Dating abuse and sexual assault can have many negative impacts on the victim, including unintended pregnancy. May is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, providing an opportunity to reflect on a specific type of dating abuse known as reproductive coercion.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists defines reproductive coercion as “behavior intended to maintain power and control in a relationship…that includes explicit attempts to impregnate a partner against her will, control outcomes of a pregnancy, coerce a partner to have unprotected sex, and interfere with contraceptive methods.” Pregnancy coercion and birth control sabotage are especially prevalent issues for teenagers, observed in couples of all socioeconomic situations and education levels. A survey of 10th and 11th graders revealed that over half of girls and 13.1% of boys had experienced sexual coercion.
Adolescents are at a stage in development where they struggle with abstract thinking and are still learning to be responsible, empathetic adults. Concepts like pregnancy and parenthood – and the very concrete challenges and sacrifices that these realities demand – may not be fully understood. Teen boys engage in reproductive coercion as a method of establishing power and control over their partners, increasing their senses of masculinity and overcoming the insecurities that accompany puberty. Teenage girls can fall victim to reproductive coercion as they too fail to think in the long-term, disregard abusive behavior because they feel pressured to date and misinterpret this behavior for love and affection.
Not surprisingly, reproductive coercion is directly associated with an increased risk of unintended pregnancy. The risk actually doubles among females who reported both reproductive coercion and intimate partner violence (IPV). Although reproductive coercion does not always indicate IPV, the two are often linked, and reproductive coercion among teens is predicted to be a pre-cursor to sexual or physical violence.
The good news is that teen pregnancy has declined by 42% since 1990, largely as a result of improved sexuality education. Comprehensive sex education should be combined with healthy relationship education, putting sexual decision making in the context of healthy relationships – particularly because most young people who engage in sexual behavior do so with an exclusive boyfriend or girlfriend. Much like teen pregnancy, reproductive coercion can be significantly decreased through education, helping young people understand what behaviors are healthy and unhealthy not just in relation to sexuality, but in the context of dating relationships.
Comprehensive sex education should include medically accurate information regarding human anatomy and STD/STIs and promote delaying sexual intercourse, increasing condom and contraceptive use, reducing the number of partners and decreasing the number of times students have unprotected sex. It should also include discussions about dating abuse, intimate partner violence and reproductive coercion. For teens, rules that forbid behavior (i.e., “do nots”, “should nots” and “cannots”) are just invitations for rebellion; messaging should be positive, engaging and empower young people to control their sexual futures. Positive messages inspire action. Teens should know their rights, the full picture regarding sex and that they have the power to build healthy relationships.
Education is the key to prevention of reproductive coercion, intimate partner violence and unintended pregnancy among teens. We have proof. Please promote positive comprehensive sex education. Advocate for its increased implementation. Support – not shame – our youth. Change is happening, and you can help.