Let’s Talk About Sex(ual) Coercion

“He said we’d be so much happier if we had a baby…”
“I thought we were using a condom but he took it off without telling me…”

If you heard the former statements, would they raise a red flag to you? Advocates spend a lot of time talking about relationship red flags. What about the red flags that are directly related to a survivor’s sexual health and reproductive well-being?

I would like to encourage every advocate to start listening for red flags related to sexual and reproductive coercion. Sexual and reproductive coercion are behaviors aimed at maintaining power and control over a current or former dating partner that impact one’s sexual and reproductive health.

What does that really look like?

RepoSexCoerc_Toolkit

From the Action Alliance’s Reproductive and Sexual Coercion: A Toolkit for Sexual & Domestic Violence Advocates, sexual coercion encompasses a range of nonphysical behaviors – verbal pressure, threats, lies – that an abuser may use to have sexual contact with a person who expressed that they did not want to engage in sexual activity. Reproductive coercion refers to a range of behaviors that interfere with contraception use and pregnancy, including birth control sabotage (active interference with contraceptive methods), pregnancy pressure (behavior intended to pressure a partner to become pregnant when they do not wish to become pregnant), and pregnancy coercion (forcing a partner to comply with the abuser’s wishes regarding the decision to terminate or continue a pregnancy).

In a review of 40 years of literature, Ann Coker (2007) found significant associations between intimate partner violence, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and unwanted pregnancy. This isn’t particularly surprising; if a person doesn’t feel safe enough to negotiate condom and contraception use with their partner, they are more likely to be exposed to STIs or experience unwanted pregnancy than a person who can make these decisions with their partner.

Screening clients for coercion is just one of the many ways that sexual and domestic violence agencies (SDVAs) can ensure that they are better meeting the needs of all survivors. In preparation for implementing any form of screening, advocates should be trained and prepared to discuss sexual and reproductive health with survivors; SDVAs should take time to thoughtfully consider intake procedures, referral protocols, and shelter procedures; and SDVAs must take time to form relationships with reproductive health providers in their communities in order to ensure that survivors have access to necessary reproductive health services.

While there are many considerations that should be taken before implementing a screening process, the overall benefit to survivors is immeasurable. A person’s ability to make decisions about their own sexual and reproductive health has an impact on their long-term health and overall quality of life. Screening clients for sexual and reproductive coercion may open the door to a form of empowerment that a survivor had not experienced before.

If you’re interested in learning more, the Action Alliance is hosting a Sexual and Reproductive Coercion Continuing Advocacy Training on February 25, 2016. Click here for more information.

Kristen Pritchard is the Data and Technology Specialist at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, Virginia’s leading voice on sexual and domestic violence. She received her B.S. in Psychology and Human Services from Old Dominion University in 2012 and her Master of Social Work from the Virginia Commonwealth University in 2015. Kristen travels across the state of Virginia to provide training and technical assistance to organizations on various issues such as reproductive coercion, healthy sexuality, and trauma-informed advocacy.

Kristen can be reached at kpritchard@vsdvalliance.org.

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