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The contraceptive pill
Illustration Holly Benwell

What exactly is ‘reproductive coercion’?

According to a new survey, 50 per cent of young women have experienced it at some point in their lives

During her year abroad in France, Freya*, 23, went on a date with an American guy she’d met off a dating app. “I got increasingly drunk,” she recalls. The two ended up back at Freya’s apartment – she tells me she was so inebriated that she “doesn’t recall” how they got there – where they started having protected sex.

At some point, Freya realised that he had removed the condom without telling her. “I later found it the next morning on my window ledge,” she tells me. “This was also, inconveniently, the first time I had ever had sex.”

Freya is not only a victim of stealthing – when someone nonconsensually removes a condom during sex –but also ‘reproductive coercion’. Reproductive coercion is when someone takes away their partner’s autonomy when it comes to making decisions about pregnancy, contraception and sex. According to a survey commissioned by the BBC, 50 per cent of women aged between 18 and 44 said they had experienced at least one type of reproductive coercion.

A third of women who completed the survey said they'd experienced pressure to have sex without contraception, while a fifth said they'd been forced to do so. One in ten participants said they'd experienced someone hiding, withholding or damaging their contraception. One in ten also reported experiencing stealthing like Freya did, an act that constitutes rape and is illegal under UK law. Memorably, in Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, Zain stealths Arabella who is then forced into taking the morning after pill. “He gaslighted me with such intention, I didn’t have a second to understand the heinous crime that had occurred,” she later recalls.

Like Freya, Thandie*, 25, has been stealthed before. “The first time it happened, it was with my boyfriend,” she tells me. Thandie explains that they’d been having protected sex with condoms as she wasn’t on contraception. “One time, we were having sex, and then I could suddenly feel that there was no condom,” she says. “I got angry, asked him why he did that. But he apologised, so I let it go.” The couple broke up some months later.

But this wasn’t the last time Thandie experienced stealthing. She tells Dazed that she was recently stealthed again by a man she was dating. “This was literally last week,” she says, recalling how she was having protected sex with her partner when he unexpectedly removed the condom. “I jumped up and asked him to get off me. I was so angry because it brought back all those memories,” she says. “I was just so angry... I was just lying in bed, crying.”

Thandie says that she has since cut ties with her now ex-partner. “My experience has changed the way I view relationships,” she says. “I don’t trust men anymore. Because it’s happened twice, it just feels like this is just what happens.” Freya also feels that her experience has damaged her view of relationships. “I didn’t have sex at all after that, and I didn’t go on dates for quite a long time,” she says. “I ended up needing quite a lot of support from my first boyfriend to feel comfortable having sex and to trust him.”

Thankfully, coercive control in the UK is illegal. Isabelle Younane, head of policy, campaigns and public affairs at Women’s Aid says that coercive control is a pattern of abusive behaviour used by perpetrators to instil fear and restrict freedom. “This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.” Younane explains that this can include “controlling decisions on someone’s reproductive health, such as controlling a partner’s use of contraception or pressuring them into having – or not having – an abortion.”

However, despite coercive control’s illegality, Younane points out that prosecutions for coercive behaviour remain disappointingly low. “Women fear not being believed; they worry that they won’t be taken seriously – especially in cases of coercive control, which can be difficult to provide evidence for,” she explains. It’s especially hard to provide evidence in cases of sexual or reproductive coercion.

We need to address these issues at the root. We need to keep talking about consent: continuing to stress that ‘no means no’ but also considering other instances where things are a little more complicated. We’re making progress, but we need to keep acknowledging that incidents of sexual coercion aren’t always perpetrated by strangers in dark alleyways – sometimes the perpetrator can be someone you love.

Victims can visit the Women’s Aid website, where you can access confidential expert support from specialised support workers.

*Names have been changed