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Coercive Control and the Legal Evolution of Domestic Abuse


The past few years have brought a cultural reckoning when it comes to problematic behaviors. The #MeToo movement may be the most well-known part of this reckoning, but it is not the only one. There have also been countless think-pieces about 80’s rom-coms and 90’s television shows, arguments for more women directors and women-led projects in film and television, and even a new documentary about the plight of Britney Spears (#FreeBritney). Cultural reckonings are good because they can lead to a more inclusive and just society, provided legislators act on the concerns of society at large.

New York State is currently considering legislation that will criminalize “coercive control”: escalating, abusive behaviors that often lead to domestic abuse and violence. Assembly Bill A8904 would make those escalating behaviors criminal acts in and of themselves. AB A8904’s summary:

provides that a person is guilty of coercive control when he or she engages in a course of conduct against a member of his or her same family or household, without the victim’s consent, which results in limiting or restricting, in full or in part, the victim’s behavior, movement, associations or access to or use of his or her own finances or financial information; and provides that coercive control is a class E felony.

Evan Schein, host of the Schein On podcast, and featured guest Dr. Chitra Raghavan, NYC psychologist and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, discuss coercive control in this important and must-listen-to episode of the podcast. Dr. Raghavan is the Deputy Director of the Forensic Mental Health Counseling Program and the Coordinator for the Victimology Studies in Forensic Psychology.

What is coercive control?

Abusers who engage in coercive control can often seem like hopeless romantics. Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) told the New York Times that when she was 19, she dated a man who “was spooning on affection. He lavished her with gifts, too. ‘He would spoil me, he would spoil my friends, my sister — whoever was near me,’ she said.” Her boyfriend would answer her phone, which she thought was a sign that he wanted to get to know her friends and family.

But all of this “romantic” behavior was not romantic at all. “Love-bombing” is a warning sign. “The gestures may seem sweet, thoughtful, but they’re a test: Monopolizing a partner’s time and attention sows isolation and shows the abuser ‘that he can control her,’” Dr. Chitra Raghavan explained.

Soon, Congresswoman Bush’s boyfriend was screening her calls, monopolizing her time, and physically abusing her. He would later apologize, she would forgive him, and the cycle would begin again.

Coercive control is about one partner slowly but surely manipulating, isolating, and eventually controlling another partner. New York’s Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence (OPDV) defines coercive control as “a strategic course of oppressive behavior designed to secure and expand gender-based privilege by depriving women of their rights and liberties and establishing a regime of domination in personal life [which is]

  • rational, instrumental behavior and not a loss of control
  • ‘ongoing’ rather than episodic
  • based on multiple tactics like violence, intimidation, degradation, isolation and control.”

According to OPDV, between 60% and 80% “of abused women experience coercive control beyond physical and emotional abuse.”

Law enforcement is not addressing the problem

A survey published by the ACLU in 2015, conducted with “advocates, service providers, attorneys, and people working in membership-based organizations” found that “An overwhelming majority of the survey respondents (88%) reported that police ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ do not believe survivors or blamed survivors for the violence. A similarly large majority (83%) reported that police ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ do not take allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence seriously.” Some of this is bias, and some is lack of knowledge: because coercive control is an ongoing and multi-faceted, law enforcement may not recognize the danger behind certain actions or dismiss a person’s concerns as unfounded. Equally likely is that some police officers view non-violent domestic “squabbles” as an area for family courts, not criminal ones.

This can lead law enforcement to treat repeat callers as nuisances, not victims. As one survey respondent explained, “Police are rude, tell clients what happened is not a crime when clients are unable to articulate clearly what happened to them, ask confusing questions aggressively, don’t explain the process of reporting, investigating, then charging.”

Coercive control and abuse can affect anyone

While the ACLU survey focused on “every day” people, the New York Times article showed that anyone can be a victim. Musician FKA twigs recently filed a lawsuit against her ex-boyfriend, actor Shia LaBeouf, accusing him of coercive control and abuse. The lawsuit alleges that he engaged in “sexual battery, assault and inflicting emotional distress, [and] constant ‘belittling and berating’ [which] shrank her self-esteem and made her easier to control.” California State Senator Susan Rubio divorced her husband, a former State Assemblyman, in 2016, citing domestic violence. (She is the legislator who proposed the California law “which allows coercive control to be used as evidence of domestic violence in family court.”)

These behaviors have had long-term repercussions. In an interview, FKA twigs said she still experienced panic attacks every night, a year after the relationship ended. This type of controlling behavior can cause anxiety and depression, and feelings of worthlessness. Often, abusers will take full control of a victim’s finances, threaten the children, or attempt to turn the children against the victim, making the victim feel as though he or she cannot leave, increasing feelings of isolation. Even if the victim manages to escape, the trauma of the experience can lead to long-term mental and physical health struggles.

Legislation that addresses coercive control as a form of domestic abuse will not only allow victims to get the help they need; it could also help family courts better protect victims and their children. It could increase the strength of a petition for an emergency hearing or add weight to a custody dispute. It could force New York to provide resources for training law enforcement and supporting social services. In short, it can do a lot of good. That is why we support AB A8904 and hope that it is signed into law during this legislative session.

If you are a victim of domestic violence, including coercive control, there is help available:
TEXT the OPDV at 844.997.2121
CALL the OPVD at 800.942.6906

CHAT with the OPDV here

The NYC matrimonial law attorneys at Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein LLP offer confidential and compassionate guidance to clients seeking divorce, child custody, and other family law matters. To schedule a consultation with an experienced lawyer, please call (212) 466-6015 or fill out our contact form. We maintain offices on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, in Westchester, and in Bergen County, NJ.