Lisa Aronson Fontes Ph.D.

Invisible Chains

Stealth Abuse of College Women: Coercive Control on Campus

Common campus dangers include emotional abuse, stalking, and sexual coercion.

Posted Oct 12, 2015

Liz Bannish, used with permission
Source: Liz Bannish, used with permission

While sexual assaults on college campuses are making the headlines, some of the most common campus dangers are less visible: the verbal and psychological abuse, stalking, and sexual coercion that comprise a form of abuse called Coercive Control.

Maybe you’re not familiar with that term. Coercive Control describes a strategy of domination of an intimate partner through some combination of isolation, manipulation, degradation, micromanagement, sexual coercion, and sometimes physical violence. Most commonly, it’s men who control their women partners in this way; but people of all genders and orientations can be victims or victimizers. With college students, even this definition becomes problematic because they don’t often think of themselves as “partners” but rather as occupying an ill-defined space between “being friends” (a loose term when one has thousands of Facebook friends!), “hooking up,” and those old fashioned concepts of “dating” or “going out.” Students, parents, faculty, and administrators may easily miss signs of coercive control. Most often, people who are being victimized have no name for what is happening to them, and therefore have trouble connecting the dots between disparate controlling and demeaning acts.

The book and movie Fifty Shades of Grey show a college woman getting stalked, humiliated, bruised, and threatened. In Fifty Shades as in many pop songs, advertisements and movies, this kind of abuse is portrayed as romantic and highly erotic. No wonder young women feel unable to seek protection when they are subject to these behaviors! They may not even name these as “abusive,” especially if they have consented to a sexual act or some kind of relationship with the abuser. Young women remain isolated with their despair, pain, and anxiety—sometimes wondering what is wrong with them and fearing that they are responsible or are overly sensitive. All too often, they drop out of school because they no longer feel safe on campus.

One study (Rhatigan and Street, 2005) showed that when there is physical violence in a dating relationship, women are more likely to want to leave the relationship. But when there is psychological abuse, women devote increased time and energy to “fixing” those relationships. Despite her efforts, a victim of Coercive Control may struggle to concentrate, suffer from diminished self-esteem, and grow isolated from others, making it harder for her to break free. And over time, psychological abuse often morphs into physical abuse.

Here are stealth abuse signs to look for: 

  • Isolation: Is the person spending far less time with friends and family? Has the person dropped out of much-loved activities? Wanting to live on cloud nine alone together is to be expected in a new relationship. However, sometimes a controlling person deliberately isolates his partner by monopolizing her time and/or badmouthing her friends and insisting that she “drop” them. Once young people lose close touch with their friends, they become even more dependent on their abusive partners for support. People who are being stalked also tend to limit their activities.
  • Liz Bannish, used with permission
    Source: Liz Bannish, used with permission
  • Cyber stalking or monitoring: Technology provides fertile ground for cyberstalking and harassment. Some abusers will almost constantly text, call, or instant message their partners when they’re not together. If an abuser cannot detect his girlfriend’s whereabouts through her phone or computer, he may track her down in person or by texting her friends. Technology allows an abuser’s reach to extend even into his victim’s dorm room or home, where he may insist on speaking with her, texting her, or chatting with her for hours on end.
  • Cyberharassment: Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, AskFM, and similar sites can all be used to threaten, express ownership over, or punish a partner or ex-partner. These communications can be hard to document and extremely frightening, as when someone sends a picture of a bloody knife over Snapchat to his ex-girlfriend and the image is set to dissolve in seconds.
  • Sexual coercion: Is the student being pushed into unwelcome sexual activities? The teen and young adult years are often a time of sexual experimentation. Young people—and young women especially—may feel confused when they want to engage in some kind of sexual behavior but then find themselves unable to set a limit with their abusive boyfriend or hookup (casual sexual partner). A controlling man may try to get his girlfriend drunk or high, so she’ll be less able to resist his advances. This calculated practice is harrowingly documented in Jody Miller’s book, Getting Played. Of course, I’m not referring to situations where a young woman is happy to participate. I’m referring to situations where she feels that she cannot say “no,” or where she has said “no” and he pushes her to go along with the acts anyway (called post-refusal persistence). This is sexual coercion and—depending on the circumstances—it may be rape or another crime.
  • Ruining her reputation: Young adult men often press their girlfriends for naked photos or videos, or take these images surreptitiously. When angry or after a breakup, it is not unusual for them to circulate these photos. Entire websites are dedicated to so-called “revenge porn.” Circulating a naked picture of a person under 18 is a serious legal offense. States are scrambling to similarly criminalize circulating a naked photo of a person over 18 without their consent.

Coercive Control is tricky because many of these behaviors can be concealed in a romantic wrapper of “love.” For instance, women who are eager for signs of connection and caring may be confused by statements such as:

  • “I want to know where you are at all times because I worry about you.”
  • “If you really loved me, you’d have sex with me now.”
  • "We're a couple. Forget everything else."

Away from family and childhood friends for the first time and with easy access to alcohol and drugs, college students may be especially vulnerable to the emotional manipulations of Coercive Control.The first step in helping young people avoid and escape from these stealth forms of abuse is to identify the problem. In a later column, I will describe solutions for campuses and also describe the special vulnerabilities of LGBTQ students. For more information about Coercive Control, please see my book: Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.

Belknap, J., & Sharma, N. (2014). The Significant Frequency and Impact of Stealth (Nonviolent) Gender-Based Abuse Among College Women. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 15, 181-190.

Rhatigan, D. L., & Street, A. E. (2005). The impact of intimate partner violence on decisions to leave dating relationships: A test of the investment model. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20, 1580-1597. 

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