A new phone study conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, recently outlined a growing (and disturbing) trend in the sort of tactics being used by heterosexual men who physically and emotionally abuse their romantic partners: reproductive abuse. According to the report, men who abuse women physically and emotionally may also attempt to sabotage their partners’ birth control and reproductive rights, pressuring them to become pregnant, or to be at increased risk of pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases against their will.
While this may come as a surprise to some, reproductive abuse is nothing new to many victims of domestic violence. For several years, smaller studies have documented this kind of coercion among low-income teenagers and young adults with a history of violence by intimate partners. But what is interesting–and shocking–about the most recent research out of the NDVH study is not the existence of relationship abuse as a tactic of abusive partners, but the sheer scope and scale of the practice.
According to the report, 1 in 4 women who agreed to answer questions after calling the hot line said a partner had pressured them to become pregnant, told them not to use contraceptives, or forced them to have unprotected sex. As incredible as these figures may sound, even more chilling are the details and stories many respondents chose to share–particularly stories about the tactics many men used in order to coerce their female partners or manipulate their reproductive rights. “It was very eye-opening,” said Lisa James, director of health at the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco, which worked with the hot line on the report. “There were stories about men refusing to wear a condom, forcing sex without a condom, poking holes in condoms, flushing birth control pills down the toilet.” And the list went on. “There were lots of stories about hiding the birth control pills — that she kept ‘losing’ her birth control pills, until she realized that he was hiding them,” Ms. James added. Other respondents described having to go to great lengths in order to retake some control of their own reproductive lives. One woman described having to hide in the bathroom to take her pill. Another said that when she got her period recently, her partner was “furious.”
Dr. Elizabeth Miller, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis, helped design the questions of the survey, and noted the importance of its findings. “It’s really important to recognize reproductive coercion as another mechanism for control in an unhealthy relationship,” Dr. Miller said. At the same time, she added, younger women and girls dating older men may be confused by the pressure to become pregnant. “If you can put yourself in the shoes of a 15-year-old dating an 18- or 19-year-old man, which is not an unusual scenario, and he says to her, ‘We’re going to make beautiful babies together,’ that’s pretty seductive.”
While Dr. Miller admits that more research needs to be done on the subject, (particularly with respect to the motivations of the men in these scenarios), she freely admits that the phenomenon is unlikely to be a new one. “I just think not enough people have been asking the question,” she said. And indeed, the data seems to back this up.
In a paper published last year in the journal Contraception, Dr. Miller reported that at five family planning clinics in Northern California, one-third of 683 female patients whose partners were physically abusive said the men had also pressured them to become pregnant or had sabotaged their birth control. Of 191 women who reported birth control sabotage, 79 percent also reported physical abuse, the study found. From a domestic violence perspective, these findings, and those of the NDVH phone study, are significant, and serve as a chilling reminder that abusive partners will often go to great and invasive lengths in order to exert power and control over their victim–in any aspect of their lives.
To learn more about domestic violence, reproductive coercion and your rights as someone in an abusive relationship call our 24-hour hotline at (919) 929-7122.