Looking back on my high school years, I remember sneaking out, football games, staying multiple nights at friends’ houses and trying to figure out who the heck I was and what I was doing in life. But it seems a big chunk of girls today are worrying about more than just their anticipated college or trade years or what future their life holds as they move ahead.
Because according to a new U.S. study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, roughly 1 in 8 sexually active teen girls will encounter a male partner coercing them into an unwanted pregnancy.
The study focused on the abuse itself, otherwise known as reproductive coercion — when a partner tampers with birth control, pokes holes in condoms, or pressures another person to try and conceive a pregnancy by threatening to break up with them and/or abuse them if they do not participate in unprotected sex.
“Reproductive coercion is any behavior that is used to control a partner’s reproductive anatomy,” Amber Hill, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. student at The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, tells NBC News. “Some common examples include throwing away a person’s birth control pills or poking holes in a condom before sex or removing a condom during sex without a partner’s permission or knowledge.”
The research focused on teen girls between the ages of 14-19 who were sexually active and sought medical care from school health centers. Among the 550 of them meeting that criteria, a whopping 12% reported experience with reproductive coercion, while 17% said they had a history of relationship physical abuse.
Much like other adult studies focusing on reproductive coercion and sexual violence, this study showed that female teens of color were at a greater risk. While 4% of white teens were subject to this type of abuse, 15% of Latina teens and 15% of black teens reported experience with reproductive coercion and sexual violence — making the likelihood of abuse almost three times higher for teens of color.
“We can’t say — because of how our sample was designed — that this [disparity] is definitely true among all populations,” Hill said. “But I think because of what we know from the adult literature and because of the trends that we saw that this definitely warrants further investigation to see how those differences among the prevalence of reproductive coercion potentially influence the persistence disparities that we see in sexual and reproductive health among women and girls of color.”
We see news headlines that tell us women are more likely to die from childbirth in the United States than any other developed country. And according to the CDC, maternal mortality rates are 3-4 times higher in black women compared to white women. And all of this goes without mentioning the increased risks of a teen pregnancy itself (preeclampsia, eclampsia, preterm birth, anemia, emotional trauma, and higher rates of infant and maternal mortality).
So how do we as parents, teachers, and healthcare providers work to prevent this type of abuse? According to Hill, that can be tricky.
While adults suffering from such abuse are likely to seek health care for emergency contraceptives to avoid an unplanned pregnancy, this study suggests that this might not be in the case with teens and Hill adds that teen girls may show signs of abuse differently than adults.
“This is different from what we see in studies with adults, where partner violence substantially impacts health care seeking behaviors,” Hill tells UPMC. “Our inability to show distinct patterns for seeking care supports the need for health care providers to always consider whether a young person is experiencing relationship abuse and to offer education and resources about healthy relationships to all of their adolescent and young adult patients.”
The study indicated that those with a history of reproductive coercion were more likely to have more sexual partners in a short amount of time, as well as partners who are “5 or more years older.”
So not only is an unplanned pregnancy a risk factor, but a long list of STDs and STIs are now much more likely to occur too. Not to mention, teens who are victims of abuse are more likely to develop depression, have problems with substance abuse, and find themselves in subsequent abusive relationships. Basically, reproductive coercion has the capability of producing a massive ripple-effect of consequences for victimized teens.
If abuse is suspected amongst healthcare providers, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests that patients be informed about how to protect themselves and put a support system in place before offering contraception in order to prevent potential harm. For instance, offering an envelope with birth control versus a bulky box labeled with the medication’s counter name might reduce the risks of someone experiencing reproductive coercion if they are unable or unwilling to leave their partner. An IUD, contraceptive implant, or injection can also be offered as a way to reduce harm for patients living through such abuse.
Unfortunately and horrifically enough, reproductive coercion is common and happening to too many sexually active teen girls. The “sex talk” with our kids shouldn’t be a “one and done” type of ordeal, and we need to focus on all aspects of sex, especially those areas that are difficult and may not involve consent.
Reproductive coercion is abuse, and providing education, as well as support for our young people, is the only way we can empower our teens with the tools and knowledge to fight it.