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Honoring Evan Stark: Women are Safe Only When they are Free and Equal

The late author and award-winning researcher's concept of coercive control dramatically changed the field of domestic violence

By Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD Jun 10, 2024

I nearly yelped when Anne Flitcraft told me that her husband of 47 years, Evan Stark, had died. Evan Stark was my mentor, my friend and a guiding light in the field of domestic violence. He changed the way survivors think about their torment. And his ideas sparked legislation in the U.S. and around the world.

Personally, Evan illuminated a path for me to follow him into serving as an expert witness on issues of coercive control domestic abuse. Stark had a heart condition and ataxia and was 82 years old; his death should not have been a surprise. And yet! He added new chapters to his landmark book in 2023, Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. That same year, he published another groundbreaking book, Children of Coercive Control. How could he die in 2024? He was writing his memoir. He was going to show me a report. He died in the middle of a Zoom meeting with coercive control advocates in British Columbia. They say he was speaking lucidly and then just slumped over. That is the way to go, I guess, doing what you love. But he still had so much to teach, and our field still had much to learn from him.

Stark did not hold back his opinion in other areas, either. He criticized people in the field of domestic violence, including me. He said that we think too much about individuals and their feelings. He kept his eye on the broader picture. He focused on how systems of oppression reach into the lives of individual women, crushing them. He defined domestic abuse as a liberty crime. That is, domestic abuse is a crime because it infringes on victims’ human rights. The right to be with others. The right to speak up. The right to live free from fear. The right to control one’s own body. The right to resources such as money and transportation. 

Stark kept pointing us back to the ways in which coercive control is a crime against us all. When women spend their time and energy appeasing abusers, the world suffers. We all miss their skills and energy, as they must focus on survival. We do not benefit from the contributions they would make if they were free members of our communities. 

I harbor skepticism about some men in our field. Some (but not all) charge exorbitant speaker fees. Some exploit victim-survivors financially. Some get paid for webinars that the rest of us do for free. At least one relies on a coterie of volunteer survivors who support his business while he grabs the spotlight and the paycheck. Evan was not of that ilk. He raised others along with him. He struggled with charging survivors for his expert testimony. He was in it as a warrior for justice—not for fame or fortune.

Stark directly denounced sexism. I remember him on a stage in the U.K. at a 2019 conference on coercive control. He spoke vehemently about patriarchy. He shouted about women who were trapped by their abusers, their options limited by structural sexism. He cursed to make his points. He knew that as a white male professor, he could get away with calling out sexism and retain his credibility in a way that many others cannot. Thank you, Evan.

Stark became an activist and an advocate when young. He helped bring college classes outside university walls to low-income women in Minneapolis. He advocated for abortion rights before Roe v. Wade. He agitated in the movement against the war in Vietnam, which is how he met his future wife, Anne Flitcraft.

Flitcraft, a physician, studied one month’s records of all women admitted to the emergency room at Yale New Haven Hospital. She discovered that domestic violence was the number one cause of injury for women coming in for emergency care. Partner abuse was responsible for more injuries than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. The physical harm perpetrated by partners was five times more common than thought at the time. This was revolutionary.

Stark and Flitcraft hid women in their home who were fleeing abuse. They co-founded one of the first shelters in the country. They moved state, national and international bodies to recognize and more effectively combat domestic violence. They helped shape the original Violence Against Women Act.

Flitcraft and Stark focused on the way that women are trapped with violent partners, and not simply hurt in separate incidents. This idea served as the kernel of what later became Stark’s stunningly original work on coercive control. He credited Flitcraft as co-creator of this idea, and they wrote their first book together in 1996.

Stark’s main contribution was to develop and popularize the concept of coercive control as the best way to describe the entrapment of domestic abuse victims. Previously, the term had been used to describe hostages and prisoners of war. 

Stark defined coercive control as a course of malevolent conduct over time in which a person uses violent and nonviolent means to secure family resources for personal gain.  The tactics include physical and sexual violence; threats, intimidation and stalking; isolation; humiliation and manipulation; micromanagement; and control over money and other basic necessities.  Abusers also manipulate, scapegoat and weaponize children to dominate their partners. The goal is not merely to hurt or frighten a partner—the goal is total domination. Stark asserted that coercive control more closely resembles terrorism than assault.

Stark named the extreme effects of coercive control on child and adult abuse victims. These can include physical pain and injury, fear, psychological vulnerability, and a condition of subordination and “entrapment" that can feel slave-like. Coercive control can make even strong, successful healthy individuals feel ‘crazy.’ 

Stark reminded us that coercive control can occur in any setting or relationship. However, most commonly, male partners use coercive control in relationships to exert power and control over women and children.

I did not know Stark or Flitcraft personally when I approached them in 2013. I had already co-authored a scholarly chapter in Spanish on coercive control. I sought Stark’s blessing to write an easily accessible book on coercive control. I confessed to him my struggle deciding how much to say about the fact that I was a survivor of coercive control. 

Evan looked at me silently at first, in that intent and kindly way he had. “Include as little or as much of it as you want, Lisa. What you have been through will inform every page.” I cannot imagine a more empowering response.

Rest in power, Evan Stark. 

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