Shared from the 5/13/2020 The Denver Post eEdition

Tiger King, abuse and coercive control

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Social media has been fixated on Tiger King, the Netflix docu-series that provides viewers a peek into the subculture of owning exotic animals by following big cat park owners Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and Carole Baskin. Although incredibly entertaining and ostensibly about other things, Tiger King is really a story about what happens when victims are dependent on abusers. We urge viewers to see Tiger King as an opportunity to learn about abuse and to support, rather than blame, victims.

The series isfull of cringeworthy moments. The cause for much of the cringing is coercion and exploitation. Consider, for example, the ex-staff member who explains that she was coerced into breast augmentation surgery just to get a break from work. In another scene, Exotic explains intentionally hiring individuals who were homeless or recently out of prison who would struggle getting employment or housing elsewhere. They were paid (albeit, $150/week) and provided housing (trailers in the zoo) and food (expired meat for the tigers).

Instead of simply cringing though, we urge viewers to consider the dynamics beneath these salacious revelations. One dynamic is clear: Exotic’s staff were highly dependent on him.

Decades of trauma research, including research conducted by the University of Denver’s Traumatic Stress Studies Group here in Colorado, show us how detrimental abuse and dependency are. In fact, the more a victim relies on their abuser, the worse the harm of the abuse. According to Betrayal Trauma Theory, when a victim is dependent on the abuser, such as a woman who would face homelessness if she left her abusive husband, leaving the abuser may be at odds with survival. For this reason, dependence on an abuser often results in behaviors that look surprising to outsiders.

Dependence on an abuser can take many forms and several are demonstrated in Tiger King. Reliance on the abuser for financial resources is one way, as with Exotics’ staff. For example, unemployed women are more likely to experience ongoing abuse.

The series depicts Exotic’s efforts to lure and maintain commitment from his husband, Travis Maldonado, by leveraging his substance dependency. Joe’s campaign manager describes, “There are people out there who will look at a person who isin desperate, dire need of something and they take that need and they fulfill it, until they become the only person who can fulfill that need.” Using substances to control an intimate partner reflects common abusive dynamics. Victims who have physical, cognitive, or psychological disabilities can be more dependent on abusers.

In Tiger King, those in power use “exclusivity,” the status of involvement with tigers and the aura of a community to prevent zoo staff from leaving. For example, Antle’s apprentice program was described as creating a “cohesive family unit.” Yet, the so-called family involves people with less power being strong-armed into fawning over him (even referring to him as a god), having sex with him so they feel “bonded,” and committing and complying. The result is staff staying for upwards of 10 years in abusive conditions.

Viewers who jump to questions like “why did the staff stay?” highlight how Tiger King paints a vivid picture of social and emotional dependence on abusers. Data suggest that the length and love in the relationship are among the top reasons victims report for staying in an abusive relationship.

In interpersonal relationships and workplace situations, high levels of dependence on the perpetrator also set the stage for coercion. This was on display when Exotic is accused of controlling his husband, John Finlay, by keeping him on zoo property 24/7. Coercive control involves control of resources, isolation, and denial of liberty and autonomy. Antle is accused in the show of controlling his staff by isolating them from family and friends, dictating what they eat and wear. An apprentice summarizes, “They are free to leave, they are not locked up but they’re being held by a thousand… social ties and by the idea of losing everything, and how are they going to even go and where will they go when they leave?”

Tiger King has the potential to motivate widespread compassion for victims of abuse. Now that you have an image of what coercion and dependence on a perpetrator can look like, you can show compassion towards survivors. Channel what made you cringe into empathy for victims of abuse and understanding for why victims stay in abusive situations. Long after the hype of Tiger King runs its course, the realities of interpersonal abuse and coercive control remain and require the attention of the public.

Adi Rosenthal and Maria-Ernestina Christl are graduate students in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver.

See this article in the e-Edition Here