power control coercion

From “Broken” Condoms to Pill Tampering: The Realities of Reproductive Coercion

In season one of “Desperate Housewives,” the couple Carlos and Gaby can’t agree on whether or not they should have a baby. Carlos, anxious to start a family, replaces Gaby’s birth control with sugar pills, which leads to her getting pregnant. Five seasons (and some children) later, Carlos has again tricked Gabby, and confesses that he didn’t actually have a vasectomy as he’d told her he had.

While there are a lot of outlandish storylines in the show, this one isn’t far from reality for some couples. Unfortunately, these scenarios don’t just happen onscreen, and there’s a name for them: reproductive coercion. Both men and women can coerce their partners, as seen in Carlos and Gaby’s relationship, into being at risk to have — or actually having — a baby.

Reproductive coercion is a form of power and control where one partner strips the other of the ability to control their own reproductive system. It is sometimes difficult to identify this coercion because other forms of abuse are often occurring simultaneously.

Reproductive coercion can be exerted in many ways:

  • Refusing to use a condom or other type of birth control
  • Breaking or removing a condom during intercourse
  • Lying about their methods of birth control (ex. lying about having a vasectomy, lying about being on the pill)
  • Refusing to “pull out” if that is the agreed upon method of birth control
  • Forcing their partner to not use any birth control (ex. the pill, condom, shot, ring, etc.)
  • Removing birth control methods (ex. rings, IUDs, contraceptive patches)
  • Sabotaging birth control methods (ex. poking holes in condoms, tampering with pills or flushing them down the toilet)
  • Withholding finances needed to purchase birth control
  • Monitoring their partner’s menstrual cycles
  • Purposefully trying to pass on a sexually transmitted disease
  • Forcing pregnancy and/or not supporting their partner’s decision about when or if they want to have a child
  • Forcing their partner to get an abortion, or preventing them from getting one
  • Threatening their partner or acting violent if they don’t comply with their wishes to either end or continue a pregnancy
  • Continually keeping their partner pregnant (getting them pregnant again shortly after they give birth)

If an abuser forces their partner to become pregnant, this is not necessarily about the outcome of the pregnancy but rather about the control and power an abuser holds over their partner and their partner’s body.

Reproductive coercion can also come in the form of pressure, guilt and shame from an abuser. Some examples are if your abuser is constantly talking about having children or making you feel guilty for not having or wanting children with them — especially if you already have kids with someone else.

In 2011 The Hotline conducted the first national survey to learn the extent of reproductive coercion. The findings were shocking. Over 3,000 callers participated in the survey and 25% reported that they had experienced this type of abuse.

Safety Plan With an Advocate and Your Gynecologist or Doctor

If you call The Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE, an advocate can help you develop strategies to address your situation. A gynecologist or health care provider can also be a useful resource, especially in helping you conceal contraceptive methods if this is an issue. Doctors can give birth control pills in plain envelopes for example, or provide less detectable forms of contraceptive. Some of these options include a shot, an implant or an IUD with the strings trimmed.

If you have a positive STI test result and are afraid of how your partner will react, you can speak with your doctor about anonymous partner notification services.

Further Resources

Know More Say More: Futures Without Violence’s awareness campaign around reproductive coercion and domestic violence

50 obstacles to leaving

50 Obstacles to Leaving: 41-50

Still with us? Today is our final day of demonstrating just how many roadblocks can stand in the way between abuse and freedom for a victim. A victim is never to blame for abuse. While these barriers to a violence-free life can seem insurmountable at times, know that advocates on the hotline are available to talk and brainstorm strategies with you 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE(7233).

41. Rural Victims: Victims may be isolated and simply unable to access services due to lack of transportation, or the needed programs are distant and unable to provide outreach.

42. Safer to Stay: Assessing that it is safer to stay may be accurate when the victim can keep an eye on the batterer, sensing when the batterer is about to become violent and, to the extent possible, taking action to protect themselves and their children.

43. Students: Students in high school or college may fear that untrained administrators will deny their requests for help. If the perpetrator is also a student, the victim often does not want them to be expelled from school.

44. Shame and Embarrassment: The victim doesn’t want to disclose the abuse or may deny that any problem exists.

45. Stockholm Syndrome: The victim may experience this syndrome and bond with the abuser.

46. Substance Abuse or Alcohol: Either the victim or offender’s substance abuse may inhibit seeking help, often for fear that the children will be removed.

47. Teens: Teens are at greater risk for abuse in their relationships than any other age group. Peer pressure, immaturity, no knowledge of resources, and low self-esteem all factor into the decision to stay.

48. Transportation: A lack of transportation condemns victims to a choice between welfare and returning to their abusers.

49. Unaware that Abuse is a Criminal Offense: This can occur often if family, friends and community professionals minimize the crimes.

50. Undocumented Victims: Victims facing complex immigration problems if they leave are often forced to stay with the batterers who may control their INS status.

Every person’s situation is unique, and you may be unable to leave a situation for a complex combination of different reasons. If you’re contemplating leaving an abusive relationship or struggling in one that you cannot leave, consider calling NDVH to speak confidentially with an advocate, and take a look at our resources on leaving safely.

*Sarah M. Buel is Clinical Professor, University of Texas School of Law (UTSL). She was founder and co-director, UTSL Domestic Violence Clinic; co-founder and consultant, National Training Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence; and a former domestic violence, child abuse, and juvenile prosecutor and advocate. She graduated cum laude from Harvard Extension School and Harvard Law School.