The Congresswoman Cori Bush and the musician FKA twigs describe how manipulative, isolating conduct known as “coercive control” helped trap them in abusive relationships. Lawmakers are starting to listen.
Story by:Melena Ryzik and
It was, at first, the kind of dreamily romantic attention that Cori Bush craved. She was 19 or so, barely making ends meet working at a preschool, and a new boyfriend 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.
But quickly, she said, the high-watt beam of his attentiveness became an unyielding glare. He monopolized her time and curbed her independence.
“He would answer my phone,” Ms. Bush said. “I thought it was cute at first — he wanted to answer my phone and talk to my friends. But then it turned into him screening my calls.”
When she tried to end things, he hit her, she said. It was the first of many instances in which he was physically violent. “He would pinch me so hard, he would take off not only skin, but flesh,” she said. “He would cut me with knives, box cutters.” She couldn’t leave, she said, because he threatened to turn the weapons on himself. And then the cycle began anew: “He would come back so sweet and so kind and so loving — and so sorry,” she said.
Days into her freshman term as a Democratic Congresswoman from Missouri, Ms. Bush, 44, emerged as a public force; as her first action, she introduced legislation to investigate and expel members of Congress who voted to overturn the election and supported the riot in the Capitol.
But even before she was sworn in, she shared her experiences as a survivor of domestic abuse, in hopes of reframing the issue. “I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable about it,” she said in an interview last month, “because I feel like if we don’t normalize the conversation — people are still being hurt, especially right now, with Covid, and the lockdown,” when calls to support networks are spiking.
Ms. Bush’s candor comes as some state lawmakers, working with researchers, have begun to reshape the law to acknowledge that the controlling and isolating behaviors she cites, often referred to as “coercive control,” are not only steppingstones to violence, but can be criminally abusive in their own right. Activists hope that by broadening the definition of abuse, they can help victims reclaim their autonomy, and catch perpetrators before cases spiral toward hospitalization — or worse.
In September, California passed a law that allows coercive control behaviors, such as isolating partners, to be introduced as evidence of domestic violence in family court. That month, Hawaii became the first state to enact anti-coercive control legislation. The New York and Connecticut legislatures introduced similar laws.
The efforts address what experts say is a common, long-held misperception that an abusive situation is only a partner throwing a punch, rather than an incremental constricting of someone’s life, to dominate them.
“By the time you see a broken bone, the person has experienced a lot of other damaging behaviors,” said Lynn Rosenthal, who was the first White House adviser on violence against women and served on the Biden transition team.
Of course the violence itself has not abated. In the United States, one in four women and one in seven men experience severe violence in their relationships in their lifetimes, and it’s the leading cause of homicides for women, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
But as gender-based inequities surfaced in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and more women — and therefore more survivors — entered government, they and others have been vocal about how much more complicated the calculus of abuse can be, how yawning the gaps in protection and how damaging the belief that victims can just leave.
Though they may suffer injuries, many survivors say that what keeps them in the relationship, and what makes the trauma last, is mental and emotional abuse. The musician FKA twigs, 33, who filed a lawsuit last month accusing her former boyfriend, the actor Shia LaBeouf, of sexual battery, assault and inflicting emotional distress, said in the suit that his constant “belittling and berating” shrank her self-esteem and made her easier to control. A year later, she said in an interview, she was still suffering the repercussions: “I have panic attacks almost every single night.”
The term coercive control is embraced by some researchers to describe the dynamics of abuse because it encompasses acts like creeping isolation, entrapment, denigration, financial restrictions and threats of emotional and physical harm, including to pets or children, that are used to strip victims of power. Mild but frequent bodily aggression — pushing and grabbing, or increasing roughness during sex in a way the partner does not like — is another hallmark, experts said.
As destructive as those behaviors may be, they are not often treated by law enforcement or courts as improper on their own, sharpening the belief that victims must be battered and hospitalized before their accounts might be taken seriously. Doubt about how the justice system would treat them is not unfounded: About 88 percent of survivors surveyed by the ACLU said the police did not believe them or blamed them for the abuse.
The new laws to address coercive behaviors have raised some concerns from advocates who worry that — in court proceedings that lawyers in the field say are already stacked against survivors — the standard of proof might be too high, especially when officials don’t have the tools to identify and prove patterns of risky behavior. “Researchers understand coercive control as something that can help predict the outcome of a dangerous situation that becomes deadly,” said Rachel Louise Snyder, author of the 2019 book “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us.” But, she added, “law enforcement doesn’t necessarily recognize that.”
Coercive control has been illegal in England and Wales since 2015, but 2018 saw the highest number of domestic violence-related killings in five years, according to the BBC. The Center for Women’s Justice, a British watchdog group, filed complaints in 2019 and 2020 alleging “systematic failure” on the part of police to safeguard victims. “Officers on the ground don’t understand” coercive control, said Harriet Wistrich, the center’s director. Though there has been some training, she emphasized that for the law to be most effective, police, social workers and the courts need to have a shared understanding of how emotional abuse can become criminal.
Others are concerned that, in the United States, adopting and implementing new laws could drain resources from survivors’ pressing logistical needs, or from other pathways to justice. A growing faction of advocates say the best response lies not in the criminal courts, with their racial and economic inequities, but in dialogue-based alternatives like restorative justice.
Judy Harris Kluger, a retired New York judge who is executive director of the nonprofit Sanctuary for Families, said she agreed that coercive control is important as a concept. As a judge, though, “I’d rather have energy put into enforcing the laws that we have,” she said, “but also focusing on other things besides litigation to address domestic violence,” like funding for prevention, housing and job programs for survivors. (Ms. Bush, newly appointed to the House judiciary committee, said she would work to advance policies that reduce harm without further criminalizing people; she is not in favor of coercive control legislation, she said.)
Still, supporters say that legally acknowledging how pernicious the problem is will make it easier to fight — and help force a reckoning over its pervasiveness.
They point to Scotland as a potential model. Its domestic abuse laws enacted in 2019 focus on coercive control and include funding for training; a majority of its police and support staff has taken mandatory courses to understand the issue, said Detective Superintendent Debbie Forrester, Police Scotland’s lead for domestic abuse. The judiciary got lessons too. Alongside a public campaign explaining that controlling behavior is illegal, the authorities put abusers on notice that they would be scrutinized: “We will speak to previous partners,” a police statement warned.
In the year following the law, the number of charges reported for prosecution related to domestic abuse jumped nearly 6 percent, according to the Scottish government. Though they could always prosecute violence, previously “there was nothing that was actually called domestic abuse,” Ms. Forrester said. “That has been really important for victims — they understand that the laws and the structure is there to support them.”
Susan Rubio, 50, the state senator from California who headed the effort to adopt new legislation there, said she was motivated partly by her own experiences. In 2016, during divorce proceedings, she accused her husband, Roger Hernández, a California state assemblyman, of domestic violence, describing instances in which he punched her in the chest and attempted to strangle her with a belt, court documents say. The judge granted her a restraining order. Mr. Hernández, who was gearing up for a congressional primary, denied the allegations. Rebuked by his statehouse colleagues, he disappeared from his congressional race. (Mr. Hernández did not respond to requests for comment.)
The law Ms. Rubio proposed, which allows coercive control to be used as evidence of domestic violence in family court, went into effect this month. It defined those behaviors as instances in which one party deprived, threatened or intimidated another, or controlled, regulated or monitored their “movements, communications, daily behavior, finances, economic resources or access to services.”
In Hawaii, the definition of domestic violence was expanded to acknowledge coercive control, including name-calling and degradation. The law was shaped in part by a researcher, Barbara Gerbert, and a local police officer, May Lee. “Domestic violence is a complex issue, but at the heart of it is the need for power and control,” Ms. Lee wrote to the legislature.
The laws, in the United States and other countries, recognize an evolution in thought and research about domestic abuse, once normalized and minimized as an unfortunate outgrowth of bad relationships. Experts say research has increasingly shown the insufficiency of law enforcement approaches that treat domestic assaults as isolated incidents, akin to being punched by a stranger in a bar fight, and ignore the experiences of those for whom the abuse was often broader in scope and not always marked by violence, but debilitating, repetitive and no less damaging.
“We have failed to connect the dots until very recently in all these other ways,” Ms. Snyder, the author, said. “Coercive control laws are a first attempt to address some of that — the unseen dynamics that are so, so dangerous.”
Those who study domestic abuse say it follows a pattern: Ardent, rapid courtship that gives way to tests of loyalty, isolation from loved ones, belittling and deprivation of resources, whether it’s money, time, sleep or food — all in service of breaking down and controlling another person.
At the outset of a relationship, “love-bombing,” as it’s sometimes called, is a classic warning sign, experts say. “Showing up early to give the partner flowers. Picking her up when she doesn’t expect it,” said Chitra Raghavan, a forensic psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
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. Raghavan said.
If a partner protests, an abuser may ratchet up the charm, experts said. The cycle gives the victim an illusion of control, and the perpetrator an excuse to mete out punishment: just don’t hang out with those friends, wear that outfit, cook that meal. But the boundaries for correct behavior keep shifting.
Ms. Bush’s former boyfriend had rules about how and when she could wash the dishes or use the stove, she recalled. FKA twigs, whose given name is Tahliah Debrett Barnett, said that Mr. LaBeouf was feverishly jealous, and would also grow angry if she handed him his toothbrush when he was in the shower, even though that’s when he liked to brush his teeth. “He said that I was controlling, because I had given him the toothbrush with toothpaste,” she recalled.
(Mr. LaBeouf did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement to The New York Times when Ms. Barnett’s lawsuit was filed, he said: “I have been abusive to myself and everyone around me for years. I have a history of hurting the people closest to me. I’m ashamed of that history and am sorry to those I hurt.” He added that “many” of the allegations by Ms. Barnett and another former girlfriend were not true, but gave no further details.)
Jennifer Spivak, 31, the founder of a digital advertising agency whose ex-boyfriend pleaded guilty in 2011 to felony strangulation, said that he more often used threats than physical violence. During the early wave of affection, she gave into requests like forgoing the gym to spend more time with him. She relinquished her privacy, showing her boyfriend her texts and emails. But he wasn’t satisfied.
“I became obsessed with figuring out how to keep things nice, moment to moment,” Ms. Spivak said. He would escort her to the bank and force her to cash her paychecks and relinquish the money, which complicated her ability to leave him.
For the most part, she said he didn’t hit her; rather she said he “psychologically tortured” her for small infractions like not answering his call at work, berating her for hours while she stood in the tub naked and he held an iron above the water.
“I would wonder, am I being abused if I don’t have any bruises?” said Ms. Spivak, whose isolation exacerbated her self-doubt. As a survivor, she makes a point to work with women, to boost others’ financial independence.
Ms. Barnett said that once she could finally see how bad things were with Mr. LaBeouf, she was too ashamed to admit it: “I just couldn’t connect with my old life, because it was a reminder of how far away I was from myself.” She filed the lawsuit, she said, to highlight the patterns in her relationship, and to show how anyone, no matter their status, can be ensnared.
The most dangerous moment for victims of domestic violence, experts say, is when they decide to end their relationship; on average, it takes seven attempts to leave an abuser, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Shame and fear — coupled with economic insecurity, racial and social justice concerns, and worries about destabilizing the household, especially with children — keep many from reporting their assaults or the terrors they live with, advocates say.
Ms. Rubio, the California lawmaker, resisted calling authorities during her marriage — despite her resources, she didn’t have the courage, she said, and worried about public scrutiny. “Coercive control, it paralyzes a victim,” she said.
Ms. Bush said her boyfriend’s violence escalated to the point that he once shot at her with a gun. She never called the police. “I didn’t want him to go to jail,” she said. “So I couldn’t figure out how to say what happened. And I didn’t want people to look at me like I was stupid — like, why are you with this guy? Because I’m smarter than what they’re going to think.”
As she enters Congress, Ms. Bush said she thinks of combating domestic violence as building a social movement to save lives. “Every time we see that someone died at the hands of their partners,” she said, “that’s something we could’ve stopped, as a society.”