Advice Sexuality

I Want to Have Sex. He Doesn’t. Why Not? And What Do I Do Now?

Heather Corinna

Anyone, of any gender or any age, may not feel like it is best for them to choose to be sexual in a given situation, even when presented with an opportunity for sex, even when that opportunity is with someone they have a strong desire to have sex with.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen

beccaboo71 asks:

I’ve been dating my current boyfriend for 5 months now, and I really am ready and willing to have sex. But, he’s not. He wants to, and he’s curious but he feels that he shouldn’t? I don’t know what to do, I don’t understand why he’s feeling this way about it. Is there something wrong with me? Something he’s afraid to say? Or is he just really scared himself? Help!

Heather Corinna replies:

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We’ve been receiving and answering a lot of questions like yours lately, but if people keep asking, I think it’s really important to keep talking about this. And, we keep hearing girls asking questions like this about guys, it seems clear that there are a lot of people who aren’t getting some things we think are really basic and really critical for everyone to have a healthy sexuality, healthy relationships, and sex lives they feel best about: things it’s so important everyone does get.

The most basic thing you need to know is this: anyone, of any gender or any age, may not feel like it is best for them to choose to be sexual in a given situation, even when presented with an opportunity for sex, even when that opportunity is an opportunity for sex with someone they have a strong desire to have sex with.

Anyone, of any gender or age, also may not want every sexual opportunity offered to them even if that opportunity has a lot of what they want and seems awesome in many ways. Just being curious about sex, having the opportunity to have sex, and feeling like, love, or lust for the person offering it doesn’t equal an instant go for a lot of people, including guys.

There is nothing any more weird or incomprehensible about a guy not feeling comfortable engaging in sex at a given time or not feeling ready for sex than there is about a girl feeling that way.

When it comes to choosing to engage in sex or choosing not to, it’s pretty much the same deal for everyone: sometimes we’ll feel it’s right for us, and other times we won’t, no matter what parts are inside our pants. There is probably no healthy person on the planet who would always say yes to every sexual opportunity that could possibly be extended to them. You probably wouldn’t either, right? I’m sure you can think of some people or scenarios or situations you’d say no to sexually, even if this isn’t one of them. And what gets us to yes or go is rarely just about wanting to have sex with someone, especially if we have any clue of all sex can be about, how it can go and what it can ask of us and our partners.

Know that in the romantic or sexual relationships—or potentially sexual relationships—you’ll have in life there are going to be times, maybe many times, when you want to be sexual and the other person doesn’t, and times when a partner of yours wants to have sex and you don’t. One person wanting sex—even both people wanting sex—doesn’t mean sex is always right for everyone or what everyone will choose to do.

Why don’t guys always feel ready to run with a sexual opportunity? That’s a biggie because there are somewhere around a gazillion reasons why people feel that way.

Sometimes it is about that partner. If there are issues in a relationship, or someone isn’t totally sure about their feelings, they might nix sex or put it on the back-burner. Maybe a person thinks their potential partner is less ready than they think they are. Maybe they want certain things in a relationship from a partner before they get sexual, like a certain kind of commitment. While you might assume that saying no means he’s not sure if he really likes or loves you, sometimes people say no because their feelings for someone are too strong, too big, too volatile, so sex at a given time just feels like it would be way too much: they might want to let their hearts and minds first calm down a bit more so they can feel more grounded and less anxious.

Sometimes saying no is about where someone feels in their own sexual development, sexuality, or sex life so far. In other words, maybe they just don’t feel like they are at a point in their own lives where they don’t want to be sexual with someone in certain ways yet. Sometimes someone might not feel willing or ready to take some of the physical risks sex involves, like the risk of pregnancy or STIs, or feel they have the things they want, need, or are most comfortable with to reduce those risks. Sometimes people don’t feel up to or ready for some of the emotional risks, like being that vulnerable with someone else just yet— in that relationship, situation, or their lives as a whole—like having someone else get up close and personal with their bodies, certain parts, their sexual responses or sexuality.

Sometimes even the risk that having sex will be totally awesome, which can change our lives in ways we might not always feel open to or ready for, feels like a risk  someone isn’t ready for or open to at a given time. So often when people talk about risk, they’re only talking about the risks of bad stuff: but risks can be risks of positives too. However, just because we might get something positive still doesn’t mean it’s right for us in a given situation or time in life. For example, I’ve been a renter all my life and would love to own a house. Owning my own house is something I’d say seems like a big positive. But if I wasn’t ready to do that well, it might not turn out to be a good thing at all. Without the income to deal with major repairs, the time to do what I needed to to get settled in, what might have been the best thing ever could instead turn into something that drives me into debt or otherwise makes my life miserable instead of better.

Sex might offer us some amazing things, but if we already have a lot on our plate at a given time to deal with, or are struggling with something tough, we might prefer to save that opportunity for a time and space in life when we feel more able to truly enjoy it and have the kind of time and space in our hearts and lives for it.

Why else might someone decline on sex? Sometimes people have sexual histories that impact their sexual life or choices they aren’t ready to share or at peace with. Sometimes people have cultural or religious beliefs that make choosing to have sex in a certain situation wrong for them. Sometimes people don’t have the kind of emotional support from friends or family they feel they need for sex to be the right thing for them; sometimes they don’t have the education they want in advance. Sometimes people feel like things are moving too fast, or feel pressured, and they want only to choose to have sex at a pace that feels right for them and without feeling any pressure.

All of that? Those are just some, of so, so very many possibilities. Think about some of the things in that list, or additional issues or situations, that might make you feel like sex isn’t the right choice for you at a given time or in a given situation. Chances are, that the choice for you is about more than just if someone you like wants to have sex with you, right? The same is probably true for your boyfriend.

Some people think or believe that it’s only women who might say no to sex or not be ready, and that guys, when presented with a willing sexual partner, will always say yes to sex, or will always feel ready. But that’s a really wrong idea and it’s also one that can really hurt people and their sexual lives. People who study sexuality for their job, and do so carefully and thoughtfully, know that when it comes to gender, people are more alike than different, and this is one of those places where, on the whole, there are not big gender differences. When guys say no, it’s as normal as when girls do, and usually for similar reasons.

Now, I don’t know what your boyfriend’s specific reasons and feelings are around this. They might be one of the things in that list up there or twelve of them or they might be things I didn’t mention at all.

But you know who probably does know, and who certainly knows better than me or you? (You know this one.) Your boyfriend.

He’s a much better person to ask about how he’s feeling—the best person to ask— than me. And you can ask him so that you can know more and feel less lost here.

I would suggest that if you’re going to talk to him about this, you bear a few things in mind:

1) His sexual choices aren’t only about you, how much he does or doesn’t love you, or how attractive or appealing he finds you to be, just like I hope yours aren’t only about those things, since a healthy sexual life asks more of us, all of us, than just those things. In other words, there may be nothing wrong with you at all, and for all we know without finding out from him, this may even have nothing to do with you, period.

It’s also really important for all of us to give any and all of our current or potential partners real space to feel just as comfortable saying no to sex as they might feel saying yes. If we set things up or do things so our partners feel like if they say no, or stick to their no, we’re going to be totally wrecked, we aren’t really giving them that space. So, if you’re going to talk to him about this, a question like, “What’s wrong with me, anyway?” is a poor choice. Something that’s a lot better is an open question that’s about his feelings, not yours, like, “I want to understand you better: would you be willing to talk with me about why you’re not feeling good about the idea of sex together yet?”

In the same vein, if we take sexual rejections or even just “I want to, but not yet’s” very personally, that can actually be a cue for us about our own sexual readiness. In other words, if and when we feel like whether someone says yes or no to sex with us has a lot to do with our own feelings of self-confidence, self-worth, or self-esteem, or it makes us question the whole of good relationships, chances are good that it might not be our best choice to have sex yet either, because we might need to develop more of those things before we are ready.

Plus, for most of us, now and then when someone nixes sex with us it IS going to be about us, and they might even say so (hopefully with some tact). For example, maybe that cologne a boyfriend chose to wear reminds you of your grandpa, so you find yourself feeling not at all interested in sex and strangely more interested in hearing stories about the Great Depression. Maybe something you wore on a given day just rubs a sexual partner the wrong way: sexual desires can be unpredictably fickle and persnickety sometimes. Maybe you recently had an argument that’s left a boyfriend still feeling raw and vulnerable enough that he’s just not ready to be sexual again yet. And, of course, sometimes our attraction to people, or theirs to us, changes: sometimes people just stop being attracted to someone and wanting to have sex with them.

Scenarios like these are things that can and do tend to happen, so one part of being ready for sex is feeling pretty equipped to handle situations like that. If even a sensitive, caring no feels like a massive kick in the guts, that can be a good cue we’re not equipped for that part of a sex life yet and need to take more time—or change something up —so that we are. In other words, depending on how huge that “what’s wrong with ME?” is feeling for you, your boyfriend might not be the only one who isn’t really ready here yet.

2) There might be something he’s afraid to say. I don’t know anything about your relationship, including how any sexual parts or talking about sex has gone. But if he gets the feeling that he can’t be honest about what he wants and doesn’t want, and does or doesn’t feel ready for, or has gotten the message that he should feel bad about saying no or that you feel terrible if your sexual feelings aren’t reciprocated the way you want, then he might well be afraid to say more.

As we’ve mentioned with this issue before, I think it’s important to bear in mind that, on the whole, girls and women tend to get more cultural support to say no to sex than boys or men are (though less to saying yes). When girls or women say no to sex,  it is rare that anyone will suggest they’re not “real women.” But when boys or men do, it’s not uncommon for potential or current sexual partners, friends, or family members, not to mention TV, popular music, movies, the works, to suggest that theyt aren’t “real men” because they didn’t  jump at every sexual opportunity. And we can probably agree that that has to seriously suck and make a person feel pretty crappy. You can probably also understand the amount of pressure that can put on a person to have sex.

You say you don’t know what to do. Hopefully I’ve already given you some clues on that, but just in case it isn’t clear, here’s the deal: when we ask someone to have any kind of sex with us and they decline, what we first do is accept and honor their no and leave it. We don’t try and convince them, we don’t argue with them, and we also don’t use that moment to talk about any hurt feelings we might have because they said no. Let them have their no and let’s make space for them to feel the right to have it, and feel respected for it.

If you know, when that happens, sex is something you still really want and don’t want to close the door on, you can put a pin in that and acknowledge it in a pressure-free way by just saying okay to the no, and then telling that person if they change their mind, they should feel free to ask you about sex again at another time. In other words, you can just put the ball in that person’s court, and then if and when they change their minds, or even just want to talk about it, they can throw it back.

If you do decide to ask about his feelings with this, you first want to make it crystal clear that you absolutely respect his choices here and the point of a discussion isn’t to try and get him to change his mind or to make him feel bad. You might even say that you know you’re both not always going to want the same things, about sex or anything else, and that’s okay. Make clear that pressuring him is the last thing you want to do, and that you hear and accept his no. You’re not asking him to have sex with you again when he already said no, you’re looking to understand his feelings about it so you can better understand him, which is important to you and your relationship, as important when he says no to sex as it would be if he was saying yes. Trying to understand one another is a huge piece of growing a healthy intimate relationship.

Also, I’d ask if he’s open to talking about his feelings instead of forcing a conversation. If he says he doesn’t want to or feel ready to talk about it yet, then for now, you leave this be, or ask if it’s okay if you just talk about your own feelings, then. You can let him know that if and when he does feel okay talking about it, you’d like to,  when that time comes all he’s got to do is ask you and start talking.

If he does want to talk, start listening. Ask how he’s feeling and let him do most of the talking.  When you ask questions, do your best not to project your own stuff onto them. You don’t have to be silent about your feelings, though: you can ask if you can talk about how you feel, and if he says yes, fill him in. Just be mindful, again, of how you say things and make sure you’re not pressuring him or assigning feelings to him he doesn’t have. Like, you’re worried this means something is wrong with you. So, you can say that without projecting: “I felt insecure because it made me worry something was wrong with me.” It’s okay to feel insecure and voice that: what’s not okay is to blame him for you feeling that way because he didn’t want to have sex. If this has you feeling really insecure, it’s probably about a lot more than just that, and more about you than him.

You can keep the door on this conversation rotating. One talk is probably not going to cover all of this, so make clear that you want both of you to be able to talk all of this out as much as each of you wants and feels comfortable with. You can also tell him that includes either of you putting out limits or boundaries when you just feel talked out or like you’re reached a point where, for that time, things are as resolved as they are getting. Whatever comes out of these talks, if there are things you both know you can help the other with that will make you each more comfortable with the possibility of sex—whether or not you both choose to engage in it soon—make a mental list of them, and start working on some of those things.

Personally, I’d look at this situation as a great opportunity. You seem pretty lost about how he’s feeling about sex and you. That’s not something you want to be clueless about if you’re going to be sexual with someone else: it’s something you want to know more about. Knowing you feel lost before you’ve engaged in sex is a really important thing to know, and often far better to know before you’ve engaged in sex with someone than after.

Your boyfriend has probably done you both a serious solid, here, especially since I suspect you’ve got some of your own stuff to talk to him about first, too. I don’t think this is just about his readiness, but about both of you. I also think this happening the way it has gives you something else that’s valuable, which is a possible awareness about some ideas about gender and sex that probably weren’t so sound.

Your boyfriend nixing sex for now can be a good thing, rather than made of nothing but bummer, because this gives you both the time to get more clued in to where each of you are really at with all of this, making it much more likely, if and when you do become sexual, for this to be something you both feel great about and have a great experience with, instead of something one or both of you feels bad about or had a lousy experience with. Spending more time talking about all of this, and building trust and communication around something that’s as deeply personal and sensitive as sex can really strengthen your relationship: engaging in sex before you’ve built more of that and before everyone really feels ready and comfortable is an easy way y make a real mess of it.

Here are those links I said I’d give you for other questions and answers around this:

Here are some other links I think you could benefit from looking at and use to inform the conversations you two have together about this:

 

 

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

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“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.

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.”