Reproductive Coercion Extremely Common Among Victims of Other Forms of Intimate Partner Violence

by Cara on April 9, 2010

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

Trigger Warning for this post and the links within.

A new study has been released by the Guttmacher Institute on the subject of reproductive coercion. While a larger study on the same topic was released back in January, this one focuses specifically on cis women who are the victims of other forms of intimate partner violence at the hands of cis men. From a press release by the Family Violence Prevention Fund:

Three in four respondents (74 percent) in the new study – of 71 domestic violence victims seeking services at a family planning clinic, an abortion clinic and a domestic violence shelter – reported that their partners had threatened to get them pregnant, forced them to have unprotected sex, sabotaged or interfered with their contraception, threatened them with sexual intercourse, tried to control the outcome of their pregnancies if they became pregnant, or in other ways tried to coerce their reproductive outcomes.  These abusive behaviors can lead to unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and a host of other problems.

As with the previous study, the coercion took many forms, from refusing to use condoms, removing the condom partway through intercourse, sabotaging a partner’s own birth control method, promising to withdraw and then refusing, threats and other verbal coercion, and rape.

An excerpt from the full report (pdf) explains:

Threatening women with pregnancy during sex ran a gamut of behaviors ranging from surreptitiously deceptive to violent. Forced sex, as a form of physical violence, has been well documented (Coker, 2007), but forced sex which took place either with the explicit intention of impregnating the woman or with complete indifference to whether the woman was protected from pregnancy, has not been documented. Respondents’ experiences of unwanted sex ranged from violent rape to engaging in unwanted sexual intercourse, sometimes only unwanted because it was unprotected.

As per usual, I find the definition of rape used here to be far too narrow — and the reason I continually digress on the subject is because I’m tired of seeing experiences erased, and because I find it especially frustrating when those who purport to be raising awareness about a type of abuse still refuse to call other types of abuse what they are.

It doesn’t matter the reason that intercourse (or any other kind of sex, for that matter) is unwanted — what matters is that there was no consent. Indeed, the respondent quoted below this section speaks of knowing that she “can’t say no” to her abusive partner. Presumably this is because he will enact other types of abuse if she does, but regardless of the reason, a situation in which one party cannot say no is a situation where there is no consent. Failing to say no because you fear that doing so will, for example, result in a more violent rape, is not the same as giving consent. All rape is violent, so there is no difference between “violent rape” and “engaging in unwanted sexual intercourse,” and I would really, really love to see the phrase “violent rape” replaced with what is usually meant: rape that utilizes physical violence.

In any case, the point remains that while reproductive coercion is sexual violence, it’s important to note that sexual violence in cases where pregnancy is possible is also reproductive coercion.

This report also makes substantive note of the important point that reproductive coercion doesn’t end once a coerced/unwanted pregnancy has begun. It also frequently occurs in terms of whether or not a woman continues or terminates a pregnancy, and abuse with the intent of either outcome is common:

Other men refused to allow their partners to have abortions, denying her access to an abortion. Sometimes this was through men withholding the money to pay for an abortion; some partners sabotaged appointments for abortions by doing things such as making the respondent eat, which prevented her from being able to have the general aesthesia she needed for the abortion; coming into the clinic and “breaking things up” so that the woman left with the man to stop him from making more of a scene; and withholding transportation including bus fare so that she could not get to the clinic for the procedure.

Among women who wanted to have the child, some described experiencing pressure and coercion to terminate a pregnancy. Even when men had not used contraception to avoid an unintended pregnancy, there were situations in which men demanded abortions once their partners became pregnant. Some men threatened to hurt the woman with the intention of bringing about the end of the pregnancy.

Not all women did what their partners wanted them to do—some had abortions when their partners wanted them to have the child; some had children that their partners wanted them to abort. These acts of resistance occurred much less frequently than adherence to partner’s demands and in a number of cases led to a high number of abortions: One woman whose partner wanted her to have children, refused condom use, and refused to let her use contraception, had had eight abortions at the time of the interview, all had been pregnancies with this same partner.

The point of all of this is that “access” to reproductive health care as we generally think of it still isn’t necessarily resulting in genuine access for all women. We can make contraception, abortion, and parenting affordable options — and we should, and there is still far more work to be done in those areas. We can increase education about contraception, how it works, and where to access it — and that’s a fight that needs to be continued, as well. But that’s not going to help the woman whose partner throws out her birth control pills, prevents her from going to the clinic to get her Depo shot, pulls the Nuvaring out of her vagina, or slips off the condom when she’s not looking. And pretending like it is, and that more education and more clinics with less expensive care are all that’s needed to solve the problem of unplanned pregnancy, is leaving the most vulnerable women even more vulnerable.

Going back to FVP’s press release:

“This study adds to the growing body of evidence that partner violence often  includes reproductive coercion and control, which can lead to unplanned pregnancy,” said Family Violence Prevention Fund President Esta Soler.  “We make a mistake by putting these issues in silos and promoting solutions that ignore the connection.  If we are serious about stopping unplanned pregnancy in this country, we simply must address the sexual violence and reproductive control that often cause it.  If we are serious about stopping dating and domestic violence, we must recognize that many victims grapple daily with sexual violence and reproductive coercion.  And if we are serious about improving women’s health, we must address the violence that too many young women experience.”

Just like how those who promote abstinence as the only way to prevent pregnancy are irresponsible for ignoring the fact that everyone does not have the option of abstinence (among other reasons), those of us who promote making information about contraception options available are irresponsible for so frequently ignoring that not everyone has the option to utilize it. The fact that not all women can freely use contraception is one of many, many reasons why it’s so important to ensure that abortions is affordable, readily available, and confidential (though as discussed above, even that is not enough). But it’s also one of many, many reasons why we need to work to eliminate intimate partner violence in all its forms, and why we can’t keep acting like reproductive health is not dependent on reproductive justice.

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{ 3 comments }

1 Jeannette April 9, 2010 at 11:41 pm

“It doesn’t matter the reason that intercourse (or any other kind of sex, for that matter) is unwanted — what matters is that there was no consent. Indeed, the respondent quoted below this section speaks of knowing that she “can’t say no” to her abusive partner. ”

YES!! Thank you for mentioning this, I find it incredibly frustrating when researchers phrase their questions in such a way that their findings take what are textbook definitions of sexual assault and turn them into “unwanted sex” or whatever. Rape is not sex, and vice versa. I recently saw a statistic on teen dating violence that said 1/3 of female teens has been “pressured” to perform oral sex or have intercourse with a partner. This kind of language, obviously, is hugely problematic and only serves to perpetuate stereotypes about sexual assault.

2 Quercki April 16, 2010 at 3:35 pm

The reason that researchers
“phrase their questions in such a way that their findings take what are textbook definitions of sexual assault and turn them into “unwanted sex” or whatever” is because many people can recognize that they had unwanted sex who would deny that they were raped or sexually assaulted.

It gives more accurate results to omit the “loaded” language.

3 Cara April 16, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Agreeing with Quercki. There is a responsibility to include the broadest and most inclusive language when conducting research. My problem is not with how questions are phrased, etc. — it’s how the results are discussed, and the way that two different descriptions of rape are so regularly not both referred to as “rape,” but rape and, well, something else.

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