What Does Abuse Look Like?

The sweatshirt case

Cheryl was the star pitcher for her factory softball team.  After several innings when she pitched well, her boyfriend, Jason, would come into the field and offer Cheryl her sweatshirt, saying, “Darling, you’re cold.  Why don’t you put this on?”  To the dismay of her teammates, Cheryl would “fall apart.”

Cheryl’s teammates interpreted Jason’s gesture as caring.  But to Cheryl, the message was that she had violated an agreement not to make him jealous.  The sweatshirt was his warning that, because of her infraction, she would have to cover up her arms after he beat her.  Cheryl’s “mistake” was to draw attention to herself by striking out the opposing batters.  She quickly corrected this fault by falling apart.  She was also too frightened to pitch well.

Cheryl recognized that her panic was induced by Jason’s offer,  But when Donna [her story described in chapter 9 of Coercive Control] curtailed her eating to placate her husband’s obsession with her spending and her weight, she truly believed this was a “good way to economize.”  When she shared this at a family dinner, Frank (correctly) interpreted this as a plea for help and beat her for being “so stupid.”  These control tactics centered on gendered enactments.  But they also targeted mundane areas of everyday life that are not normally thought of as norm- or rule-governed.

In most crimes, we work backward from the outcome to those responsible.  Money is missing from the till, and we look for the thief.  Control often is literally hidden “behind closed doors.”  In addition, as I’ve emphasized, it can also be difficult to detect because its means and effects merge with behaviors widely associated with women’s devalued status in personal life — being deferential, thrifty, thin, and unnoticed.  The tactics involved are easily confused with the range of sacrifices women are expected to make in their role as homemakers, parents, and sexual partner.

Anthropologists have been particularly sensitive to what Nia Parson calls “the banality of sexism” because their training prepares them to look critically at how our usual practices of casting experiences as “natural” or “normal” obscures the greatly consequential workings of power in social life.  The hyper-regulation of everyday routines typical of coercive control works because the normative constraints already embedded in women’s performance of everyday chores merge with their fear of not doing what is demanded.  Because similar performative constraints are also linked to how men and women enact love, regulatory strategies are often disguised as expressions of affection, as in the sweatshirt example.

Abusive partners have bought my clients clothes, asked them to quit waitressing at a strip club, begged them to leave the phone off the hook when they’re apart so “I know you’re there for me,” asked that their daughter adopt their grandmother’s name, or shown up unexpectedly at their job.  The only clue that something is wrong in these cases may be the victim’s inchoate sense that it is dangerous to refuse the request or that this is about him, not her.

A woman described negotiating custodial issues with her ex-husband.  “After talking for an hour about what I wanted and needed,” she reported, “he announced ‘Now let’s talk about me’.”  If those who bear its brunt or witness these events are unclear about whether they are loving or controlling, imagine how difficult it can be for researchers, police, health providers, or advocates to identify the infrastructure of control.

How should we respond to the sweatshirt  incident, or to sexual inspections, or when men monitor the time their partner spends on the phone or regulate how long she and her children can spend in the bathroom?  What makes this sort of regulation more than merely an idiosyncratic variant of the expectation that women will be loyal, obedient, and deferential?  What if the rules appear consensual, like Cheryl’s agreement not to make Jason jealous?  Why should a court take Cheryl’s perception of threat as more credible than Jason’s insistence that he was just being caring?  The answers lie in the interrelationships between these acts, not in the acts themselves, and in their oppressive context and effects.

Regulatory strategies are also commonly confused with the imbalance in decision making typical of heterosexual relationships or are masked by the fact that the supposed victim earns more money than her partner, pays the bills, hires outside help, or makes crucial decision about household purchases, the children’s future (such as which schools they attend), or other aspects of daily living.  What marks control is not who decides, but who decides who decides;  who decides what, whether, and how delegated decisions are monitored;  and the consequences of making “mistakes.” (p. 229 of Coercive Control by Evan Stark).

EDITOR:  This story and explanation by Evan Stark draws on the modern understanding of intimate partner abuse, which is much more accurate and nuanced than the definitions from the 1970s and 80s.  Stark explains more in this excellent video.

MORE:  Who is an Abuser?     Too Scared to be Afraid