Get Real: How do I make these erections stop!?!

Heather Corinna

Hopefully what I can do is help you to worry about it less and accept the way your body is right now more.

chris10 asks:

I’m 16, I get erections very easily. When I make out with girls I get them, or if I massage private areas not meaning her vagina. I notice when we’re done that I have ejaculated. I don’t even feel this happen. I don’t feel super excited it just happens! I try to think about different things but it doesn’t work! I hope you can help, thanks.

Heather Corinna replies:

I probably can’t help you keep erections or ejaculation from happening when you don’t want them to, since that’s just something largely, and often entirely, outside someone’s control. Hopefully what I can do is help you to worry about it less and accept the way your body is right now more.

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We hear from a lot of guys upset or freaked out about this. I certainly understand why and how it can be really upsetting. It’s a big deal to have your body announce to someone else that you’re physically stimulated or turned on, especially if happens at times where you’re not ready to share that with someone else, don’t want to share that information or feel physically or emotionally unsafe being exposed in that way. Some people can be total jerks about unexpected or inopportune erections. While that’s really a problem based in their own immaturity and insensitivity, not a problem of your body, knowing that often only helps so much if and when you and your penis are the butt of anyone’s jokes or their own discomfort with bodily functions. It’s even more rough for your body to react in such a way that announces a sexual interest to others you might not actually be feeling or wanting.

There are some built-in inequities many of us have to deal with when it comes to our bodies. Just like it’s an inequity for only people with a uterus to be the ones who can get pregnant or have periods, or only breastfeeding mothers who have to deal with breasts leaking in public, it’s also an inequity for people with penises to have to deal with what you are. Sure, it’s less of a big deal than having the ability to become pregnant when you don’t want to, but it’s still a big deal.

Both of these things really are typical, though, however unfair they can feel. What’s going on with your body that makes these things happen? Well, when you are turned on — even only a little — this is a typical way the body you’re in responds. During puberty, erection does tend to happen a lot, and ejaculation tends to happen easily and often quickly with little warning. Your brain and body can be very easily stimulated by sights, sounds, smells, being touched, the idea of being touched, or touching someone or something else. Sometimes those things are sexual, sometimes they’re sensual, and sometimes they either are or don’t seem like either (for instance, erections and/or ejaculation during sleep can happen just because of sheets brushing against your penis or other parts of the body).

It can often take very little sensory stimulation of any kind, or very little sexual thought, for the pistons in your brain and the nerves in your pelvis to fire and send signals that move blood to your genitals. That blood then moves into two bodies of tissue that run the length of the penis, the corpus cavernosum and the corpus spongiosum, causing an erection. Why does this happen more often to younger men? Younger men get a lot of what’s called “reflex erections,” meaning you might not be feeling sexual, or having sexual thoughts, but your body reacts to any given kind of stimulation as if you are or were, stimulation that can be as common as your jeans putting pressure on your penis, or a full bladder stimulating the nerves inside your pelvis. Those kinds of things send nerve signals that create an erection as a reflexive response. In Sexual Health for Men, Richard F. Spark calls reflex erections are “the genital equivalent of a knee jerk,” that reflex our legs have when a general physical taps our knee with that little rubber hammer.

Your testosterone levels before puberty are very low. When you enter puberty, they start surging, and usually before the time you’re twenty, they’ll get as high as they ever get (and stay that way for around 20 years before your levels of testosterone start to gradually decline). That has an awful lot to do with the awful lot of erections you’re getting as well as with ejaculating. And a lot of the time, you probably are having sexual thoughts, feelings and desires. The times this happens when you’re making out with girls, no matter where you’re touching them, is likely about sexual thoughts and feelings. If you didn’t have any of those, you probably wouldn’t want to make out with them at all, after all. Additionally, sometimes our bodies respond sexually when we’re almost the opposite of sexually aroused: when we’re feeling fearful or nervous, including feeling nervous about what our bodies might do in front of someone else that we feel is embarrassing.

With the ejaculation, your body just doesn’t have a lot of control right now over that, either. Sometimes that will happen without orgasm, sometimes right after or with one. Like erection, ejaculation is mostly about responses and signals from your brain and central nervous system. You can ejaculate without experiencing orgasm. For people with a penis, often ejaculation happens right after or with orgasm, but it can sometimes happen without it, too, especially when you’re young. You may well also be experiencing orgasms sometimes with this, just not orgasms that feel like much. For people of all genders, orgasm doesn’t always feel the same way, and if we reach orgasm really fast, especially if we haven’t been aroused for very long or had a lot of whole-body stimulation — or are totally distracted by something else, like what we’re doing to someone else or when we’re feeling a lot of anxiety — they can sometimes feel so weak or mild when they happen we may not know or care they happened at all.

As you get older, while erection can still happen on the fly, it’s much more likely to happen mostly when you’re sexually aroused and engaged, whereas now, while you’re describing times they happen when you probably are sexually aroused, they might also happen while you’re doing algebra homework. As you get older, how quickly and easily you ejaculate will also probably happen less often, less quickly, and be a bit more under your control if and when you want it to be.

What’s going on with your body really is okay, even if it doesn’t feel okay. It isn’t something you can often control, it is a signal that everything is working as it should downstairs, and it isn’t something you are doing to someone else. When you have these physical responses, it’s not like you’re pushing anyone you’re with into a sexual situation or activity, or having them engage in something they don’t want to be engaged in. Your body is just having its own responses, just like the body of anyone else you’re with may be having their own physical responses. So long as your pants are on, and/or your penis or ejaculate isn’t in direct contact with them, you’re not putting them at any risks of infections or pregnancy, either. So long as you’re not insisting anyone else do anything with or to your penis they don’t want to be doing, you’re all good on that score.

It might help to know that the girls you’re making out with may also be getting erections. You just won’t tend to be able to see them the way yours are visible unless you were looking at their genitals when they were naked, or feeling their genitals with a bare hand. The anatomy and physiology of the internal and external clitoris is a whole lot like the penis. These, too, fill with blood when someone feels sexually excited — sometimes even only a little — and also become erect. But because the external portions are much smaller than most penises, and the internal portion is inside the body, it’s nothing anyone can see easily or when someone is dressed. Vulvas and vaginas also usually self-lubricate (get wet) when a person is sexually excited, but again, that often isn’t something you can see. And no, it’s really not fair that one kind of body makes obvious announcements to others it’s owner may not want to be making while another can keep those same responses almost, if not entirely, secret unless that person wants someone else to know. On the other hand, it also can make it harder for girls or their sexual partners to know when they’re really sexually aroused and when they’re not, so it has its downsides.

If and when you are getting an erection or ejaculating around or near a girl you’re with, and wither she or you feel uncomfortable with that, you can talk it out. You can fill her in, in a very relaxed way, about how this is something penises do, often outside the control of the person whose body they’re part of, especially when you’re young. While other guys might know that, a lot of girls won’t, just like there’s probably a lot you don’t know or aren’t expecting with girl-bodies.

You might do explain it like this: “Just so you know, if I get hard while we’re doing this stuff, it’s something outside my control. It also happens sometimes that I wind up ejaculating when I don’t want to. I feel kind of uncomfortable about both of those things right now, but it’s just the deal with most guys my age. If and when either of those things happen, know it’s nothing I’m doing on purpose, and it doesn’t mean I want or need anything from you, or that you should feel like you need to do anything about that. If you’re not comfortable being close if my body is acting that way, just let me know, and we can just hang out and talk instead, no big deal. I just ask you try and be sensitive to the fact that I feel as awkward with it as you might, and understand that if I want to move away from making out quickly because of what my body is doing, it’s probably not about my not liking you or you having done anything wrong.”

Obviously, you’ll want to take what I’ve suggested and put it in your own words so you don’t sound like some kind of infomercial, but you get the gist.

Filling others in on the reality of bodies is a cool thing to do, both for you and for them. No one should have to feel like they have to hide things their body does outside their control and again, it’s not like erection or ejaculation in your pants hurts anyone or poses any kind of risk to anyone else. Like I said, the people you’re with may be having their own body responses, even if you aren’t seeing them, so that can also help them feel more comfortable with their own bodies, and have a good idea that you’ll be cool about this stuff with them, too.

If you don’t feel able to talk about it, another option is taking a break and stepping away for a bit when you feel an erection coming on so it can just go down, as it usually will fairly quickly. You get to do that, and it’s okay: everyone always gets to step away from making out or any kind of sex or intimacy for any reason, at any time. How candid you are about why you’re stepping away is going to be up to you, and will obviously probably depend on how comfortable you feel with the other person.

I think the best thing to do is to make sure that when you’re getting any kind of physical with someone else, it’s someone you feel pretty comfortable having these responses with/around. If it feels really scary to you, or seriously freaks you out (or you think it’ll freak them out) to potentially have this happen with someone, you might want to rethink making out with that person. For sure, making out and having genital sex are different things, but when we’re any kind of sexual with someone else, which includes making out, our bodies may have sexual responses. No matter how old we are or where we’re at in our sexual development, we’re usually not going to feel comfortable having all kinds of, or certain, sexual responses with just anyone.

That same advice goes for whoever you’re with. It’s not like making that call is or should be all on you, because there’s more than one of you involved, and it’s up to each of you to make these choices. It’s also up to them to decide if they are okay with being physical with someone else, including what their bodies and the other persons body may do in response.

It may happen — or may have happened already — that when either of these things occurs with a girl you’re with, she may have a sort of “Hey, WHOAH! What’s THAT?” reaction. Hopefully, if and when she does, it was a kind one, but it’s pretty normal for people to be surprised by what goes on with other people’s bodies when it’s something they’re not expecting or didn’t know would happen. You might have — or may have already had — the same kind of reaction the first time a girl gets her period while you’re with her, or the first time someone has an orgasm around you, especially if it happens at a time you weren’t expecting it. That’s okay: we all get to be surprised and feel surprised. So many people don’t know that sexual responses can and do happen not just during things like intercourse or oral sex, but even when two people are just hugging or kissing. But it can be easy to interpret surprise as disgust or rejection, even when it’s not, so if and when someone has a reaction, don’t assume it’s necessarily bad. They just may be surprised and need to know what’s going on, then a few minutes to conceptualize everything. If they react really badly, figure that’s just not someone ready to be close to other folks, don’t repeat time with them, and try to remind yourself that people being big stupid about bodies is about their lack of information, maturity or readiness (or all three), not about your body.

I don’t feel like anyone should have to try to psych themselves out of sexual responses when they are doing sexual things. If we’re making out with someone, we should be able to enjoy that and think about it all we want, not feel like we have to try and force ourselves to think about something else to change our sexual feelings. If it’s not okay for us to be in situations where our bodies do what they do outside our control, then rather than our bodies reactions not being okay, it seems to me something must be not-okay about the situation in which they’re happening. Again, we won’t tend to be comfortable being intimate with just anyone, or in every situation, so be sure you’re only choosing to be with people intimately, where stuff like this can happen, that you feel pretty comfortable with and that seem to have the maturity to be doing whatever both of you are, including the ways your bodies might react to those things. Trust your instincts.

I figured you might want to hear from a guy on this as well, so I asked my friend Justin, a sex educator in the UK about this. He’s got some sage words and a few practical suggestions if you do want to try to make this happen less:

Erections are unreliable creatures. Sometimes you can’t stop getting them when you don’t want them (on the bus, in class) and sometimes they go away when you most want them (when the heat is on when you’re having sex with some for the first time). So try not to worry too much about it. You’re a teenage guy, it’s normal.

It happens with older guys too. Apparently Jim Morrison used to have to strap his down on stage and Elvis got so turned on in his 1968 comeback special that he came in his leather jumpsuit (sadly he only had one of these and one of his assistants had to clean it every day).

If you really want to try and chill this out, it may help to wear more than one pair of underwear or more snug fitting pants can help to restrain your penis. Some guys tell me hey wear two pairs of trousers. Maybe try wearing jeans, if you’re not already, as they are a bit more rigid.

You might also want to consider wanking more in your down time. Masturbation is not at all harmful and you can do it as much as you like, so long as you don’t get sore, or hurt your wrist (tip: change hands). This might help you to release some sexual energy so you’re less likely to get a hard-on when you don’t want to. Perhaps Elvis should have wanked more….?

I’m going to leave you with a few links to look over to give you some extra info about your body, other people’s bodies, how sexual response works, and a piece that can help you learn how to communicate things like this with someone else. Hang in there: this, too, shall pass. In twenty or thirty years, you may even be one of those guys who complains that it did.

Analysis Law and Policy

After ‘Whole Woman’s Health’ Decision, Advocates Should Fight Ultrasound Laws With Science

Imani Gandy

A return to data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous "informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down two provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, has changed the reproductive rights landscape in ways that will reverberate in courts around the country for years to come. It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for a state to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word.

In an opinion driven by science and data, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority in Whole Woman’s Health, weighed the costs and benefits of the two provisions of HB 2 at issue—the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements—and found them wanting. Texas had breezed through the Fifth Circuit without facing any real pushback on its manufactured claims that the two provisions advanced women’s health. Finally, Justice Breyer whipped out his figurative calculator and determined that those claims didn’t add up. For starters, Texas admitted that it didn’t know of a single instance where the admitting privileges requirement would have helped a woman get better treatment. And as for Texas’ claim that abortion should be performed in an ASC, Breyer pointed out that the state did not require the same of its midwifery clinics, and that childbirth is 14 times more likely to result in death.

So now, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in the case’s concurring opinion, laws that “‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion’ cannot survive judicial inspection.” In other words, if a state says a restriction promotes women’s health and safety, that state will now have to prove it to the courts.

With this success under our belts, a similar return to science and data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous “informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

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In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld parts of Pennsylvania’s “informed consent” law requiring abortion patients to receive a pamphlet developed by the state department of health, finding that it did not constitute an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to abortion. The basis? Protecting women’s mental health: “[I]n an attempt to ensure that a woman apprehends the full consequences of her decision, the State furthers the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed.”

Texas took up Casey’s informed consent mantle and ran with it. In 2011, the legislature passed a law that forces patients to undergo a medical exam, whether or not their doctor thinks they need it, and that forces them to listen to information that the state wants them to hear, whether or not their doctor thinks that they need to hear it. The purpose of this law—at least in theory—is, again, to protect patients’ “mental health” by dissuading those who may be unsure about procedure.

The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2012, in Texas Medical Providers v. Lakey.

And make no mistake: The exam the law requires is invasive, and in some cases, cruelly so. As Beverly McPhail pointed out in the Houston Chronicle in 2011, transvaginal probes will often be necessary to comply with the law up to 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy—which is when, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 91 percent of abortions take place. “Because the fetus is so small at this stage, traditional ultrasounds performed through the abdominal wall, ‘jelly on the belly,’ often cannot produce a clear image,” McPhail noted.

Instead, a “probe is inserted into the vagina, sending sound waves to reflect off body structures to produce an image of the fetus. Under this new law, a woman’s vagina will be penetrated without an opportunity for her to refuse due to coercion from the so-called ‘public servants’ who passed and signed this bill into law,” McPhail concluded.

There’s a reason why abortion advocates began decrying these laws as “rape by the state.”

If Texas legislators are concerned about the mental health of their citizens, particularly those who may have been the victims of sexual assault—or any woman who does not want a wand forcibly shoved into her body for no medical reason—they have a funny way of showing it.

They don’t seem terribly concerned about the well-being of the woman who wants desperately to be a mother but who decides to terminate a pregnancy that doctors tell her is not viable. Certainly, forcing that woman to undergo the painful experience of having an ultrasound image described to her—which the law mandates for the vast majority of patients—could be psychologically devastating.

But maybe Texas legislators don’t care that forcing a foreign object into a person’s body is the ultimate undue burden.

After all, if foisting ultrasounds onto women who have decided to terminate a pregnancy saves even one woman from a lifetime of “devastating psychologically damaging consequences,” then it will all have been worth it, right? Liberty and bodily autonomy be damned.

But what if there’s very little risk that a woman who gets an abortion experiences those “devastating psychological consequences”?

What if the information often provided by states in connection with their “informed consent” protocol does not actually lead to consent that is more informed, either because the information offered is outdated, biased, false, or flatly unnecessary given a particular pregnant person’s circumstance? Texas’ latest edition of its “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, for example, contains even more false information than prior versions, including the medically disproven claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks gestation.

What if studies show—as they have since the American Psychological Association first conducted one to that effect in 1989—that abortion doesn’t increase the risk of mental health issues?

If the purpose of informed consent laws is to weed out women who have been coerced or who haven’t thought it through, then that purpose collapses if women who get abortions are, by and large, perfectly happy with their decision.

And that’s exactly what research has shown.

Scientific studies indicate that the vast majority of women don’t regret their abortions, and therefore are not devastated psychologically. They don’t fall into drug and alcohol addiction or attempt to kill themselves. But that hasn’t kept anti-choice activists from claiming otherwise.

It’s simply not true that abortion sends mentally healthy patients over the edge. In a study report released in 2008, the APA found that the strongest predictor of post-abortion mental health was prior mental health. In other words, if you’re already suffering from mental health issues before getting an abortion, you’re likely to suffer mental health issues afterward. But the studies most frequently cited in courts around the country prove, at best, an association between mental illness and abortion. When the studies controlled for “prior mental health and violence experience,” “no significant relation was found between abortion history and anxiety disorders.”

But what about forced ultrasound laws, specifically?

Science has its part to play in dismantling those, too.

If Whole Woman’s Health requires the weighing of costs and benefits to ensure that there’s a connection between the claimed purpose of an abortion restriction and the law’s effect, then laws that require a woman to get an ultrasound and to hear a description of it certainly fail that cost-benefit analysis. Science tells us forcing patients to view ultrasound images (as opposed to simply offering the opportunity for a woman to view ultrasound images) in order to give them “information” doesn’t dissuade them from having abortions.

Dr. Jen Gunter made this point in a blog post years ago: One 2009 study found that when given the option to view an ultrasound, nearly 73 percent of women chose to view the ultrasound image, and of those who chose to view it, 85 percent of women felt that it was a positive experience. And here’s the kicker: Not a single woman changed her mind about having an abortion.

Again, if women who choose to see ultrasounds don’t change their minds about getting an abortion, a law mandating that ultrasound in order to dissuade at least some women is, at best, useless. At worst, it’s yet another hurdle patients must leap to get care.

And what of the mandatory waiting period? Texas law requires a 24-hour waiting period—and the Court in Casey upheld a 24-hour waiting period—but states like Louisiana and Florida are increasing the waiting period to 72 hours.

There’s no evidence that forcing women into longer waiting periods has a measurable effect on a woman’s decision to get an abortion. One study conducted in Utah found that 86 percent of women had chosen to get the abortion after the waiting period was over. Eight percent of women chose not to get the abortion, but the most common reason given was that they were already conflicted about abortion in the first place. The author of that study recommended that clinics explore options with women seeking abortion and offer additional counseling to the small percentage of women who are conflicted about it, rather than states imposing a burdensome waiting period.

The bottom line is that the majority of women who choose abortion make up their minds and go through with it, irrespective of the many roadblocks placed in their way by overzealous state governments. And we know that those who cannot overcome those roadblocks—for financial or other reasons—are the ones who experience actual negative effects. As we saw in Whole Woman’s Health, those kinds of studies, when admitted as evidence in the court record, can be critical in striking restrictions down.

Of course, the Supreme Court has not always expressed an affinity for scientific data, as Justice Anthony Kennedy demonstrated in Gonzales v. Carhart, when he announced that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” even though he admitted there was “no reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” It was under Gonzales that so many legislators felt equipped to pass laws backed up by no legitimate scientific evidence in the first place.

Whole Woman’s Health offers reproductive rights advocates an opportunity to revisit a host of anti-choice restrictions that states claim are intended to advance one interest or another—whether it’s the state’s interest in fetal life or the state’s purported interest in the psychological well-being of its citizens. But if the laws don’t have their intended effects, and if they simply throw up obstacles in front of people seeking abortion, then perhaps, Whole Woman’s Health and its focus on scientific data will be the death knell of these laws too.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”