Reproductive Coercion: A Widespread Form of Domestic Violence Supported by Anti-Choice Legislation

As Martha Kempner recently reported here at RH Reality Check, Roman Polanski—admitted rapist and all-around creep—doesn’t like it when women can control their own fertility. “I think that the Pill has changed greatly the woman of our times, ‘masculinizing’ her,” he said, firmly characterizing the ability to control your own body as a male-only privilege. “I think that it chases away the romance from our lives and that’s a great pity.” Polanski, who pled guilty to plying a 13-year-old with alcohol in order to make it easier to forcibly penetrate her, thinks that the way to preserve “romance” is to keep women in a state of fear of pregnancy at male whims.

Sadly, as research is beginning to bear out, this violent man’s negative attitudes toward female reproductive autonomy are not merely the eccentricities of an aging misogynist. A lot of men, it turns out, get off on having power over women’s bodies, and are willing to bully, coerce, and even trick women into pregnancy to get that feeling of power over them. It’s called “reproductive coercion,” and it’s way more common that was previously thought, as Kat Stoeffel reports for The Cut.

Stoeffel references a recent study by Dr. Lindsay Clark of the Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, where 641 women who received routine care were asked if they had been threatened or bullied by their partners into getting pregnant or had even had their partners mess with their contraception, by hiding pills or poking holes in condoms. A shocking 16 percent had experienced such abuse, a number which reflects other, still preliminary studies that show a widespread problem of men trying to force pregnancy on unwilling partners. The problem is both so common and so hidden that the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists is recommending that doctors screen for reproductive coercion in addition to more traditional screening for domestic violence.

Why do men who engage in reproductive coercion do such a thing? Don’t they know that if they successfully force their partners to give birth, they too will be responsible for the baby that results? The behavior is definitely not rational if the goal is a harmonious, happy sex and family life. But domestic abusers don’t want a harmonious, happy life. On the contrary, most of them are perfectly happy, often downright eager, to sacrifice happiness and peace in order to get the buzz of feeling powerful and in control, specifically in control of their female partners. Being so in control that you control her body functions is the ultimate form of control.

In fact, this need to feel in control is so overwhelming for some abusive men that they will actually force women to get pregnant and then try to force them to abort. In a 2010 piece for The Nation on reproductive coercion, Lynn Harris told the story of a young woman in an abusive relationship whose boyfriend-captor would hide her birth control pills. When she inevitably got pregnant, he tried to beat her into submitting to an abortion. When she refused, he kicked her in the stomach and even pushed her down the stairs in an attempt to induce a miscarriage. Despite the abuse, the woman remained pregnant, and she eventually escaped the relationship with her young son.

In most cases, however, the abuser sees forced childbirth as a way to tie his victim to him, making it harder for her to leave and giving him that desperately desired control. As Harris wrote in another piece summarizing the “red flags” of reproductive control, one thing to look out for is men who talk about making babies as a way for women to “prove” their love, claim contraception is only used by cheaters, or see conceiving as a demonstration of their power and virility. These are abusive men who are more interesting in forcing people into relationships with them than they are in being good, loving partners.

Then there’s the most common kind of reproductive coercion: Guys who slip off condoms or refuse to wear them simply because they get a thrill out of getting one over on their partner. It’s a sort of sexual assault lite, where he can get the buzz off dominating his partner sexually without her consent without running the risk of getting the police involved.

We tend to think of anti-choice antics as a separate issue from violence against women, except when anti-choice politicians slip up on occasion and say something that minimizes rape. Considering this small but growing body of research, we really should take a harder look at the connections between abuse of women and reproductive control. The abuser who hides the birth control pills, the sleaze who slips off the condom, the anti-choice protester yelling invective at women seeking abortions, and the politician writing laws to make it harder to get contraception and abortion are all pieces of the same puzzle. All of them want to take away a woman’s basic right to self-determination, and all of them do it because they subscribe to an ideology that paints men as the natural dominators and even owners of women.

Indeed, looking over the extensive use of reproductive coercion by abusive men, it’s hard to deny that the best friend of a woman-beater is the anti-choice politician. Slip off the condom during sex to force her to get pregnant? Thanks to anti-choice lobbying, she’s going to have a hard time getting emergency contraception to thwart your plans. Keep hiding her birth control pills so that she has to go explain to her doctor why she needs more? Luckily for abusers, anti-choicers are shutting down Planned Parenthood clinics, making it both more expensive and more time-consuming for women to get that done. Successfully impregnate a woman you’re trying to trap with a baby? Thanks to anti-choicers, she may not be able to afford to travel across ten counties to the nearest clinic to get an abortion and get away from you.

Indeed, if we want to help women get out of abusive relationships, it’s increasingly becoming clear that one of the most important steps we can take is reversing the tide of anti-choice legislation.

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  • Amanda Kazarian

    The “I don’t like condoms” argument really isn’t a valid one, even if a guy is being sincere about it. Women should be aware that there are hundreds of kinds of condoms on the market and her partner has no excuse. He just has to buy a few boxes and find the kind that works for him.

    • Amanda Marcotte

      Of course, it’s not really about the condoms, but about getting off on having the power to make her have sex she’s not comfortable with.

      • Ohone

        Why didn’t you mention that men are more likely to be targeted with reproductive abuse and that the consequences are more serious for them in countries with choices for women?

        Why is it every time I read you, you are making false accusations of one sort or another?

        • finleighjane

          Ohone… reproductive abuse is defined here as purposely and coercively making a woman pregnant and then, either forcing her to endure an unwanted pregnancy or forcing her to terminate a child she wishes to keep. It is biologically impossible for men to get pregnant, and so this concept can never apply to them. If you honestly read the whole article and failed to comprehend this, that’s the result if your inability to understand the information presented to you. It doesn’t equate to the author making “false accusations.” If you’re seeking information validating the plight of men who remain trapped in relationships because their female partner tricked/manipulated/coerced them into fatherhood, I’m sure there is a plethora of information on the subject, but for you to read this article and, instead of recognizing it as a troubling sign of a much larger epidemic of abuses perpetrated against women, choose to see it as an unfair attack on male privilege, then you’re part of the problem.

          • Nancy Lebovitz

            I’ve talked with a female reproductive abuser– she wanted a child, her husband didn’t. She got him drunk during the Superbowl, which is why they had unprotected sex. She told this as a funny story because her son was a sports fan.

            I asked her what her husband thought about this. I suspect the question hadn’t previously crossed her mind, because she looked sad and said it might have had something to do with the divorce.

            I have no idea how common that sort of thing is– the social pressure against it is less than social pressure against reproductive coercion by men.

            In any case, consent needs to be taken seriously for both men and women– and being coerced is much more physically risky for women.

    • Jeff Schmidt

      That sounds like a great excuse – “we need to have lots of sex so I can try out ALL THESE DIFFERENT KINDS of condoms till we find the one we like”. ;-)

      Or, maybe a good carrot a woman can hold out to her partner – well, we need to get busy trying these out to find one you like.

  • Melooley

    The line that really sticks in my craw is, “It’s a sort of sexual assault lite.” I wish there were some way that it could be considered–and punished–as the real, live sexual assault that it is. If a woman came forth with the claim, “I consented to make out, but he forced me to have intercourse,” we’d have no problem calling that rape. What makes, “I consented to protected sex, but he forced me into unprotected sex,” any different?

    Once again: “It’s a sort of sexual assault lite.” If a conservative politician called anything “assault lite,” we’d be losing our s—.

    • Amanda Marcotte

      It’s not legally sexual assault, but agreed, it should be illegal all the same.

      • Melooley

        On the one hand, I wish I knew more about the different legal categories of assault/rape/penetration-without-consent/etc so that I could competently argue about what this sort of thing could be prosecuted as… but on the other hand, I don’t have the stomach right now to research rape/sexual assault laws.

        That said, I hope I didn’t come across as too harsh on ya’. I enjoyed this article–hate the need for it, but love the coverage and the writing. Thanks, too, for all the links–my more conservative acquaintances might not bother reading an article from RHRealityCheck, but it’s hard to argue with an ACOG statement.

      • John H

        How isn’t it legally sexual assault? If I consent to sex with condom-use being a condition of my consent, removing the condom invalidates the consent, making the otherwise-consensual sex assault/rape. Granted, it would probably be difficult to prove beyond ‘reasonable doubt’ that the condom was removed intentionally and didn’t fall off (the court would wind up with the same competing eyewitness testimony from the only people present as with many rape/assault cases and probably no corroborating physical trauma, but hey, maybe juries are finally starting to believe victims/survivors over rapists?), but in theory, shouldn’t this legally qualify as assault? Is this explicitly excluded from any sex crime statutes, or is it simply a matter of DAs being unwilling to try cases they are unlikely to win?

      • cjvg

        Maybe not in the US it is most definitely considered a sexual assault the the northern European countries.

        In fact it was one of the crimes Assange was charged with. the woman consented to sex with a condom and he removed it and had sex with her anyway.

        Apparently in civilized countries that is considered a prosecutable rape/ sexual assault since it exposes her to venereal disease and or pregnancy while she explicitly did not consent to said exposure!

        In Sweden, withdrawal of consent is grounds for a rape charge.
        If you consent to having sex with someone and part of the way through you say to stop and the person you’re having sex with continues to have sex with you against your wishes, that’s rape.
        This may not sound familiar to Americans, since most of the United States has regressive rape laws, and those who do have a similar law on the books virtually never invoke or enforce them.

        Most states have requirement of force laws in order to prove or prosecute rape only, rather than lack of consent.
        Ironically enough, in the US consent is more often used as a defense to a rape charge, then the other way around.
        In the US it is hard to convict someone of rape , and it is virtually impossible to convict someone of rape based solely on non-consent.

        Some states, like New York, have rape laws on the books which include “no means no” provisions for intercourse — basically, if a reasonable person would have understood that the sex was not consensual, then that’s rape.
        It seems obvious enough, but those laws are hardly, if ever used.
        In many states this is not even on the books, in states were they do exist, they are hardly ever enforced, or used to prosecute.

        Withdrawal of consent apparently is an extremely difficult concept when it involves women, it seems to work fine in business deals.
        It’s an obvious enough concept for those who believe in equality and human rights for all or those thinkers who have spent more than 10 minutes considering the realities of sex and sexual assault.
        “If you consent to sex but then at some point during sex (because he or she violates one of the reasons you consented in the first place, like condom use) withdraw that consent by telling your partner to stop, your partner should stop!
        If your partner doesn’t stop then that’s assault.!

        • Arekushieru

          Agreed! I think it should be as simple as this, YES means YES, NO means NO.

    • Jeff Schmidt

      Quick question – I am NOT defending this sort of behavior – it’s brutish and immoral. But, I have a question about one of the scenarios presented – “hiding birth control pills”. Without full blown rape, how does that become reproductive coercion? Wouldn’t a woman who couldn’t find and take her birth control, just tell her boyfriend, “Sorry, couldn’t find my birth control. No sex for a few weeks until I can get back to an infertile state”.

      Seems like no sex for a few weeks would dissuade most guys from hiding the pills lol.

      • Maks10

        My experience as a medical student who spent a lot of time in women’s clinics is that the hiding of pills is often accompanied by other sorts of coercion, like getting her drunk, or not being able to come up with promised money (for food, rent, etc) until she has sex with him, or threats to leave (this what I saw the most of). The idea of withholding has too many risks to be seriously considered by the women I spoke with, especially if there was another child involved who needed the (however meager) finances the male partner brought to the relationship. I don’t know how widespread this is, but it has been what I have seen with patient after patient.

      • appleblossom

        So he beats her up and rapes her.

        What part of ‘abusive relationship’ did you not notice?

        • Jeff Schmidt

          But then that IS rape. If that’s the situation, then it’s clearly not sexual assault lite, and it CAN be prosecuted as sexual assault/rape, if a guy beats up a woman to force her into sex.

          I’m saying, the hiding of birth control pills, while a dickish thing to do, is not an and of itself, sexual assault or rape, though it may be *accompanied* by that, in some cases.

          Yes, I noticed the “abusive relationship” part – but I don’t see how that does NOT fall fully into the rape category in those circumstances – not because of the hiding of pills, but because of the beating someone up until they have sex with you.

          • Rachel

            Because in an abusive relationship he doesn’t even have to physically assualt her, the simple unspoken threat of assault is enough to force the woman to “consent” to sex because she knows what will happen if she doesnt

          • GraceAlexander

            Let’s change it from “hiding her BC” to “replacing her BC with fake pills” which has happened in the past and isn’t hard to do. So she’s taking her pills, or so she thinks. This is akin to his poking holes in the condom.

            Any sex that is not fully consensual is rape. Sneaking off the condom mid act, poking holes in it, jamming the penis into the anus when anal sex was not agreed to, etc – it’s all abusive. But women will be blamed because “they agreed to sex”.

          • Jeff Schmidt

            That, I’ll fully agree with. The rest I *mostly* agree with, but just a little confused on the terminology being used. But, someone replacing birth control, or otherwise tampering with contraceptives is an utterly immoral thing to do, and should rightly be viewed as a form of rape.

      • Elisa

        This is not a discussion for loving male partners, or boyfriends for that matter. But of men that are willing to kick a girls stomach to make her have an abortion. The one who will menace her to kill her children if she dares to leave him. Normal men, even if they hide the birth pills, wouldnt kick a girl anywere, even less so if she is pregnant with their child.
        Normal men do not need to feel bad for this discussion, as it is a discussion about monsters. Men able to hurt, kidnap, control and coerce another human being into staying with them in any form of relationship.A sweet boyfriend that hides the pills cause he wants to have children with you are not discussed here.
        In the midst of a sex act, both partners can have second thoughts and its normal. The anormality here is someone that keeps on with it, even though the partner has already said no, stop. Of course its a bummer, bur regular men and woman are empathethic about the other person needs or wants during sex, as the fun is have the other person feel pleasure…
        So, dont worry, its not a discussion for the regular Joe, but for Kentucky murderor type of guy…

  • canaduck

    Utterly revolting and yet I think we almost never hear about it.

  • Nancy Richard Colburn

    Great article.

  • bathing suit area

    Surely Polanski has got to just be trolling by now?

  • Courtney Burton

    that’s why If you can’t physically have a child (men) you really have no say in what a women chooses to do with HER body. We just all need to butt out of each others lives, let people do what they need or want, and get on with our own lives. Instead of trying to feel important by controlling other peoples bodies, choices, or beliefs. It’s disgusting what this world is coming to

    • Vanai

      I disagree viscerally and endlessly with this premise; I don’t want John Boehner making my medical choices and I don’t want Sarah Palin making them, either. Having the ability to have a child has nothing to do with the right of taking away my right to bodily autonomy.

  • disqus_tPVTZDmN37

    A 16% incidence is high enough that I’m inclined to wonder how human society will be different once we have had several generations of ‘every child being planned and wanted’.

  • ChloeW7

    I am a victim of this. I’m 22 years old and when I began dating my current BF he seemed equally trustworthy. After a period of time more and more red flags popped up in our relationship and he managed to mentally gain control over me. I’ve slowly diminished and lost sight of myself. I feel dependent on him and scared for my safety. I should also add that I am 99% sure he’s a sociopath. He’s not physically abusive but he is a serial cheater, compulsive liar, manipulative and has no sense of remorse or guilt. I recently discovered all this and am currently living with him. I’m scared and trying to secretly save money to get away from him unknowingly. He purposefully impregnated me a month ago after I discovered another of his “girlfriends” and foolishly confronted him about it. I left and stayed with a friend for a while and when I returned to get my stuff he pressured me into intercourse and impregnated me. I had an abortion this morning and just came across your article. I had already known deep down that he did this purposefully and the pain I have endured today and for the past year with this man is inexcusable. I am so angry that I was naive enough to fall victim to this and jeopardize my body and mind. It is also sickening that while I am sure that I have been victimized I have to endure this silently because I can’t risk provoking this man and further dang wrong myself.
    I so hope other girls will begin to take extra caution and educate themselves on the abuse in a abusive or sociopathic relationship.

    • finleighjane

      Holy S—, girl, I’m sorry has hell that you’re in that situation and I sincerely hope that you’re able to get out of there. Would your friend, who you stayed with before, let you come stay with her again? If you continue to stay with him while you squirrel away money, that gives him more time and opportunity to find other ways to hurt you. And just because he hasn’t hit you yet doesn’t mean he won’t start. Are there any shelters or government sponsored programs in your area that you can turn to for help? I hope that you, and not just “other girls,” will exercise caution in the future so you don’t have to live your life in fear.

  • Meredith

    I find this article incredibly offensive.

    I am a single woman who has been the victim of an abusive relationship in the past — and who also fights to protect human rights of all (including the unborn). I am proud of my strength and my autonomy, my ability to control my life and my decisions. I have experienced firsthand the harms that a controlling and manipulative partner can cause, and I have since helped and encouraged other women to leave similar bad relationships.

    I don’t understand how can you truly think that by wanting to protect the lives of the unborn, I am somehow anti-woman, that I want to “take away a woman’s basic right to self-determination”? This article says of those who support pro-life legislation that “all of them do it because they subscribe to an ideology that paints men as the natural dominators and even owners of women.” Does the author of this article truly believe that statement? If so, I would encourage her to have some honest conversations with people that don’t share her ideology.

    There are many reasons a person may be opposed to abortion. Some are for religious reasons, and many are not. Most pro-lifers simply recognize the basic scientific principle that life begins at fertilization, and we don’t think that there should be a class of human beings that are not recognized as “persons.” It is incredibly offensive and, well, ignorant for someone to suggest that a group of people saying “Let’s not kill other humans” somehow REALLY means “I hate women and hope to see them dominated / subjugated by men.”

    As a woman who actively fights to strengthen and empower other women, particularly those who have been abused, and yet doesn’t want to kill other humans in the process, I find this article offensive, and I hope you will reconsider these ideas.

    • emw12

      Yet, it’s none of your business what another woman does with her body.

    • Rachel Jonitis

      Because the woman that is pregnant is a person too and no one should be telling her what to do with her body. Honestly, YOUR response is pretty offensive because it insinuates that the fetus is more important that the life of the woman carrying it, and while I personally don’t agree with abortion, I feel that the corrupt government that sells out its citizens every single day for a buck isn’t in this abortion argument to “save lives” because if they did they would take a tougher stance on domestic/child abuse and rape, they would allow abortions to save the life of the woman and for rape victims, and they wouldn’t be forcing women to carry stillborns to term and making medical decisions that should only be made by doctors and the pregnant woman. We should work harder to save the lives that already exist and are struggling in our country, rather than forcing women to bring more lives into the world that are going to kill a woman or be born into an unloving environment. Part of actively fighting to strengthen and empower other women is giving them the rights to their own bodies, because if they can take away our rights to our bodies, what else will they take away from us?

  • Nicole

    WHY is this man out of prison if he pled guilty to RAPING a 13 year young girl?

    • flan59

      You must not know who Roman Polanski is…he fled to Europe to get away from trial. If he sets foot in the US, he is arrested for rape.

      • Nicole

        no, with 8 billion people on the planet, it can get a bit tricky to keep up, lol. but that’s nuts. i’m going to have to do some research on him later tonight and find out what power he may have in the U.S. (if any) i’m curious, but not enough at the moment.

  • Elle Croatt

    And then not only make it difficult or impossible for women to get contraception and abortions, but cut programs, like WIC, food stamps, medicaid, etc., so that the women have an extremely difficult time supporting the children that are the result of the coerced pregnancies if they actually do get away from their abuser!

  • Sica Bishop

    Firstly, let me say that I understand that reproductive coercion is a reality. *However*, I think this is a sadly blanketed article that takes the focus off of the real issue and places it on a political agenda.

    Secondly, I want to address the fact that there are WOMEN who do this, too. Have been for decades. Women who say they are taking birth control etc and then use men to get pregnant. Reproductive coercion is a crime, but against males as well as females.

  • cozmiccowgirl

    No mention was made of Depo-provera shots. In a case like this, a woman can get the 6-month (I think that’s how long it lasts) shot. The jerk will never know…