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Sexual Abuse

Reproductive Abuse: a Modern Form of Relational Coercion

Insidious indicators of violence, coercion, and control.

Key points

  • Interpersonal coercion and control can be used to invade personal autonomy.
  • Reproductive abuse can be distinguished from other forms of sexual aggression.
  • Recognizing red flags of reproductive abuse can prompt early intervention.

Interpersonal violence comes in many forms, some more recognizable than others. One evolving recognizable area where interpersonal coercion and control are used to invade a victim’s personal autonomy is intentional interference with reproductive choice. This is a particularly relevant concern considering the evolving legal landscape related to pregnancy termination and parenting decisions.

As I have encountered in 28 years of prosecuting domestic violence and sexual assault, reproductive abuse is distinguishable from other forms of sexual violence and manipulation such as “stealthing” (condom removal), sexual assault, and other types of coercive sexual violence. Research corroborates this distinction.

Image by Tawny Nina Botha from Pixabay
Image by Tawny Nina Botha from Pixabay

Reproductive Abuse

Sonia Srinivasan et al. (2020) described reproductive abuse as “a deliberate attempt to interfere with or control a woman’s reproductive choices,” usually by a male partner.[i] They note that reproductive abuse encompasses behaviors that constitute intentional interference with a woman's reproductive choice, and recognize such behavior as a form of control exerted by an abusive male over his female partner, which may or may not exist in combination with other forms of intimate partner violence. They also note, however, that reproductive abuse can occur outside of an intimate relationship, within a broader familial context.

Srinivasan et al. note that qualitative studies suggest that reproductive abuse may constitute one causal factor behind the link between intimate partner violence and unintended pregnancy. Yet there are other distinctions.

Sexual Abuse and Reproductive Abuse

Laura Tarzia et al. (2020) explored the gray area between “stealthing” and reproductive coercion and abuse.[ii] Defining “stealthing” as non-consensual condom removal, they sought to distinguish it from reproductive coercion and abuse (RCA) which they define as a “deliberate attempt to control a woman’s reproductive choices or interfere with her reproductive autonomy.” Their study participants were 14 women ranging in age from 18 to 44 years, from a large Australian metropolitan hospital who had partners who interfered with contraception, attempted to force their pregnancy, or tried to force them to end a pregnancy against their wishes.

Tarzia et al. found that stealthing was characterized by selfishness and disrespect, in contrast to RCA experiences, which emphasized intent and control. They suggest that stealthing can be viewed as a form of sexual violence, as it often lacks the specific reproductive intent of RCA.

In addition, Tarzia et al. note that the RCA narratives depicted scenarios where perpetrators used tactics such as threats, emotional blackmail, exploitation, or violence in furtherance of a specific, desired reproductive outcome. Such behavior was characterized by a sense of entitlement to direct a woman’s reproductive choices. In contrast, the women in their study who described stealthing as an experience of disrespect and selfishness, supported the notion that the perpetrator’s motivation seemed to be primarily a dislike of condoms as opposed to a tactic designed to promote pregnancy. Tarzia et al. note that avoiding reduced sensation to enhance sexual pleasure can motivate young men to engage in non-consensual condom removal, which distinguishes it from other forms of contraceptive sabotage such as forcibly removing an intrauterine device or penetrating a condom with a pin, intending to increase the likelihood of conception.

Regarding the types of relationships which can include reproductive abuse, Tarzia et al. note that within their sample, stealthing occurred predominantly within casual encounters or short-term relationships where the women were not in a relationship of dependency with the perpetrator.

As research continues in this area, it is helpful to recognize and distinguish the ways in which interference with reproductive autonomy can be a component of interpersonal violence, and how different patterns of behavior suggest different ways to break the cycle of abuse.


[i] Srinivasan, Sonia, Jennifer Marino, Kelsey Hegarty, and Laura Tarzia. 2020. “Women’s Expectations of Healthcare Providers in the Context of Reproductive Abuse in Australia.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 22 (5): 489–503. doi:10.1080/13691058.2019.1612094.

[ii] Tarzia, Laura, Sonia Srinivasan, Jennifer Marino, and Kelsey Hegarty. 2020. “Exploring the Gray Areas between ‘Stealthing’ and Reproductive Coercion and Abuse.” Women & Health 60 (10): 1174–84. doi:10.1080/03630242.2020.1804517.

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