Dr. McHugh with Rep. André Carson.
This week social media was flooded with #MeToo as a response to the Hollywood sexual abuse scandal. These posts and stories revealed the pervasiveness of intimate partner violence (IPV) and sexual assault. Millions of men and women shared their experiences, some for the first time. They put faces – those of our friends and families – on the problem.
Every person deserves to have healthy and safe relationships. As we are reminded every year during Domestic Violence Awareness month, however, too many people find themselves in violent and dangerous relationships. One in four women and one in nine men experience intimate partner violence in the form of physical violence, sexual violence, and/or stalking. This abuse can have an acute impact on a person’s reproductive health and well-being. IPV is a reproductive health, rights, and justice issue.
Women who experience IPV are more at risk for HIV, often because abuse makes it impossible to negotiate boundaries, including condom use. More than half of women with HIV have experienced IPV; for many, abuse comes after they reveal their status. The fear, isolation, and pain caused by IPV can be a barrier to accessing regular health care, putting these women’s health at even greater risk.
Other ways an intimate partner may try to exert control is through emotional abuse and reproductive coercion. Reproductive coercion can include interfering with birth control methods, coercing a partner into having unprotected sex, impregnating a partner against their wishes, and controlling the outcome of a pregnancy. These abuses change the course of a women’s life, jeopardize her financial stability, and take away her bodily autonomy.
It is imperative that health care providers are equipped to recognize IPV and address a full range of reproductive health issues. When providers screen for abuse and make referrals in a safe setting, and are committed to their roles as caring and trusted health service providers, lives can be saved when the abuse and trauma is stopped.
IPV survivors and those currently experiencing abuse and reproductive coercion deserve access to critical health services from a supportive and expert provider but may have difficulty escaping the abuser. Emergency rooms, physician offices, urgent care clinics, and Planned Parenthood centers are all locations that can help people escape abusive situations. Patients will be evaluated for the need for emergency contraception, pregnancy tests, contraception, medicine to prevent HIV infection after exposure, and access to social work and resources in a compassionate, nonjudgmental environment.
Abuse can happen to anyone regardless of identity, but some groups are more at risk. Young women, especially young women of color, are disproportionately likely to be killed as a result of IPV. And bisexual women are nearly twice as likely as heterosexual women to report experiencing IPV.
Supporting survivors and working toward preventing intimate partner violence helps keep everyone safe. Quality, inclusive, culturally competent sex education that incorporates consent and healthy relationships well before youth begin to have intimate experiences will help stop IPV before it starts. We must commit to providing education, screening for abuse, and supporting vital health care services and resources to survivors. By doing so, we empower people who have experienced IPV to take control of their health and recovery. This month and every month, we stand with survivors.