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An Online Resource Library on Gender-Based Violence.

What do domestic violence programs need to know about coercive control to ensure survivor-specific and gender-inclusive supports for male-identified and people of all genders? (Part 2)

Monday, June 28, 2021

By Edric Figueroa and Amarinthia Torres

Photo credit Tzigone

In the TAQ, What do domestic violence programs need to know in order to welcome and support male-identified and people of all genders? Getting real about patriarchy & power (Part 1), we explored the larger systems of inequality connected to the issue of serving male-identified survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV).  The increased nation-wide attention to racial and social injustice must catalyze DV programs to center the dignity of every survivor by returning to the basic understandings of coercive control.  Understanding oppressions disparate impacts on women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans individuals, as well as Black, Latinx and other groups of color, is critical to ending both interpersonal and systemic violence. IPV programs should make space for survivors to connect their experiences to the larger systems of injustice surrounding them rather than treating every survivor the same.  This way, advocates can witness the diversity of survivors AND explore the differential treatment individuals may have experienced due to their race, gender, class, sexual orientation or other marginalized categorization.

Surviving IPV is distinct from experiencing oppression although the two are heavily connected. IPV programs must understand oppression AND have processes in place that assess for power imbalances in individual relationships in order to competently serve male-identified individuals, survivors of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and people of all genders.

Centering coercive control

People who abuse, can maintain control by relying on systems of oppression. This leads to the disproportionate impacts of IPV across society. If the anti-violence field can’t confidently assert and name how coercive control operates, both interpersonally and systemically, we run the risk of our expertise being co-opted by dominant groups and undermining the experiences of marginalized communities.

We believe that coercive control is when one person in a relationship over time, establishes a pattern of power, dominance, control, and exploitation over another. The word “abuse” implies one person’s domination and control at the expense of another.  It is likely that all DV advocates receive training on what constitutes coercive control or understand it due to their work supporting survivors. However, we’ve also seen programs struggle to assert this understanding consistently, especially as it pertains to intake, eligibility for different types of services, or determining if someone is in fact surviving coercive control. Relationships are complex, varied, and unique and relationships where coercive control may be present certainly are too. We know that determining who is causing harm and who is surviving that harm isn’t always clear-cut. In fact it can be quite complicated. Additionally, the absence of a consistent process to determine coercive control, can lead to bias and assumptions since abuse relies on systems of oppression and inequity. For example, the underpinnings of patriarchy can make it all too tempting to prioritize perceptions of gender as a primary indicator of who is surviving and who is causing harm in a relationship. This conclusion makes no room for people in same gender relationships and is not rooted in the anti-violence movement's understanding of coercive control.

Given this, we believe it is crucial to have a consistently applied intake process, rooted in an understanding of power, in order to effectively determine if coercive control is present in a relationship or not. We must also assert our expertise of coercive control in determining who’s causing harm because, sorry to say, there is no quick algorithm to tell advocates who is abusive in a relationship. There is no checklist of behaviors to tally up and spit out an answer like a magazine quiz. There is no machine learning or artificial intelligence to help determine who is surviving in a relationship due to the complicated ways interpersonal power imbalances manifest... And thank goodness! The above examples may sound appealing but in fact, these approaches (and others like them) may narrow complex experiences of violence into inaccurate categories. Centering coercive control as we talk to people about their relationships helps to discern coercive patterns of power, control and exploitation. Additionally, hasty intake processes strip away the nuanced contexts in which violence occurs and very often obscure or misjudge who is causing harm and who is surviving harm.

What’s at stake?

If programs don’t take the time to understand how coercive control is operating, they may minimize or just not see the power imbalances that exist in the relationship. This can lead to inaccurate and dangerous notions of mutual abuse, draw equivalencies in abusive behavior where none exist, and miss an opportunity to provide survivor specific support to someone who needs it. Worse yet, we might inadvertently provide survivor specific supports to someone who is actually causing harm.

“There are those who believe in mutual battering, both among lesbians and non-lesbians. I am not among them. When one works with the complexity of relationships and the layers of truth in a life, one sees the surfacing of an imbalance of power in violent relationships, a greater need or will or ability to dominate and control on the part of one partner. To deny this difference is to trivialize the battering or to risk adding to the disempowerment of the abused.” – Suzanne Pharr, Naming the Violence: Speaking Out About Lesbian Battering

What do we mean by assessment?

In its simplest definition, assessment is an approach to intake, whose primary purpose is discerning coercive control. It relies on critical thinking, an understanding of oppression, and open-ended questions that elicit context from potential participants. Assessment allows advocates to look further than who has done what to whom. Additionally, since virtually any individual behavior can be used by a person to survive abuse or to establish power over another, advocates must “assess” to get a fuller picture of power imbalances in the relationship.

Every agency has internal procedures for orienting new potential participants to the scope of their services and many have also created screening processes to determine fit for survivor services. However, some agencies have found it difficult to assert these practices when the new participants are men or LGBTQ individuals. Creating robust guidelines on how to consistently assess for abuse, regardless of the gender identity and/or sexual orientation of the participant, is an important step to building gender-conscious services. Guiding each person seeking IPV support through the same process of sharing their relationship history, the context in which incidences of violence have occurred, and what led them to reach out for support is what equity looks like for survivor programs.

Interpersonal violence usually belies a whole host of social conditions that are hard to qualify and quantify (i.e. privilege, race, poverty, gender, oppression, resistance, wealth, cultural norms, etc.). In this, as in most things, historical context is key.” – The Crunk Feminist Collective, 2013

An assessment process should focus on the context, intent, and effect of behaviors. Existing patterns of coercive control that developed over time will emerge as a result. The behavior itself is not the point… Determining if the behavior is a part of an abusive pattern is.

CONTEXT— Strive to understand what occurred immediately before and after a specific behavior. This context may impact the self-determination of each person in the relationship differently. For instance, what material, cultural, or societal conditions framed their choices?

INTENT— Ask participants directly about what they believe are the intentions behind their behavior or their partner’s. It’s important to distinguish behavior used to establish dominance from actions taken to regain self-control.

EFFECT— Identify who in the relationship bears the majority of the consequences after single incidences of harm. Connect these dots and see if a pattern of coercive control exists in the relationship.

The Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse created some of the above content in 2001 and it was adapted by the TAQ authors.

Key recommendations for ensuring survivor-specific and gender-inclusive supports

The bottom line is to assess, not guess! See this approach as enriching potential advocacy with participants by increasing understanding of the individuals needs. Advocates can then create more meaningful connections and referrals to more appropriate supports when needed. Standardizing an assessment process and building interagency and survivor-to-advocate trust is the key.

Practical tips for DV programs and advocates to create survivor-specific services (including support groups, shelters, and individual advocacy) open to people of all genders.

  • Apply a clear but rich assessment process for every person and have your own procedures and policies in place to determine if someone is surviving IPV.
  • Know what resources exist in your area and your agency’s capacity to support participants who may not be experiencing IPV. For example, abusive partners, people exploring a breakup, people who experienced one incident of violence, people who want to learn more relationship skills, people who are having normal conflict in their relationship, etc.
  • Resist the urge to rush to advocacy, and slow down your questions. The more you know, the further your referrals, direct concern, and/or validation will go.
  • Trust the collective expertise from research and practice in the anti-violence field on what constitutes IPV. There is plenty of rich research, and information on coercive control available to advocates including this useful info graphic from the Battered Women’s Justice Project.
  • Practice confidentiality AND containment. Advocates at the same organization can lean on one another for support with complicated assessments.
  • Routinize training on coercive control, gender-equity, and building an anti-oppressive agency [Remember the impacts of patriarchy and power.]
  • Push back on narratives like “a survivor would never do this…” People who are surviving coercive control may use physical violence in the course of surviving.
  • Remember an individual reaching out to your agency for relationship support does not automatically equal a survivor, and advocates asking context questions does not automatically equal victim-blaming.

To further respond to the needs of diverse individuals, offer programming that is not “survivor specific”. Agencies can then offer education and community connections to people who experience single incidences of violence or others who may not be eligible for IPV, survivor-specific support.  

Examples of community engagement programming:

  • Classes on how to form boundaries, handle conflict, or generally have a relationship without abuse
  • Parenting groups
  • Skills shares or professional development
  • Town halls or meet and greets
  • Wellness events/activities like tincture or candle making
  • Educational partnerships with other direct-service providers
  • Vigils for community grief and healing
  • Issue-specific forums
  • Participating in local health fairs or community-specific festivals like Pride

Examining how systems of inequality fuel interpersonal and structural violence are a first step to ending harm against those most marginalized. Anti-violence agencies can steer us one step closer by practicing and understanding how to assess coercive control. Determining if power imbalances are being exploited to cause harm helps survivors and people who cause harm understand the profound impacts oppression has on our lives. The more we unpack structural violence, practice assessment, and exert our expertise, the closer we all get to liberation.

For more information:

What do domestic violence programs need to know in order to welcome and support male-identified and people of all genders? Getting real about patriarchy & power (Part 1): Domestic violence programs play a key role in shifting from a culture that tolerates difference to one that embraces intersectionality. This TAQ outlines what domestic violence programs need to know in order to serve survivors of all genders with autonomy and dignity. 

WEBINAR: Enhancing Services to Male-Identified Survivors Series Part 3: Gender Neutral Advocacy / Mejorando los Servicios para Sobrevivientes Autoidentificados como Hombres: La Intersesoria Genero Neutral: In part three of the Enhancing Services to Male Survivors Series, the presenters engage in a discussion about how to meaningfully support survivors of all genders while maintaining and strengthening a collective, feminist analysis on gender, power, and violence. / En la tercera parte de la serie Mejorando los Servicios para los Sobrevivientes que se Autoidentifican como Hombres, los presentadores participan en una discusión sobre cómo apoyar de manera significativa a los sobrevivientes de todos los géneros mientras mantienen y fortalecen un análisis feminista colectivo sobre género, poder y violencia.