reproductive coercion: Rhiannon's story


I am a feminist who supports contraception coverage for every person who needs and wants it. However, that does not mean that I will be blind to some of the ways that hormonal contraception can be used as a weapon against women; some have criticized the ever-growing expectation for women to be the one primarily responsible for contraception. Since hormonal contraception is a medication that is not right for every person, that expectation can harm women and needs to be discussed. This is Rhiannon’s story.

No one else from my high school was going to the same college as me, which was exactly what I wanted. As the youngest in a fairly large family, I always felt like I wasn’t allowed to be my own person. This would be just the fresh start that I needed. I bumped into a friend I’d lost touch with after middle school, and she invited me to an 18-and-older club. I walked into her dorm room before we left, and there he was.

Joey was a textbook bad boy – he had a mouth like a sailor, he smoked like a freight train, and he often had a flask of whiskey in his boot. He was every boy that I had never been allowed to hang out with at all, let alone date, and I was drawn to him because I was starving for adventure.

Things started out fairly innocently, I suppose. We danced at the club and ended up spending the night together a few nights later. Slowly, he started taking up more and more of my time. Things were always a little on the rough side. I cared about him and wanted to make him happy. He was afraid to commit but he would tell me that I was the first girl that ever made him feel the way he was feeling. His parents had been married for nearly thirty years and suddenly separated and got back together multiple times, and he was angry. He was always so angry. I was terrified riding in the car with him in traffic because I was afraid of his rage at simple things, like a traffic light turning red, or another driver forgetting to use a turn signal. If I got out of class and walked to meet him at the café with a male classmate he would get a sullen, resentful look on his face and ball up his fists until we sat down and our other friends arrived.

I never thought much of it because guys are jealous, right? He never got angry with me, so it was okay, wasn’t it? He’s just going through a lot right now, I told myself. He won’t always be like this.

Although he had never slept with anyone before we met, he still wanted me to perform sexual favors for him, with little to no reciprocation. We did begin a sexual relationship not long after we started dating officially. He was more paranoid about pregnancy than any person I had ever met. We always used condoms and he always pulled out as well, so I wasn’t concerned about pregnancy. He kept up with my menstrual cycle and when it was close to time for my period to start he would constantly ask me, to the point of harassment, if I had started yet. I thought maybe he would settle down after a while, but he didn’t. He just got worse. He started making threats, thinly veiled as jokes, about what would happen if I got pregnant. Most of his “jokes” involved coat hangers and flights of stairs.

I was too consumed with this relationship to see the warning signs of the depression I was falling into. I never had even a drink of alcohol before I went to college, but he and his friends all drank fairly heavily, so I started. And I liked it. I liked that it made me feel warm all over and I liked how it always felt like I was completely removed from my emotions when I was drunk.

He pressured me to get on birth control. At that point in my life, I was terrified of medication in general. I hated to even take an ibuprofen for a headache. The thought of taking artificial hormones and manipulating the natural processes of my body made me feel sick. He wouldn’t let up, though, so I made an appointment with the student health center to get a prescription. They prescribed me a $9 generic from Wal-Mart, which was more than I could afford at the time since I was in school full-time and living off of my financial aid. Joey wouldn’t help me. His reasoning was that I had better financial aid and therefore more money than he did.

That birth control made me feel awful. I was nauseous and I had heart palpitations and sudden, stabbing headaches. I stuck it out for a few months before I gave up. At that point, our relationship deteriorated pretty badly. I knew I wanted out but I didn’t know how. All of my friends were also his friends, because I had slowly cut my own friends out of my life.

One evening after a practice session where he was teaching me MMA-style fighting, we were sitting in the living room of the apartment he shared with some friends. There was a friendly but very lively debate going on about something in the Bible – I don’t remember what it was, exactly. I disagreed with something that Joey said and he got angry. Angrier than I had ever seen him. He had a mouthguard in his hand from our fighting earlier, and he threw it at my face. I was across the room and he was mad enough to mess up his aim. It didn’t hit me, but I felt the air rush past my face. Immediately, I calmly got up, walked to his bedroom, and started throwing all of my things into a bag. He ran to apologize, spewing a lot of total crap about how much he loved me and how “you just make me feel everything more strongly!”

I left.

I wish I could say that I left for good that night. In reality, it took a couple of months. But that was the start.

He never physically hit me (other than in the practice sessions), and he was very good at framing his manipulative words in a way that made me feel like I was being irrational and overreacting. Actually, his arguments followed a pattern similar to all of my parents’ tirades. My whole life, my parents told me that they loved me unconditionally, but then they turned around and screamed me into submission with implications of my sinfulness for “dishonoring my father and mother.” I didn’t have any kind of experience of a relationship without fear and emotional manipulation as the backbone, so how was I to recognize my relationship with Joey as abusive?

It was abusive. Abuse isn’t always sexual, although I do recognize some of my encounters with Joey as assault now that I know better. Abuse isn’t always physical. It’s not always bruises and black eyes and bloody noses. Abuse is often invalidation, emotional trauma, and power play. Joey figured out that I was vulnerable to being manipulated and he used that to keep me in his life when I should have been running far away from him.

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