When we think of intimate partner violence, we often associate it with images of physical abuse. However more and more research illustrates the prevalence of reproductive coercion in abusive relationships, particularly with younger adolescent girls. Reproductive coercion includes contraceptive sabotage (like throwing away birth control pulls or hiding them), refusal to wear condoms, demanding unprotected sex, and preventing (or in some cases forcing) abortion.
The website knowmoresaymore.org focuses on reproductive coercion and prevention strategies. The website discusses a study done by Elizabeth Miller, M.D, Ph.D., in the pediatrics department of the University of California, found that among 61 racially and ethnically diverse girls in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods 53 were in abusive and sexually active relationships at the time they were interviewed and 26 percent said their partners were actively trying to get them pregnant.
What do these statistics mean for both domestic violence and health education initiatives with adolescents? These figures indicate that we need to re-think our framework of viewing teen pregnancy. Jill Murray, Ph. D an expert on teen dating violence advises that we start treating pregnancy itself as a warning sign. Instead of viewing teen pregnancy through a lens of “promiscuity” or a failure to understand contraceptive use, we need to start addressing it as a potential warning sign for abusive relationships. Miller states “teen pregnancy is likely emerging out of unhealthy relationships. That’s not the only mechanism for teen pregnancy but it’s an important one that we’ve managed to miss for a long time.”
Instead of promoting the idea of “just getting women on birth control”, we need to examine coercion in relationships because often, women in abusive relationships have no say negotiating condom use or have their birth control methods sabotaged.
Along with teen pregnancy increases, abusive sexually coercive relationships also leads to increased rates of STD’s. Dr. Anne Teitelman is an expert on partner abuse and on HIV risk found that among adolescent girls, survivors of partner abuse are significantly more likely than others to be diagnosed with an STD.
What drives some adolescent males to behave in these abusive manners? Dr. Miller draws a conclusion to societal constructs of masculinity that link power and control of others to being able to “prove” one’s manliness. In a time of social and emotional instability like adolescence, younger men, especially insecure younger men often insist on sexual control of their partners to combat their own insecurities and fears. They are also rewarded by peers and by a social structure of manliness where men define their importance by controlling and dominating other people through multiple forms of violence.
So what can we do? A joint study by the Harvard School of Public Health, Family Violence Prevention Fund, and the National Institute of Health found that simply asking young women during clinic visits if they experienced reproductive coercion dramatically reduced the odds of their male partners attempting to force them to become pregnant by 70%. The study found that participants who were asked about reproductive coercion and then counseled about harm-reduction strategies including switching to longer-acting contraceptives and contacting domestic and sexual assault resources were also 60% more likely to report ending a relationship because it felt unsafe or unhealthy. This is important because it identifies a solution that can be implemented easily. By being active bystanders and by increasing education about DV issues, reproductive health care practitioners can dramatically decrease reproductive coercion. This study is also important because it illustrates the importance of understanding the intersectionality of reproductive justice, domestic violence and sexism.
We can all work to be active bystanders and intervene when we see someone in trouble. Often just asking “Are you alright?” or “Do you need to talk?” can be the first step to someone getting the help they need.