Recognizing Reproductive Coercion This Domestic Violence Awareness Month
By Edith Hollander
You may know that Halloween is one mere week away, but did you know that this October marks the thirty-second Domestic Violence Awareness Month? The now federally recognized observance evolved from a “Day of Unity” pioneered by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). It was an occasion intended to bring advocates together and raise awareness through local and statewide activities (1). The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence, also called intimate partner violence, as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship” (2). Many studies over the last twenty or so years have documented a correlation between intimate partner violence and negative reproductive health outcomes. However, a specific form of abuse in which one partner purposefully exerts power over the other’s reproductive system had not been identified as a distinct phenomenon until somewhat recently (3). This form of violence is called reproductive coercion or reproductive control.
The term reproductive coercion can refer to any party exerting power over an individual’s reproductive life — such as a familial relative or even an institution — but has a strong association with abusive relationships. It usually (but not exclusively) occurs simultaneously with other forms of abuse, such as physical or emotional harm. The National Domestic Violence Hotline conducted the first national survey on reproductive coercion specifically and found that out of 3,000 participants, 25% reported this type of abuse. In addition, a 2010 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that out of a group of 71 women with histories of abusive relationships, recruited from a family planning clinic, an abortion clinic, and a domestic violence shelter, 74% reported experiences of reproductive coercion (4).
The Guttmacher study also found that such behaviors fall into three temporal periods: prior to sexual intercourse, during sexual intercourse, and post-conception (5). Before intercourse, partners may engage in “pregnancy promoting” by using verbal or physical intimidation tactics to attempt to convince their partner to become pregnant. One of the most cited perceived intentions behind this behavior was to tie a partner to the relationship. Sabotaging contraception can occur before or during sex; for instance, partners may tamper with birth controls pills before sex or remove a condom during intercourse. Forced sex, whether with the intention of impregnating the other person or without considering their preference is also common. After conception, an abusive partner may try to affect the outcome of the pregnancy by pressuring or threatening their partner into either carrying the fetus to term or having an abortion.
These behaviors are just a few examples of what can be classified as reproductive coercion. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Heather McCauley, a professor of social work who specializes in reproductive coercion, noted that in her research she found that “many women still don’t recognize this behavior as abuse” and that “if you were to ask them if they experienced abuse or coercion in their relationship, they would probably say no” (6). In 2017, a behavior called “stealthing” (when a male partner secretly removes a condom during intercourse) even gained national media attention and appeared in Elle and New York Post articles. It was deemed a dangerous sex “trend” by the Post — but it’s clear that this behavior fits neatly into the category of reproductive coercion, and while it may have found a new term and location in reddit forums, it also isn’t new. We are culturally in a process of reframing normalized behaviors as assault and forms of abuse. Some other specific behaviors outlined by the NCADV include:
- “Refusing to use a condom or other type of birth control
- Breaking or removing a condom during intercourse
- Lying about their methods of birth control (ex. lying about having a vasectomy, lying about being on the pill)
- Refusing to “pull out” if that is the agreed upon method of birth control
- Forcing their partner to not use any birth control (ex. the pill, condom, shot, ring, etc.)
- Removing birth control methods (ex. rings, IUDs, contraceptive patches)
- Sabotaging birth control methods (ex. poking holes in condoms, tampering with pills or flushing them down the toilet)
- Withholding finances needed to purchase birth control
- Monitoring their partner’s menstrual cycles
- Purposefully trying to pass on a sexually transmitted disease
- Forcing pregnancy and/or not supporting their partner’s decision about when or if they want to have a child
- Forcing their partner to get an abortion, or preventing them from getting one
- Threatening their partner or acting violent if they don’t comply with their wishes to either end or continue a pregnancy
- Continually keeping their partner pregnant (getting them pregnant again shortly after they give birth)” (7)
Family planning clinics and abortion providers generally have information on hand about reproductive coercion and screen for it in their patients as well. Given the high rate of poor reproductive health outcomes for people in abusive relationships, this is essential. However, education does not need to be limited to a medical context. Given the vast range of types of reproductive coercion and the circumstances under which they occur, it’s useful for us all to know that what behaviors constitute abuse. For a list of resources and information, visit https://ncadv.org/other-organizations.
1. “Dvam History | Domestic Violence Awareness Project (DVAP).” NRCDV. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Accessed October 22, 2019. https://nrcdv.org/dvam/DVAM-history.
2. “Abuse Defined.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Accessed October 22, 2019. https://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/abuse-defined/.
3. Moore, Ann M., Lori Frohwirth, and Elizabeth Miller. “Male Reproductive Control of Women Who Have Experienced Intimate Partner Violence in the United States.” Social Science & Medicine 70, no. 11 (2010): 1737–44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.02.009.
6. Alemandra, Ana. “What Women Need To Know About Reproductive Coercion.” The Huffington Post , April 12, 2019. www.thehotline.org/2013/07/18/from-broken-condoms-to-pill-tampering-the-realities-of-reproductive-coercion/.
7. “From ‘Broken’ Condoms to Pill Tampering: The Realities of Reproductive Coercion.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Accessed October 22, 2019. https://www.thehotline.org/2013/07/18/from-broken-condoms-to-pill-tampering-the-realities-of-reproductive-coercion/.