is not necessary. Second, the technology of coercive
control capitalizes on the sexual inequalities that persist,
even in relatively egalitarian societies, by focusing on
womens sexuality and gendered activities in the home. In
the end, then, Stark brings us full circle. At its base, the
movement must reorient itself toward womensequality
broadly in addition to in specific relationships, since this
landscape is where coercive control draws its power. Doing
this requires a reframing of abuse against women as a liberty
crime, and creating the new laws and strategies that such a
conceptualization supports.
Where Coercive Control Leaves Us
Coercive Control was 12 years in the making, and a short
summary does not do it justice. Stark covers a staggering
amount of information, across time and discipline. He is as
facile with the evolution of legal theory as he is with the
philosophical, sociological, and political scholarship relevant
to the feminist movement. In a sense, this book is a massive
program evaluation of what Stark refers to as Domestic
Violence, Inc. Just like any organization with good
intentions and much to do, we are too buried in the day-to-
day necessities of our work to look up and take perspective.
Stark does us an enormous favor by painting this big picture
for us, and tracing its implications to every corner of the
field. It is time to look at the outcomes and impacts of what
we do, and evaluate the assumptions underlying the model.
The resulting indictment of the movement is doubly effective
because of Starks position as a veteran of it. His masculine
perspective is similarly usefulhe can best indict the
persistent sexual inequality of society from his position as
a beneficiary of it. His social location in both of these areas
removes what might be easy outs for the uncomfortable
reader, and allows him to retain a tone of humility despite
the audacity of what he suggests.
This book is a must-read for any professional whose
work relates to domestic violence. Though readers may find
sections unrelated to their fields cumbersome at timesand
none of it is easy readingthe argument and the book as a
whole can and should change our thinking. Such change is
difficult: Stark challenges so much of prevailing wisdom
and theory in the field that it makes for uncomfortable
reading in places. It is a productive discomfort however, the
kind engendered by a paradigm shift. We cannot fall back
on shared cultural narratives or factoids to resolve the
conundrums that Stark raises. For example, Stark argues
that the popular rubric of the cycle of violence, originally
proposed by Walker (1984), perpetuates myths: Violent acts
cannot be considered discrete, absent of context, and the
tension that accompanies them is chronic. This book asks
us to let go of such moorings.
There are, of course, unanswered questions and chal-
lenges with no clear solutions. For example, Stark rightly
argues that changes of the scale he suggests must happen at
the base of the movementthey cannot be accomplished
Sex Roles (2008) 58:592594 593593
merely by a list of recommendations or new programs. But
the idea that structural inequalities are at the heart of
abusive relationships is a hard sell in the current culture.
Feminism is not widely embraced by young people (so
often the engine of political change) of either gender. Stark
also traces the challenges to making the changes to law that
his perspective urges. Behavior that is currently legal would
be illegalbehavior in the context of relationships that is
now considered off-limits to state intervention would be
brought into the public sphere. He notes that there are some
ongoing efforts to cast coerci ve control in this legal light.
From the researchers point of view, Starks call suggests
that we need to catch up. If we are to follow Starks
direction, we will need to be opportunistic in gathering
information and narrative to back up efforts to create
legislation, policy and dialogue along these lines.
Conceptually, there are unanswered questions that
researchers could product ively tackle. Most glaring are
Starks description of partner assault and the question of
prevalence and course of coercive control. In describing the
typology that is the crux of his argument, Stark spends
some time outlining ways that partner assault differs from
coercive control, but does not clearly lay out how we
should think about partner assault theoretically. At some
points he identifies subordination as the goal of both
coercive control and partner assault (but only through
physical means in the latter case), which implies that they
are on the same conti nuum. In other places he suggests that
they are qualitatively different, and that instead fights and
partner assaults might be on the same continuum. If partner
assault is indeed qualitatively different from coercive
control, is it mo re am en able to current thinking and
intervention? Resolving this ambiguity would greatly
strengthen the new typology he introduces . Further, these
possibilities deserve exploration in community samples
representing the range of severity in abusive relationships,
since Starks theory was developed in the context of his
work with a caseload of extreme examples. The extent to
which his ideas generalize, and the prevalence and course
of the patterns he describes, are clear questions for
researchers swayed by his thinking.
Eventually, such work will require serious attention to
measurement and the collection of new data. But at first it
would be productive for researchers to review current
literature in light of Starks theory. In this book, Stark does
not give thorough consideration to t he researc h most
directly related to some of his points. His selection of a
small number of studies to illustrate broad points about the
ineffectiveness of arrest and the duration and course of
abuse is surprising. There are not only bodies of work on
these topics, but there are recent reviews and in some cases
meta-analyses he neglected to include. Including more
research likely would not have changed or weakened
Starks argument. Instead, there are probably conflicting
findings in these areas that his perspective might illuminate,
as in the chapter on trends in prevalen ce of homicide and
assault. It is therefore more a curious omission than a
consequential one. Such reviews might be profitably
undertaken by others.
Stark makes other suggestions that are quite testable. For
example, his detailed discussion of how coercive control
relates to social prescriptions of gender roles raises some
provocative hypotheses. He suggests that in cultures where
there is less formal equality between men and women,
coercive control is unnecessary, and would therefore be less
prevalent. It is in societies like ours, where formal equality
exists, that men are driven to recreate privilege in personal life.
He also suggests that when couples immigrate from a culture
where subordination is prescribed, the drive toward coercive
control is even stronger. Cross cultural research could explore
such contentions within the larger question of prevalence.
This is a hopeful book. It ends with a call to action
through engagement with the law, rather than a retreat in
the face of disappoint ing results of our efforts. Stark is
careful to cast the work of the past several decades in a
positive light, suggesting that we capitalize on our clear
capacity for changing the status quo. While he is not alone
in saying that our current model is not serving victims, this
book is unique in the comprehensiveness of the critique,
and in the depth and utility of his recommendations for a
direction for the future. If it is as widely read as it deserves
to be, it is sure to have a major impact.
References
Johnson, M. P. (1995). Patriarchal terrorism and common couple
violence: two forms of violence against women. Journal of
Marriage and the Family, 57, 283294.
Johnson, M. P. (2006). Conflict and control: gender symmetry and
asymmetry in domestic violence. Violence Against Women, 12,
10031018.
Saltzman, L. E., Fanslow, J. L., McMahon, P. M., & Shelley, G. A.
(1999). Intimate partner violence surveillance: Uniform defini-
tions and recommended data elements, version 1.0. Atlanta, GA:
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Walker, L. E. (1984). The battered woman syndrome. New York:
Springer.
594 Sex Roles (2008) 58:592594
... Stark (2006Stark ( , 2007 divides IPV into essentially three subtypes with coercive and controlling behaviors at the center. Stark's coercive control type is identical to Johnson's intimate terrorism type; however, Stark believes that coercive control does not necessarily have to include severe violence (Cattaneo, 2008;Stark, 2006). Stark fi nds that using frequent controlling behaviors and low level but frequent violence characterizes this category. ...
Chapter
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