Monday, October 27, 2008

Young Women and Sexual Coercion: Reproductive Health Realities

by Esta Soler

Nearly every time a candidate, presidential or otherwise, discusses reproductive health in this year's election the conversation turns to prevention. Each has his or her specific ideas about what prevention means. Unfortunately, this conversation has been woefully incomplete.

There is an important contributor to unintended pregnancy, especially among young people, that is rarely mentioned on the campaign trail or even among advocates -- namely, the strong link between unintended pregnancies and dating violence or coercion.

We've all heard the stereotypes and assumptions--"she's pregnant because she was too irresponsible to use birth control" or "she got HIV because she sleeps around." But emerging data is shining a light on a very different story: an astonishing number of young women, while dating or in relationships, are raped or coerced into sex, prevented from using protection, or forced into choices that are not their own.

The correlation between abuse and pregnancy is complex - and overdue for further research and public discussion. Consider the following facts:

Rates of sexual coercion are high. New research conducted for the Family Violence Prevention Fund finds that nearly 1 in 5 women age 18 to 24 report having experienced forced sexual intercourse at least once in their lives. The most common types of force are verbal or physical pressure, and being physically held down. More than half the women forced to have sexual intercourse report experiencing each of these types of force. Approximately a quarter of the women report being physically hurt.

Abused women are more likely to have an unintended pregnancy. Forty percent of pregnant women who have been exposed to abuse report that their pregnancy was unintended, compared to just eight percent of non-abused women. As many as two-thirds of adolescents who become pregnant were sexually or physically abused some time in their lives.

Pregnant women are more at risk for abuse. Homicide is the second leading cause of death for pregnant and recently pregnant women.

The Family Violence Prevention Fund's new kNOw MORE initiative is designed to start a dialogue about the birth control sabotage and reproductive coercion that many teens and young women face, and help draw the link to the resulting reproductive health problems. We are creating a space for women to share stories, and raising awareness among those who may be at risk as well as their friends, policy makers and others.

Abuse often takes the form of birth control sabotage or other reproductive control.

The kNOw MORE initiative shines a spotlight on the prevalence of coercion and the ways it affects reproductive health. The stories on our site shed light on how this plays out.

One woman, Kylie, who shared her story, wrote, "when I first met my ex, he never wanted to use condoms. He did want me to use the ‘morning-after pill,' I'll admit. I was quite young and didn't know how to stand up for myself, so I became pregnant after coerced sex. For the next four years, I stayed with my ex for the sake of the baby, suffering the most horrific kinds of abuse--physical and emotional. His "reason" for abusing me? Because I 'trapped' him through pregnancy. Although the only thing I'd been doing since the pregnancy was begging him to let me leave, he threatened to kill me, the baby, and my entire family if I ever attempted it."

Too often, victims of reproductive coercion are stigmatized and labeled. They hide their stories because they feel judged and shamed.

The bottom line is that unintended pregnancies are not simply a matter of promiscuous young women who do not use birth control. A pregnancy may be the result of a controlling partner who has engaged in birth control sabotage or coerced sexual intercourse. Anyone who is serious about turning back the tide of unintended pregnancies in this country must also understand the profound connections between violence, coercion and the reproductive health consequences - which include pregnancy, STD's and HIV and emotional trauma - for women.
We can, we must, take action. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month, and this year it also coincides with the 2008 elections - a time when we gather as a nation to discuss important issues. The time has come for a meaningful dialogue about how we are going to commit to stopping sexual coercion and the unintended pregnancies that can result. A generation of young women is counting on us.

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