“Do you know what it feels like to drown?”
Strangulation as coercive control in intimate relationships
A recent shocking image circulated by the UK press of a photograph taken of popular TV chef Nigella Lawson and her husband Charles Saatchi at lunch reveals a picture believed to show both her husband’s hands clasped around Nigella’s throat. Headlines and news stories in the UK media have raised the issue of potential domestic violence within their relationship.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is an all encompassing problem. Estimates from the recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence (NIPSV) Survey indicate nearly 1 in 10 (11.6 million U.S. women) has been strangled by an intimate partner. The pervasiveness of strangulation is a cause for concern, given its potential outcomes. This article identifies strangulation as a unique and particularly gendered form of nonfatal intimate partner violence. The use of strangulation to coerce and control an intimate partner is the focus of this paper. It is believed this study is the first of its kind to qualitatively examine the relationship between strangulation and coercive control. Coercive control, a type of IPV marked by domination and entrapment, is associated with the use of extremely violent tactics. The article first describes coercive control and its use in intimate relationships, and then explores the idea that strangulation is one tactic of coercive control. Situating a strangulation incident within the context of coercive control highlights its unique nature and offers insight into perpetrators’ motivations and the extent of victims’ entrapment. Such information is necessary to improve the response of the legal and mental health systems, thereby increasing avenues to physical and mental safety for victims of IPV.
Strangulation is a unique and particularly gendered form of nonfatal intimate partner violence, affecting 10 times as many women as men. Medical research documents multiple negative health outcomes of such victimization, and in the past decade nearly 30 U.S. states have enacted laws making nonfatal strangulation a felony. We extended prior work by using grounded theory in a qualitative study to explore women’s experiences of, thoughts about, and reactions to being strangled. Each of the 17 mostly well-educated and African American domestic violence shelter residents had been strangled at least once by an intimate partner; most had survived multiple strangulations. Despite other severe abuse and a high level of fear, all were shocked that their partner strangled them. Participants reported an intense sense of vulnerability when they recognized during the assault how easily they could be killed by their partner. Nonetheless, they seemed to think of strangulation, not as a failed murder attempt, but as a way to exert power. Efforts to extricate themselves from a “choking” largely failed and resistance resulted in an escalation of the violence. Moreover, strangulation is difficult to detect which, as participants observed, makes it especially useful to the abuser. The aftereffects permeated the relationship such that strangulation need not be repeated in order for her to be compliant and submissive, thus creating a context of coercive control.
Kristie A. Thomas, Manisha Joshi, & Susan B. Sorenson (2013). “Do You Know What It Feels Like to Drown?” Strangulation as Coercive Control in Intimate Relationships psychology of women : 10.1177/0361684313488354