What is Coercive Control?

In my view, the best definition is provided by the charity Cedar Network (www.cedarnetwork.org.uk). My only issue with it is that it needs to include “males” as victims as well. So when you read the following remember that a male can also be victim of such abuses.

“It is a term and a concept developed by the academic and activist Evan Stark which seeks to explain the range of tactics used by perpetrators and the impact of those actions on victims/survivors.  In Stark’s own phrase, the concept explains ‘how men entrap women in everyday life’.

It is a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self.  It is not just women’s bodily integrity which is violated but also their human rights. 

Coercive control, Stark argues, is not primarily a crime of violence; it is first and foremost a liberty crime.  This is not intended to play down the level or scope of physical violence that can occur within domestic abuse (though sometimes no physical violence is used at all, or the violence that is used may appear ‘minor’ in the eyes of the law) but to highlight what is significant – control.

In this model, violence is used (or not) alongside a range of other tactics – isolation, degradation, mind-games, and the micro-regulation of everyday life (monitoring phone calls, dress, food consumption, social activity etc).  The perpetrator creates a world in which the victim is constantly monitored and criticised; every move is checked against an unpredictable, ever-changing, unknowable ‘rule-book’.

The rules are based on the perpetrator’s stereotyped view of how his partner should behave towards him, rules about how she cooks, house-keeps, mothers, performs sexually and socialises.

Experiencing coercive control is like being taken hostage; the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the partner/abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.

Surveillance continues even when the perpetrator is not present (constant phones calls or texts, using children to report on movement etc).  The perpetrator can come to appear omnipotent.

Fear and confusion are central to our understanding of coercive control; it is living in a world of moving goal-posts, shifting sand; it is like constantly walking on eggshells.  It is a world of everyday terror.

In this way, coercive control is not domestic purely in the sense that it occurs at home – it crosses social space: literally, in that technology allows for surveillance wherever a victim is, and metaphorically, in that the victim becomes brainwashed, internalising the rules, adapting her behaviour to survive. Coercive control is the white noise against which she plays out her life; ever present, ever threatening.  The strength to live with this and to function daily in a range of settings – to survive – is enormous and courageous.”

Considering this definition it is no surprise that this behaviour is closely linked to the Stockholm Syndrome. ( https://www.britannica.com/topic/Stockholm-syndrome )


CONTROLLING OR COERCIVE BEHAVIOUR was added to The Serious Crime Act 2015 under Section 76 making it a criminal offence. In December 2015 the Home Office published “CONTROLLING OR COERCIVE BEHAVIOUR IN AN INTIMATE OR FAMILY RELATIONSHIP – STATUTORY GUIDANCE FRAMEWORK”. According to the Statutory Guidance Framework:

“The cross-Government definition of domestic violence and abuse outlines controlling or coercive behaviour as follows: 

Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour. 

Coercive behaviour is: a continuing 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.”

The framework includes a list – not an exhaustive list - of the types of behaviour a victim is likely to be subjected to:

  1. Isolating a person from their friends and family.

  2. Depriving them of their basic needs.

  3. Monitoring their time.

  4. Monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware.

  5. Taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep.

  6. Depriving them of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services;

  7. Repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless.

  8. Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim.

  9. Forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities.

  10. Financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance.

  11. Threats to hurt or kill.

  12. Threats to a child.

  13. Threats to reveal or publish private information (e.g. threatening to ‘out’ someone).

  14. Assault.

  15. Criminal damage (such as destruction of household goods).

  16. Rape.

  17. Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working.