This article was first published in San Francisco Public Press.
After two decades of marriage, Blanca finally hit a breaking point. Watching her husband rip apart the wedding dress she had so painstakingly sewn, then preserved over the years caused something to shift for her. That act was the final rupture in a relationship that had been turbulent from the start, with only short interludes of affection thrown in.
The emotional abuse had been going on for years, according to Blanca. She said he constantly denigrated her appearance and Spanish-accented English. He refused to put her and their two sons on the health insurance provided by his job as a mechanic, telling her to buy her own. He rejected her pleas to let her write checks and have access to their joint bank account. He made her pay all the rent on the Bay Area home they shared with his relatives.
Experts in sociology and family law have a name for the kind of behavior Blanca experienced: coercive control. It refers to the way people — usually men — nonviolently manipulate their intimate partners into doing their bidding. But while this type of abuse by itself leaves no telltale signs such as black eyes, broken bones or marks on the victim’s arms, it can be a steppingstone to physical violence, research shows.
Coercive control is under-reported, much like all abuse. Often, it is hidden in plain sight.
“I began to feel worthless and ugly,” Blanca said. “I began to feel depressed.”
As with many victims, it is hard to tell Blanca’s story completely. She spoke on the condition that we not reveal her last name and that her husband not be contacted for comment, for the safety of her family. This reporter has been one of her housekeeping clients since 2017.
Blanca said she was aware that leaving an abuser was the most dangerous time for a woman.
After decades of damage to her self-esteem, Blanca has finally severed ties. Under a California law passed in 2020, the government is finally offering some acknowledgment of the harm she experienced. But the reform applies only in civil court — and can be used only in limited types of cases.
Recognizing the damage coercive control can cause
Coercive control encompasses a broad range of behaviors that cause emotional distress, according to social scientists. Common practices include isolating someone from friends, relatives or other support. Depriving them of basic necessities. Controlling communications, daily behavior, finances and economic resources. It could also include gaslighting — making victims question their sanity.
At its core, “coercive control is a power imbalance obtained through cruel, forceful and manipulative means,” said Chitra Raghavan, a forensic psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Raghavan is often called by the courts as an expert witness in cases of intimate partner violence, sex trafficking and trauma.
In the U.S., more than 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 4 men, will experience physical violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
There are no federal laws addressing coercive control in this country. But as academic researchers and advocates worldwide are calling attention to these behaviors, a handful of states have recently taken action to make them illegal.
In 2020, the California Legislature revised the state’s Family Code to include coercive control as evidence of domestic violence, expanding the definition enshrined in the state’s 1993 Domestic Violence Prevention Act. The statute defines coercive control as “a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.”
California acted one month after Hawaii added coercive control to its definition. In Hawaii, though, it is incorporated into criminal statutes. When someone is convicted of coercive control that person is required to participate in an intervention program and spend two days in jail, said Nanci Kreidman, chief executive officer of the Domestic Violence Action Center in Honolulu.
Last June, Connecticut passed a similar law. But there, the bill also establishes a grant program to provide low-income victims with legal representation when applying for a restraining order. Bills in New York, South Carolina and Maryland are pending.
“The fact that so many different jurisdictions want to codify coercive control into law means that it is recognizable as a harm for which there should be a legal remedy,” said Julie Saffren, who practiced family law in Santa Clara County until 2019, and who now teaches a course on domestic violence at Santa Clara University School of Law as an adjunct professor.
In California, if a court finds a person has committed coercive control, the petitioner can get a restraining order against the abuser in family court. “The law can also be used separately when the victim is seeking child custody and the court is making a finding about the best interest of the child,” said Pallavi Dhawan, director of domestic violence policy and prevention for the Los Angeles’ City Attorney’s office, the bill’s sponsor.
“In other words, a court could make a finding of domestic violence, including coercive control, in the absence of an existing restraining order,” Saffren said. “This is because, courts recognize that domestic violence, in all its forms, is detrimental to children.”
A violation of a restraining order, whether or not it comes from family court, is a crime. Once served with one, the restrained person cannot own or purchase firearms as long as the order is in force. The recent fatal shooting of his three children and a friend at a Sacramento-area church by a father who had a restraining order slapped on him shows that there are many holes in enforcing this provision.
Scotland leads the way
The coercive control legislation was introduced by state Sen. Susan Rubio, herself a domestic abuse survivor. She said in an interview that she was propelled to get the law passed because of her own experience and after hearing the experiences of many women.
“I dealt with domestic abuse myself and I know what survivors go through,” she said, adding: “It was time people recognized that domestic violence is more than just physical abuse. This bill protects survivors of domestic violence by making their cases harder to dismiss and easier to prosecute. It will also empower victims to come forward.”
Dhawan, who worked closely with Rubio in crafting the legislation, said the bill initially faced resistance in the legal and women’s rights communities, with some abuse survivors wanting to make coercive control a crime.
Rubio said she decided against criminalizing it because as it was, the issue was “foreign to some of my colleagues and making it a criminal offense would have stalled the bill.”
Women’s advocates also point out that a criminal response is not the most effective way to get justice for survivors. They just want it to end.
“Criminal response creates barriers to reporting,” said Shiwali Patel, who advocates for policy and culture change for women and girls at the National Women’s Law Center near Washington, D.C. “If it’s a civil matter, the survivor will have more control over the process.”
In 2007, Dr. Evan Stark authored a book: “Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life.” A forensic social worker in Connecticut and founder of one of the first battered women’s shelters in the United States, Stark has helped shape law and policy across the globe, in both the civil and criminal arenas.
In an interview, Stark called coercive control “oppressive behavior grounded in gender-based privilege” that is “typically ongoing rather than episodic. Its effects are cumulative rather than incident-specific.”
In 2019, Stark helped Scotland enact comprehensive laws criminalizing coercive control. Today, that country’s law is considered the gold standard, he said. Even before the law was enacted, thousands of police officers and support staff received training on how to enforce it, thanks to the government allocating 825,000 pounds in funding to the national police force of Scotland.
Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, a nonprofit that helps protect women’s financial independence, who helped craft the law, said that the bill’s supporters realized that to succeed, enforcers had to be trained beforehand. In the first year of its implementation, the government pursued about 1,000 cases and secured an 80 percent conviction rate, she said.
California’s coercive control bill didn’t have an “outreach and education component,” Rubio said. Nor did it have a funding provision, she said.
There is no available data that shows how many survivors have benefited from the law because there are no reporting requirements, Dhawan said.
Born of patriarchy
A nearly 30-year U.S. resident born in Mexico, “Blanca fit the textbook definition of a coercively controlled person,” said her attorney, Sara MacDwyer, in an interview three months before she recently died.
Blanca, 50, said that at first her husband, a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent, seemed nice and caring. She considered his financial control of her something to be expected because he came from a society organized in a patriarchal structure, a culture that tells men it was normal for them to dominate their wives. It was similar to how, in Blanca’s childhood, her father treated her mother, except that he was also physically abusive to both his wife and daughter.
But within months after Blanca was married, her husband began to belittle her. The insults became more personal after she confronted him about an affair he was having with another woman. He would tell Blanca that he hated her and loved his mistress because unlike Blanca she took good care of him. “Your hands are coarse and rough,” he would tell her. “You have chicken legs.” “You have a masculine build and stretch marks on your stomach.”
MacDwyer said “the barrage of malicious comments” psychologically harmed Blanca. “He made her feel unattractive, so how could she have any self-esteem?”
But it was his actions, not just his words that made the relationship coercive. Blanca had no control over her finances, even though the self-employed woman was making as much money cleaning houses as her husband did as a mechanic.
He insisted she pay the entire rent for the four-bedroom house they shared with their sons, his mother and his brother in Contra Costa County. She did not complain when he said he expected her to pay for utilities, groceries and other household expenses.
“But I felt bound all the time,” Blanca said, crossing her wrists in front of her and tearing up.
Particularly humiliating, Blanca said, was when her husband had his new girlfriend call her to tell her she had only herself to blame. Blaming the victim is a tactic many abusers use to maintain power and control, according to MacDwyer.
Saffren drew upon her years of experience representing abused women in family court. “In mental health terms, I think it’s a form of projection where it is unbearable for the abuser to acknowledge their behavior because at some deep level they know it’s wrong, so they project outwardly to their partner to make them responsible; that’s how they reconcile their self-view with their violent behavior.”
Last fall, Blanca filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Court documents show that her husband has also filed, citing the same reason. Blanca said she was unlikely to get financial support from him because he has filed for bankruptcy.
Asked why she did not leave her husband sooner, Blanca said she could not imagine a life without him.
“I would always keep excusing his behavior,” she said, frowning. After a pause, she continued. “Now, while I am going through divorce, I wonder why.”
This article is part of a series on California’s coercive control law, underwritten by a Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund grant from the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California.