The Dark Corners of Domestic Violence; Shining light on coercive control

Kevin Parker
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State Senator Kevin Parker.

When we talk about women achievers, we usually talk about trailblazers in things like politics, science, sports, or the arts. However, I am stepping outside the box to take a stand for women we may not think of as achievers: the 10 million women who are the survivors of domestic abuse.

Though they may not be listed as achievers in the history books, they are exactly that. Because, despite their dire circumstances, they keep showing up and showing off strength and resilience. They are part of the fabric of our society: they are the essential workers, doctors, transit workers, and mothers who have borne a burden in this pandemic spanning from the ICU to the kitchen. While we honor these brave survivors, we must also enhance our efforts and reform our legal system so we can more protect all victims of domestic violence.

A good starting point is to look beyond the familiar narrative of domestic abuse as strictly physical violence: it is often accompanied by controlling behaviors, now known as “coercive control.” Coercive control is a deliberate pattern of verbal, emotional and psychological domestic abuse that goes undetected because it leaves few to no physical traces. It involves ongoing oppressive behavior using tactics like intimidation, degradation, isolation and false accusations.

Someone may not allow a partner to handle their own money, keep them from visiting friends or family, threaten to hurt them or someone else, or closely monitor what they do. This is not rare behavior. About 34% of women, and 40% of men, in New York State will experience coercive control at some point in their lives. And given that domestic violence has spiked since the start of social distancing, coercive control has undoubtedly increased as well. And coercive control is not innocuous. It can have psychological consequences similar to those of intimate partner violence, and often accompanies or leads to physical abuse.

To put an end to this grievous behavior, I sponsored the New York State Phoenix Act, which would make coercive control a felony offense. In doing this, New York would join Hawaii, California, and some European countries in having such a law. My bill would also extend the statute of limitation for prosecution from 5 years to 10. Admittedly, the Phoenix Act has limitations. Coercive control laws are fairly new, and their efficacy in ending the practice is still not entirely clear.

Indeed, there might be other policies addressing systemic issues, such as providing victims more support for leaving a toxic environment, or even restorative justice may have a greater impact. However, codifying coercive control as a felony is an important first step, even if ultimately we divert offenders to alternatives to incarceration. Throughout my almost two decades in the State Senate, I have made it my goal to end intimate partner violence, having sponsored more bills on the issue than any other state legislator.

My accomplishments include passing S2356, which allows domestic violence victims to cancel some contracts, and S4442A, which provides new telephone numbers free of charge to domestic violence victims. I do this because I know that, if this violence ends in New York State, we will save lives. This year’s International Women’s Day had the slogan #ChooseToChallenge. So, I am doing just that, and I invite you to do the same. I am challenging the sinister notion that coercive control is too difficult to legally prove as some critics postulate. I am challenging the outdated belief of victimhood without survival. I am challenging the idea that Intimate Partner Violence is other people's business.

Domestic violence is a societal problem, and as such it is everybody’s business. For all the women walking around with scars hidden behind their warm smiles, I am once again raising my hands high - not just as virtue signaling, but setting in motion a legal course of action for victims of coercive control. With recourse in place, they will have the opportunity to move beyond victims, to survivors, to achievers and ultimately to advocates. 

Kevin Parker is a New York State Senator. He is also a candidate for New York City comptroller.

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