What Is Reproductive Coercion And How Can You Tell It's Happening To You?

Some forms of abusive behavior (physical for example) can be easy to identify, however many other, far more insidious, forms of abuse within our relationships can be more difficult to recognize. This is especially true when it comes to our reproductive freedoms and bodily autonomy. Up to 1 in 5 women experience reproductive coercion. While intimate partner violence and sexual coercion are both extremely important and also relate to reproductive coercion, the current political climate specifically surrounding the stripping of women's reproductive rights makes it more important than ever to address reproductive coercion and how it might be affecting your life.

According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, reproductive coercion can include: tampering with a partner's birth control, removing or destroying contraception, and even controlling abortion decisions, like coercing someone into an abortion against their will. It is also important to emphasize that these controlling and abusive behaviors can come from not only your partner but from your friends or even family. This further complicates what reproductive coercion can actually look like in your life. Dr. Sarah Salkeld told Glamour Magazine that this coercion happens "subtly, over time, so people don't necessarily realise" that they're being manipulated. Many of the behaviors that make up reproductive coercion can seem small or unassuming at first; however, these small behaviors can be indicative of problematic relationship issues surrounding control that can escalate into far more sinister actions. So, how can you know if it's happening to you?

Your partner is controlling you

The three most common examples of reproductive coercion are contraceptive sabotage, pregnancy coercion, and pregnancy pressure. These can obviously take many different forms and come from many different kinds of relationships. Many might recognize stealthing (the act of removing a condom without a partner's permission or knowledge) as a form of reproductive coercion. Stealthing is absolutely an abusive behavior, but it is important to recognize that it serves as just one in a litany of behaviors that are centered on taking away a woman's power and control over her own body. 

The first sign that you might be personally dealing with reproductive coercion is if you don't feel a sense of control over your choices. Ask yourself if anyone in your life, other than you, is the one making the decisions about whether to use or not use contraceptives, or what kind of birth control to use. Dr. Salkeld also emphasized that "It might be that somebody is trying to isolate you from your friends or family. Or they're trying to tell you how you should do things, like what contraception you should be using." For instance, perhaps your partner insists on not using condoms and gets upset when you bring it up; perhaps he fails to pull out during intercourse as promised; or perhaps he regularly breaks the condoms he is wearing. 

If you feel, in any way, that the decisions surrounding your reproductive health and safety are not entirely your own, then that is a clear sign you might be dealing with reproductive coercion.

You're feeling pressured

Another sign you might be dealing with this kind of coercion is if you feel pressured to become pregnant, or, on the flip side, not be pregnant. Does your partner, friend, and/or family keep pressuring you to have a baby? Or perhaps you wind up pregnant and they insist on you having an abortion regardless of whether that is what you want. If you feel pressured surrounding the topic of pregnancy, then that is also a sign you might be dealing with this kind of coercion.

It is also important to remember that this can happen to women at any age. One-quarter of the participants aged 15 to 20 years old in one particular study reported abusive male partners that attempted to impregnate them against their will. It can be easy to discount the red flags in our relationships by making assumptions about who can be, or is, abused; however, just as we should not accept our legislators dictating our reproductive choices and rights to us, we should not accept our partners', friends', or family's attempts to control our bodies either. According to Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit dedicated to ending domestic and sexual violence, it is important to remember that you can not stop your partner, friend, or family's abuse but you can find help and support for yourself. 

So, if the answer to the question "Do I feel pressured?" is anything but an unequivocal no consider seeking out help.

What you can do about reproductive coercion

Knowing what reproductive coercion looks like is already a good start in your journey to stopping the cycle of abuse. Having the knowledge of what forms this abuse can take allows you to analyze and make informed decisions about the relationships in your life. Additionally, having an open and honest dialogue with the people in your life can be key to ensuring not only your well-being but also your bodily freedoms. Being upfront about your views on pregnancy, contraceptives, and abortion will ensure the people in your life know your wishes.

However, within abusive relationships, having those kinds of conversations can not only be difficult but can oftentimes be dangerous. If you find yourself in a situation where your safety is a concern, please know there are resources available to you. Having a frank and honest conversation with your OBGYN, licensed therapist, or any medical professional can help put local resources directly into your hands. Additionally, you can contact the National Domestic Violence hotline. Breaking free from abusive relationships can be incredibly difficult, but know that you are not alone, and that taking steps (even small ones) to ensure your own bodily autonomy is the bravest thing you can do. 

The Futures Without Violence website states an important reminder for anyone struggling with reproductive coercion, "Remember that you are the expert about your own life. Don't let anyone talk you into doing something that's not right for you."

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence in any form, please call, chat, or text the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Call 1 800 799 SAFE, Text "START" to 88788 or visit thehotline.org