Reproductive Coercion is Sexual Violence

by Cara on January 29, 2010

in misogyny, patriarchy, pregnancy, rape and sexual assault, reproductive justice, violence against women and girls

There is a new study which discusses a horribly prevalent but rarely discussed form of intimate partner violence: reproductive coercion. From a press release by The Family Violence Prevention Fund:

“Pregnancy Coercion, Intimate Partner Violence and Unintended Pregnancy” is the first quantitative examination of the relationship between intimate partner violence, reproductive coercion and unintended pregnancy. It finds that young women and teenage girls often face efforts by male partners to sabotage their birth control or coerce or pressure them to become pregnant – including by damaging condoms and destroying contraceptives. These behaviors, defined as “reproductive coercion,” are often associated with physical or sexual violence. Conducted by researchers at the University of California Davis School of Medicine and the Harvard School of Pubic Health, the study also finds that among women who experienced both reproductive coercion and partner violence, the risk of unintended pregnancy doubled.

From August 2008 to March 2009, researchers worked at five reproductive health clinics in Northern California, querying some 1,300 English- and Spanish-speaking 16- to 29-year-old women who agreed to respond to a survey about their experiences. They were asked about birth-control sabotage, pregnancy coercion and intimate partner violence. Approximately one in five young women said they experienced pregnancy coercion and 15 percent said they experienced birth control sabotage.  Fifty-three percent of respondents said they had experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner.  Thirty-five percent of the women who reported partner violence also reported either pregnancy coercion or birth control sabotage.

For many who have been in abusive relationships, the findings here will come as little surprise. But they are incredibly important, in that they prove the simple fact, for those who still needed proof, that teaching about how to use contraception isn’t always enough to prevent unwanted pregnancy. When a partner is sabotaging one’s birth control — whether it be through secretive tampering or open destruction, threats or outright force — knowing how to use contraception is can mean exceedingly little. Information is nothing without access, and in an abusive relationship that involves reproductive coercion, access has been denied. Awareness and resources about what abuse actually is, how it works, and how to handle it once it has already begun — both for medical professionals who need to screen for it, and those at risk of being victims — are absolutely vital.

But what the study also unintentionally shows is just how ill-equipped our society is to deal with the kind of abuse that does not begin and end with a fist.

The prime example, because it’s the most prominent, is the Newsweek article that has gotten everyone talking. Not having the time to even touch the comments (“what about teh (cis) menz???” — they’re not recommended), on the one hand, I commend Newsweek for giving the kind of issue usually brushed aside by mainstream media some significant exposure. On the other hand, I strongly lament passages like this:

The boundary between reproductive coercion and relationship violence—and whether there is, in fact, a boundary at all—is a difficult issue for health-care providers to address. In some cases, it can fit a spectrum of other abusive behaviors, from threatening to physical violence, that create an imbalance in a relationship’s power dynamic. “Just like violence, it’s a power thing,” says Walker, who has seen patients whose boyfriends monitor their periods to ensure they’re not taking Depo-Provera contraceptive shots (which often cause women to skip their period). “The man is taking away a woman’s power to decide she’s not going to have a child. Still, the line is unclear. Miller, for example, would be hesitant to categorize reproductive coercion as a form of partner violence, since many states have laws mandating reporting of such incidents. “I’m not sure that a young woman telling me that her partner flushed her birth control down the toilet necessitates me reporting that to the authorities,” says Miller.

Acknowledging the fact that mandated reporting laws cause significant ethical dilemmas and ought to be heavily reexamined by those actually interested in assisting victims is not even remotely the same as saying that reproductive coercion is not abusive — though it does help highlight another problem with mandated reporting, in that abusive behaviors might be categorized as such less often than they otherwise would be.

Yet, that is what Newsweek takes the above sentiments to mean, precisely:

While reproductive coercion is not necessarily an indicator of an abusive relationship, Miller says the possibility should at least be in the back of a clinician’s mind as a possible scenario. “

Can we be absolutely, 100% clear, for just a minute?

Yes, reproductive coercion is an indicator of an abusive relationship.

How can I say that with certainty? Because reproductive coercion is abuse. It’s abuse because taking control of another person’s body (without their free and enthusiastic consent) is always abuse. And the last time I checked, abuse within a relationship made that relationship abusive. Indeed, the last time I checked, abuse which took on a sexual nature was sexual violence.

Reproductive coercion = sexual violence
Sexual violence in a relationship = abusive relationship

This is breathtakingly obvious. But as per usual, obvious answers are obscured by cultural messages. And cultural messages tell us that if it happens often, it can’t be abuse! (Because then abuse would be common, and we would be culpable for not doing more about it and for not believing more survivors when they come forward.) They also tell us that coercion is not abuse, only outright force is — because, after all, if coercion is abuse, then abuse is really common, and … well, see above.

Acknowledging it as abuse also might make one feel a little bit guilty for implicitly blaming victims, as we see below (emphasis mine):

Particularly for teenagers in relationships with older men, the age difference “may have profound implications for perceived and actual reproductive choices for young adult women,” Miller wrote in a 2007 paper on the same subject. “Such factors may also lead to fewer adolescents reporting such reproductive control as abusive, forced, or coercive.” Put another way, teenage girls are at greater risk of not recognizing reproductive coercion as problematic, and allowing it to continue.

Now, I say “might” make one feel a little bit guilty, because a whole lot of people say a whole lot of similar things about someone who is being beaten to a bloody pulp by her husband every night, because, after all, she hasn’t left.

But framing an abused person as “allowing the abuse to continue” is always incredibly dangerous, no matter what the circumstances. I’ve been known to argue many, many times, that one of the reasons that we need to educate youth about abuse far more thoroughly than we do now is so that more victims recognize that they are being abused, even when it doesn’t fit into a TV movie. My point was not, “that way they will stop allowing it to happen.” Rather, the point of such a proposal is so that young people, women in particular, will recognize that their bodies have rights that no one else has the right to infringe upon, so that they will have greater information to recognize an abusive relationship when it’s in its earliest and less dangerous phases and have the safest opportunity to escape if they choose, and so that they can more easily identify their experiences, know that help is available to them, and understand that the abuse was not their fault.

The above framing regarding educating teenage girls is wholly different, and not at all helpful. Treating abused people as entirely free agents and co-conspirators in their own abuse only continues to the perpetuation shame, and therefore of more abuse.

And we’re not going to be effectively able to deal with this widespread problem until we’re able to recognize it as what it is: not a choice, not a personal problem, not a relationship “issue,” but as sexual violence, as intimate partner violence, and as abuse.

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