Any of the news headlines regarding the latest sexual harassment case signals the arrival of a new norm. From entertainment moguls to news anchors and politicians, men from all walks of life are being called out for their abuse and victimization of women.
The #MeToo movement is an unfortunate yet revealing reality that brings serious attention to this pervasive societal epidemic that stems from a compelling need of men to control women.
Control tactics manifest themselves in interactions that are not just limited to sexual harassment. For many women, abuse—sometimes sexual in nature, and sometimes not—begins subtly yet insidiously, and often in unsuspected ways in an intimate relationship.
Power Differences Influence Coercive Behavior
When patriarchal biases in our social expectations create power differences between men and women, such acceptance of these biases of both women and men lead to coercive behaviors.
Today, we see the devastating effects of power imbalances in sexual harassment, sexual assault, psychological abuse, and domestic violence.
This can be defined as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate such as employee.”1
The definition of sexual assault is “illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent.”2
The US Department of Justice (2015) defines “domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This [add “violence”] includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.”
“Psychological abuse involves trauma to the victim caused by verbal abuse, acts, threats of acts, or coercive tactics. Perpetrators use psychological abuse to control, terrorize, and denigrate their victims.”3
All of the above conditions (perpetrated by someone who is usually male toward someone who is usually female), create a dynamic of the perpetrator overpowering, controlling, and taking advantage of his subject at the dire expense of the other.
Impact of Coercive Behavior
Research shows that when a person dominates through the abuse of power, it is a prime deterrent to a successful intimate relationship4 and a healthy working environment.5
When our culture supports unwarranted male privilege, our society denies that such coercive behavior and psychological abuse even exist. Such denial has detrimental effects to those targeted.
Other countries, unlike the US, have taken serious steps to criminalize psychological abuse and workplace bullying.
In both France and the United Kingdom, psychological abuse of another person has been criminalized. Since psychological abuse has been made illegal, it gives a strong message that this behavior is unacceptable. Currently, the US is far behind New Zealand and countries in Europe in passing legislation that addresses abuse in the work setting.
Given the rampant use of coercive tactics in our culture and the danger to our mental and physical health we live with by having these behaviors all around us, we need to take serious notice.
How You Feel in the Moment Might Be Your Best Detector of Coercive Behavior
Coercive control exists in everyday behaviors, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly. Being aware of coercive behaviors and their emotional effects proves the most helpful in avoidance of such hurtful behaviors. Since the coercive behaviors are not always obvious, the impact felt by the recipient is the best way to take notice. In this moment, trust your gut feeling and don’t let yourself be talked out of it either by your own internal dialogue or by another’s opinion.
We all know when we are being treated respectfully— we feel visible, recognized, heard, and safe. It’s no surprise that in reaction to coercive behavior, negative feelings such as fear, anxiety, disgust, guilt, shame, or hurt emerge. When someone is subjected to ongoing coercive behaviors, then more serious mental and physical health issues can be experienced, making it feel harder to protect yourself.
Throughout years of working with women with controlling partners, almost every woman I have come into contact with has, to some degree, denied and minimized the psychological abuse from their intimate partner because they haven’t had words for it.
Coercive behavior is embedded in our culture and social expectations that women often don’t see it until they become informed and know what to look for.
Once women realize how they feel in negative interactions, they are able to take their partner’s or the other person’s controlling behavior seriously.
What’s Your Decision?
As each of us decides what to do about our own life and relationships, we have a new groundswell of public recognition and growing support at our back. We no longer need to remain silent or feel powerless but can speak up or speak out with conviction about what we will accept and what we won’t tolerate.
Recognizing coercive behavior is the best way for all of us to begin to protect ourselves. We need to declare that coercive behavior is unacceptable and has no place in environs or relationships where individuals and families look to thrive.