Between the ages of 15 and 18, Erika dated a man four years her senior.
After having sex against her will more than once - using only condoms - she eventually decided to go on hormonal birth control. Her boyfriend adamantly opposed the decision. “He said the pill made women want to have sex all the time, and that I’d start to cheat on him and sleep with random boys because I wouldn’t need to use a condom any more,” Erika recalls. “He seemed to think that a voice in my head would say, ‘Oh, now I can’t get pregnant, so why not have sex with random people?’”
This is, perhaps surprisingly, a myth that recurs in many women’s accounts of birth control sabotage. Erika sums it up well: “It was a matter of emotional manipulation. He was very clear about his feelings – birth control causes cheating.”
Despite her boyfriend’s threats, Erika made an appointment with a reproductive health clinic and began taking hormonal birth control. Although she no longer feared an unwanted pregnancy, she had to deal with a whole new burden of secrecy. “For an entire year, I would sneak around with my pills, taking them in private and making sure he never saw them. He never found out that I was on hormonal birth control.” If he had, Erika believes he would have become physically violent.
Erika went on to major in Women’s Studies at college, where she began to reflect on the gender politics informing her abusive relationship. “I can’t speak for all men, but from my own experiences and the men in my extended family, there was a serious element of machismo…He wanted to control my body, and the best way to do it was to get me pregnant.”
Erika now works as a community health educator at Planned Parenthood, where she offers one-on-one counseling to a half-dozen young women each week on a range of issues – from birth control to body image. In her work, she’s encountered cases of reproductive coercion and birth control sabotage that run the gamut, from men poking holes in condoms to parents who confiscate their daughter’s contraceptive pills out of shame and fear.
“The girls I see at the clinic face problems really similar to mine, or worse,” she explains, recounting the story of a recent immigrant from Mexico who came to the clinic at the age of 17:
“[The young woman] arrived at Planned Parenthood wanting birth control, but said that she’d been pregnant previously, had a child, and was afraid that she was pregnant again. Her boyfriend was a lot older than she was. They would have sex, then he would throw out her pills and tell her he wanted her to get pregnant - although she didn’t want to. He would take her birth control from her and often said that he wanted her to have more children.”
Erika counseled the woman about various methods she could use to avoid pregnancy without her boyfriend’s knowledge. They both agreed that the pill would be difficult, since “he would definitely find it and take it from her.” Ditto with the patch and the ring. Eventually, they settled upon the option of Depo-Provera, “so that no one would have to know that she was protecting herself from pregnancy.”
Erika recalls a variety of other birth control sabotage cases that she’s encountered in her work, noting that all of the instances involved Hispanic women (despite the fact that the majority of visitors to the clinic are white). “This issue is so rarely talked about in our community, so it’s important for Hispanic women like myself to recognize it and have conversations about it. That’s why I’m willing to share my story.”