Hidden Pills And Broken Condoms: The Reality Of Reproductive Coercion

A study finds some women's partners are poking holes in condoms and telling them not to take birth control

Photo Illlustration: Diana Quach
Oct 12, 2016 at 6:21 PM ET

The trope of a nutty, desperate woman who secretly pokes holes in a condom shows up in TV commercialssitcoms, and men’s rights activist message boards. When it’s not in the service of demonstrating women’s wickedness, this trope is used for a few easy laughs. But a new study takes a serious look at people who engage in this kind of behavior — and it’s men, not women who are the focus.

The study, published online in the journal Contraceptionsurveyed over 4,000 young women, age 16 to 29, who had visited one of more than two dozen family planning clinics in California and Pennsylvania. In two different surveys, they asked about the women’s experiences with reproductive coercion, meaning whether their partner had in any way interfered with their birth control use as a means of control. They found in the two surveys that recent reproductive coercion was reported by 6 and 7 percent of respondents. A prior study found a significantly higher prevalence of 16 percent of women.

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The researchers found that there were two main facets to reproductive coercion. The first was pregnancy coercion, where a woman’s partner tried to prevent her from using birth control, for example by hiding her birth control or preventing her from getting a prescription. The most common form of this, which 3.9 percent of women surveyed, was having a male partner tell her not to use any birth control. The second facet was condom manipulation, where a woman’s partner has taken off the condom, or poked a hole or broken it with purpose of getting her pregnant. The most common form of this, with 2.7 percent, was a man simply taking off the condom during sex.

Back to the popular idea of women sabotaging birth control: ACOG has gone so far as to call reproductive coercion “a male behavior.” That said, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 8.6 percent of women reported having ever had a partner who tried to get them pregnant against their will or refused to use a condom, while 10.4 percent of men reported having ever had a partner who tried to get pregnant against their will or tried to stop them from using birth control. So, contrary to the trope of the condom-breaking, baby-hungry lady, the current research suggests reproductive coercion affects both men and women.

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This particular study, though, has implications for women. In 2013, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) advised health care providers to regularly screen women and adolescent girls for reproductive coercion, but it hasn’t been clear how doctors should do that, exactly. The researchers behind this study suggest that their findings might provide some guidance for the kinds of questions that clinicians should ask patients. As Heather McCauley, an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, put it in a press release, “This study helps clinicians provide better care for their patients, particularly their adolescent patients.”