Reproductive Coercion: An intimate partner violence you might be overlooking

Has a sexual partner ever made you feel uncomfortable about wanting and using birth control? Have they ever pressured you not to use it, like by trying to talk you out of it by telling you you don't really need it? Do you feel like you can't talk to your partner about making those choices? Has a partner ever deliberately hidden, stolen, or sabotaged your birth control? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have experienced or may be experiencing a form of intimate partner violence known as reproductive coercion, which is generally defined as someone’s attempt to exert control and power over their partner’s reproductive health choices, often, but not always, with the intention of making them become pregnant.

Reproductive coercion involves elements of ownership, control, and violence.
This kind of abuse can take many forms, like poking holes in condoms, or pressuring a partner to become pregnant using threats of violence or other kinds of abuse. It can occur at any time in a relationship, and is sometimes classified as being “pre-intercourse,” “during intercourse” and “post-intercourse" depending on where in a sexual interaction it falls. Reproductive coercion includes:

  • Pressuring a partner to get pregnant and/or create a pregnancy.
  • Threatening or manipulating someone about contraception, like one partner telling another that they will leave them if they have to wear a condom, or if they use birth control.
  • Trying to exert control over birth control methods like hiding or throwing away a partner’s birth control pills, condoms or emergency contraception; forcibly removing a partner’s intrauterine device, or pulling off contraceptive patches.
  • Controlling -- like stealing -- a partner’s finances so they cannot pay for birth control methods or abortion
  • Birth control sabotage  – like poking holes in a condom, refusing to pull out when that’s what has been agreed upon, or ejaculating inside a partner without consent.
  • Coercion during intercourse can also involve removing condoms during intercourse without a partner’s consent, a behavior recently called “stealthing" by some of those who engage in this abuse in an attempt to normalize it, and make it seem like something that isn't abusive (it is). A new study argues that “stealthing” is an act of gender-based violence that should be punishable by law, as it puts the individual at a potential and unagreed upon risk for STIs and/or pregnancy. The same study found that "stealthing" is alarmingly common.
  • Pushing for unprotected intercourse (or intercourse, period) when the other person made clear before or during sexual activity that is not something they want to do.
  • Pregnancy pressure, or pregnancy coercion: Pregnancy outcome occurs after someone becomes pregnant, and their partner, usually through emotional manipulation and abuse, coerces them to remain pregnant or terminate a pregnancy, for example threatening to leave or hurt themselves, the partner or others if they choose abortion. 
  • Raping a partner with the intent to impregnate them is also a documented form of pregnancy coercion.
  • Pregnancy outcome control involves someone coercing their partner to make a decision about an already existing pregnancy against their will.

It is not uncommon for men, particularly, to use pregnancy as a means to express ownership over their partner –  for instance, if their partner is pregnant, they view that as an outward sign that they are “taken,” and this is in part what often drives pregnancy pressure and coercion.

Pregnancy and intimate partner violence are closely linked, and often occur hand in hand. In general, pregnant women* experience a higher rate of intimate partner violence. Victims of other kinds of abuse are more likely to experience unintended pregnancy, and almost a third of women who experience intimate partner violence experience abuse in the first trimester of pregnancy. In fact, many women report that their partners became more abusive after they became pregnant.Groups with a high risk of unplanned pregnancy and reproductive coercion include Latinx, African American, and poor women. HAWC and the National Domestic Violence Hotline are both resources if you are experiencing abuse in your relationship.

Teens in general are at a higher risk for both unintended pregnancy and reproductive coercion. One study found that almost a quarter of teen girls in abusive relationships report that their partners had tried to get them pregnant or interfered with their contraception. And studies also find that for teen boys, reproductive coercion can be an expression of things like ownership, control, even purity – in getting their girlfriends pregnant they are exerting control and in their eyes, ensuring no one else can have sex with them.

Alexandra Brodsky, who wrote the study on “stealthing,” said she was moved in part to write the study because she was struck by how common it was for her women friends to have experienced a form of sexual violence that didn’t seem to have a name or a place in the law. And that reflects a common trend among reproductive coercion – it falls into a category of abuse not yet recognized by the law, and often times not recognized by the people experiencing it.

One specialist, in an interview with The Establishment, said she grew concerned when patients were reporting things like condoms breaking six times during sex. She said her patients acknowledged it was strange, but weren’t classifying it as abuse, but in actuality, something like this is a red flag. But, like physical violence, reproductive coercion is abuse, it is a form of intimate partner violence, and it should be treated as such. Like emotional abuse, some forms of reproductive coercion may not seem as blatant as physically abusing a partner, but the impact and the harm are just as serious, and they are also often closely tied to, or indications of inclinations towards physical violence as well; all of these forms of violence are designed to exert control.

Service providers play a big role in recognizing and addressing reproductive coercion, so if you think you might be experiencing it, talk to your OBGYN, or someone else you trust and know is generally informed about abuse as a whole. Your reproductive healthcare provider can help you figure out your options, like by suggesting a birth control your partner cannot see or feel, or prescribing you birth control in nondescript packaging, so you can stay safe while you are still in the relationship, although they often will stress the importance of condoms, because STI’s and HIV are closely linked with abusive relationships. They can also connect you to your local anti-DV shelter or organization for more help, like help leaving the relationship safely or shelter if you need it.

When it comes to reproductive coercion, what’s most important is recognizing the signs, and acknowledging the seriousness of the situation. A broken condom, or some pressure to let your partner not pull out may not seem as bad or as serious as physical abuse, but they are indicators of larger and dangerous problems. And becoming pregnant or being forced to remain pregnant when that isn't something you want or are ready for is a big deal. Pregnancy and parenting are significant decisions that should be made with the upmost autonomy, not under duress or pressure of any kind from another person. 

Decisions about your reproductive health, including everything from what kind of contraception you use, to when and if you choose to get or stay pregnant, are and should be yours, and yours alone. No one has the right to force themselves into them.

So, if you notice your partner is making you uncomfortable about your birth control choices, or condoms are breaking or removed during sex, or your partner is threatening or coercing your decisions to get pregnant or terminate a pregnancy in anyway, seek help. In the United States, Planned Parenthood is a great place to start. They have great resources, and are always a trusted source of confidential support and guidance. If you don't have access to a Planned Parenthood (or, elsewhere in the world, something like a Brook, Marie Stopes or other local sexual healthcare provider), but need access to confidential reproductive healthcare, you can consult with your general physician and ask for a referral if needed. The National Abortion Federation has a list of abortion clinics and providers in the U.S.. and abroad here.

As with other kinds of abuse, ideally, you should get and stay away from anyone engaging in this abuse as soon as you can. For information on how to leave a relationship -- whether you live with someone or not -- that includes any kind of abuse safely, click here: The Scarleteen Safety Plan.

*These and other portions that read "women" or "men" or "girls" and "boys" are classifications from the studies or reports used for reference. 

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