Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

No Corporate Advertising. No Selling Out. We Rely Instead on Many Small Donations From Readers Like You.

Donald Trump is out of the White House. COVID-19 is fading, at least in wealthier nations. The world, they say, is returning to “normal.” That’s the narrative that the corporate media is selling. But there’s a problem: “normal” is destroying our planet, threatening our democracies, concentrating massive wealth in a tiny elite, and leaving billions of people without access to life-saving vaccines amid a deadly pandemic. Here at Common Dreams, we refuse to accept any of this as “normal” or acceptable. Common Dreams just launched our Mid-Year Campaign to make sure we have the funding we need to keep the progressive, independent journalism of Common Dreams alive. Whatever you can afford—no amount is too large or too small—please donate today to support our nonprofit, people-powered journalism and help us meet our goal.

Please select a donation method:

Some states are stepping up to incorporate coercive and controlling behavior, not just episodes of violence, into laws that protect victims. (Photo: Getty/Stock Photo)

Some states are stepping up to incorporate coercive and controlling behavior, not just episodes of violence, into laws that protect victims. (Photo: Getty/Stock Photo)

Domestic Violence Is More Than Physical Violence—and State Laws Are Beginning to Recognize That

Some states are stepping up to incorporate coercive and controlling behavior, not just episodes of violence, into laws that protect victims.

Lisa Aronson Fontes

Three or more U.S. women are murdered every day by their current or former intimate partner.

That may in part be due to a failure of state laws to capture the full range of behavior that constitutes domestic abuse. The law continues to treat intimate partner violence like a bar fight—considering only what happened in a given incident and not all the prior abuse history, such as intimidation and entrapment.

Typical coercive control tactics include isolating, intimidating, stalking, micromanaging, sexual coercion and often—but not always—physical abuse.

Research shows, however, that domestic abuse is not about arguments, short tempers and violent tendencies. It's about domination and control.

Men who kill their female partners usually dominate them first—sometimes without physical violence. Indeed, for 28% to 33% of victims, the homicide or attempted homicide was the first act of physical violence in the relationship.

Political analysis, without partisanship

Most state laws intended to protect people from violent partners and ex-partners do not account for this kind of behavior, which violence experts now call "coercive control." Yet coercive control is nearly always at the core of what is usually called "domestic abuse" or "intimate partner violence."

Some states are stepping up to incorporate coercive and controlling behavior, not just episodes of violence, into laws that protect victims. These laws make clear: Intimate partner abuse isn't about just physical violence.

A sign on a wall that provides contact information to help victims of battering, rape and other physical abuse.

Behind the violence

Typical coercive control tactics include isolating, intimidating, stalking, micromanaging, sexual coercion and often—but not always—physical abuse.

Abusers inflict these tactics on their partners over time in a variety of ways, ultimately reducing the victim's ability to live as a free person. Survivors often say that the physical violence was not the worst part.

Since we know most mass killers are men who have also attacked family members, earlier intervention in domestic abuse may also reduce mass killings, making everyone safer.

Forensic social worker Evan Stark's landmark 2007 book, "Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life," set the stage for an outpouring of research and legislation on coercive control. Stark changed the conversation from "Why doesn't she leave?" to "How can anyone survive this intimate torture?" and "How can society protect these victims?"

The concept has also entered popular culture through podcasts and television shows such as "Dirty John."

I wrote the second book on coercive control, "Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship." I serve as an expert witness in legal cases in which coercive control might be present, and I research related topics.

Advocates for victims of domestic abuse say that new state legislation on coercive control could substantially change the way domestic abuse is handled by police and the courts. New laws would lead to more prosecutions before the control evolves into physical violence, or even homicide, they say.

And addressing coercive control is important not simply because it will reduce intimate partner homicides; one person should not be able to deny another basic freedom simply because they are married or in a relationship.

Helena Phillibert, director of legal services at the Rockland County New York Center for Safety, said in an interview I conducted: "Legislation against coercive control is critical to broadening the range of abusive behaviors recognized in the law. The advantages to victims and survivors are numerous but most significantly, legislation that recognizes coercive control necessarily expands the understanding of domestic violence beyond physical abuse."

Since we know most mass killers are men who have also attacked family members, earlier intervention in domestic abuse may also reduce mass killings, making everyone safer.

A woman looking up wearing a blue mask with the word 'VOTE' on it.

States taking lead

In the past half-dozen years, new laws in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe have established "coercive and controlling behavior" as a distinct and serious criminal offense, with maximum sentences extending from five years in prison in England to 15 years in Scotland.

In the U.S., about a half-dozen states now incorporate elements of coercive control into their civil and criminal orders of protection. These are court-issued orders that require a person to stop harassing or abusing someone else, and may bar all contact.

Another half-dozen new legislative proposals aim to establish and flag coercive control as an important factor in family court decisions on divorce, child custody and visitation.

California law SB-1141, which was passed in 2020, defines coercive control as a pattern of domestic violence that "unreasonably interferes with a person's free will and personal liberty."

The law also recommends against awarding child custody to a person who has perpetrated domestic violence, unless the abuser can prove that he or she is not a risk to a child.

State Sen. Alex Kasser based Connecticut's proposed Bill 1091 on California's but added additional examples of common coercive control tactics.

Her bill includes "forced sex, sexual threats and threats to release sexualized images" as well as a section on vexatious litigation, which Kasser defines as "how abusers use the legal system to harass their victims, dragging them to court repeatedly to drain their resources and make them lose their jobs, homes, savings and sometimes their children."

Kasser emphasizes that the Connecticut bill would also protect the children of an abused parent. The bill would establish the physical and emotional safety of the child as the first of 17 factors to be considered in custody decisions. The bill passed the Connecticut Judiciary Committee in April 2021 with bipartisan support and is awaiting further consideration and votes.

The New York State Senate's proposed Bill 5650 would establish coercive control as a Class E felony, meaning that a person convicted of coercive control could serve up to four years in jail for the crime. This is more in line with the laws in the U.K. and some other European countries.

While it is still too early to know whether coercive-control laws will predominate in U.S. civil or criminal law, it seems pretty clear that times are changing. I believe victims of coercive-control partner abuse will soon have access to legal protections in many more states across the country.


Lisa Aronson Fontes

Lisa Aronson Fontes is a Senior Lecturer, Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Leaked IPCC Draft Climate Report 'Reads Like a 4,000-Page Indictment' of Humanity's Failure

"This is a warning of existential risk. Of survival. Of collapse," said Extinction Rebellion.

Andrea Germanos, staff writer ·


Documents Show Saudi Operatives Who Murdered Khashoggi Received Paramilitary Training in US

"America training death squads will come as a huge shock to anyone who's never heard of the past 245 years of U.S. history."

Jake Johnson, staff writer ·


'We Are the Workers': Socialist India Walton Declares Victory in Buffalo Mayoral Race

"We do the work," the Democrat said after her primary win. "And we deserve a government that works with and for us."

Julia Conley, staff writer ·


Sanders Rips GOP for Remaining 'Loyal to the Big Lie,' Says Filibuster Must Be Abolished

"Not a single Republican in the United States Senate has the courage to even debate whether we should protect American democracy or not."

Jake Johnson, staff writer ·


'The Filibuster Must Go': Senate GOP Blocks Debate on Voting Rights Bill

"Democrats in the Senate can have a functional democracy or the filibuster, but not both."

Jessica Corbett, staff writer ·