Reproductive Control in Teen Relationships

Lisa Schulter

Studies have shown teen pregnancy to be strongly linked to intimate partner violence. But attempts to control don't stop there. A recent UC-Davis study finds that abusive teen boys may actively try to get their partners pregnant.

Sadly, intimate partner violence (IPV) is nothing new. "Throughout Euro-American history, wife beating enjoyed legal status as an accepted institution in western society,” psychotherapist Susan Weitzman writes in “Not to People Like Us”: Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages. I'm fairly certain that many of the men who set the course of history also perpetrated violence against the women who shared their beds.

IPV among teens is nothing new, either. In 1994, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the rate of adolescents experiencing physical and psychological abuse while dating was estimated at 12%; in 1995, it had risen to 20%.

What is newsworthy about violence among partners is that it's still a widely pervasive issue – and new evidence suggests the daisies are still far from blooming. The facts dealing with teens just seem to get more and more disturbing.

Past studies have shown teen pregnancy to be strongly linked to IPV. Particularly, young women in abusive relationships are less likely to bring up condom use – or negotiate sexual preferences at all, for that matter. Their state of fear leaves them with no voice. Consequently, the abusive party is the one calling the shots – determining when sex happens, how it will happen, whether they feel like using protection, and so on. But the attempts to control don't stop there.

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Dr. Elizabeth Miller at the University of California-Davis recently led a study examining adolescent partner violence, and ways in which the male abusers actively try to get their female partners pregnant. Miller and her research colleagues documented behavior ranging from poking holes in condoms to flushing oral contraceptives down the toilet.

Being 25, I've never met any guy my age or younger who's had the "baby fever." But what may at first blush sound like an innocent yearning for children on the part of these young men is in fact a twisted web of control over their female partner. What better way to personally control and manipulate a woman's sense of self and well being than through toying with her reproductive health?

Miller and her team interviewed an ethnically diverse group of girls between the ages of 15 and 20, all from low-income neighborhoods within a major metropolitan area. About a third of the survey participants reported becoming pregnant within an abusive relationship; more than half of those respondents said the pregnancies were unwanted. About a quarter of all participants said they thought their partners were attempting to get them pregnant, and reported statements from their male partners such as, "I want a baby" and "We'd make beautiful babies together." Some young women also said their abusive partners would even become angry if condom use was suggested.

Miller hopes the survey findings can serve as an educational tool for professionals dealing with teens, and that pregnancy prevention and HIV prevention programs will include IPV in the discussion. She says we need to recognize that reproductive health choices do not take place in a vacuum. The dynamics of an intimate relationship greatly affect a young woman's decision-making regarding her reproductive health.

"We can't simply tell young people to use condoms and know their birth control options," says Miller. "As public health professionals, care providers, and educators, we are responsible for talking to young people about the multiple ways in which abusive relationships manifest themselves – and to know where they can go to seek support and resources to help them navigate these relationships safely."

Reproductive control exercised by politicians is infuriating, but also significantly different from the reproductive control women experience from sexual partners. These are men women are intimately involved with, individuals they trust, people they expect have their well-being and best interests in mind. When control comes from a figure who holds such a personal role in a woman's life – or anyone's life, for that matter – the effects can be all the more confusing and devastating.

Feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye breaks down the idea of coercion in her collection of essays, The Politics of Reality. She says the heart of coercion is

to arrange things so that of the options available, the one that was the least unattractive or the most attractive was the very act you wanted the victim to perform. The elements of coercion lie not in her person, mind or body, but in the manipulation of the circumstances and manipulation of the options.

Frye’s philosophy is still applicable today. What makes an abusive/controlling relationship so disturbing is that the victim will probably not recognize that she’s in an unhealthy situation simply because she’s actively “choosing” her path. For instance, she “chooses” not to end the relationship. She “chooses” not to say no when he wants to have condom-less sex. She “chooses” not to argue when he demand she doesn’t use birth control. It may feel like she’s choosing, but if keeping quiet about her sexual health is the best option available in that abusive situation, how many options does she really have?

We would be doing a disservice to young women by not addressing issues of partner violence along with reproductive health education. As Miller's study shows, the two are unfortunately linked – and a full, comprehensive understanding of sexual health would be incomplete without also addressing the relationship contexts that can influence it all.

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