'He Wasn't Beating Me... He Just Wouldn't Wear A Condom'

Sasha* would say her relationship with her former partner was equal in every way except one: he wouldn't wear a condom.

"I always felt what was happening to me was wrong but I didn't know why it upset me so much," the Sydney woman said.

"He wasn't beating me, he wasn't mean to me. He just wouldn't wear a condom.

"In every way we had an equal say in our relationship, apart from contraception. To name what happened to me helps."

Sasha is one several women sharing their stories about reproductive coercion, a largely overlooked form of violence occurring in Australia.

Last year, 'stealthing' -- the rape-adjacent act of removing a condom without the partner's consent -- hit headlines after a research paper was published by Yale Law School.

Stealthing is one of the more well-known forms of reproductive coercion, but it can also include: tampering with birth control pills, pressuring another person into pregnancy, forcing another person to terminate a pregnancy, and forcing or coercing a person into sterilisation -- as is known to happen to disabled girls and women in Australia.

Even policies like the baby bonus scheme falls under the umbrella of reproductive coercion, according to a white paper released by nation-wide abortion provider Marie Stopes Australia.

The paper is the result of a 20-month consultation process with key stakeholders across the health, academic, legal, media and political sectors, and provides a sobering snapshot of reproductive coercion in Australia.

Why do we need to worry?

Reproductive coercion might not be as pressing an issue as, for example, violence against women, but it's intrinsically linked to all forms of family, intimate partner and sexual violence, said Marie Stopes CEO Michelle Thompson.

"While there has been a lot of urgent and warranted attention on  these issues, reproductive coercion has gone largely unnoticed," she said.

"If we are to truly help Australians take control of their sexual and reproductive health and rights, we need to intimately understand the forces that can interfere with autonomy and rights."

That includes anything from the lack of abortion providers in parts of Australia -- including rural areas and the entire state of Tasmania -- to deeply religious communities that take away reproductive autonomy.

Helen* grew up in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, where every single one of her reproductive choices was dictated by her husband, a Rabbi, or religion.

"At 18 the knowledge I had about my body and my rights were that of a four-year-old," she said.

Under the stipulations of orthodox Judaism, she was not allowed to touch her husband during her period or for seven days afterwards.

She would be required to 'test' her cleanliness during these seven days, and if blood was found, begin the countdown again.

"Sometimes when a small about of blood was found the question of whether it constituted enough of a problem to begin counting [seven days] again would be up to the Rabbi to decide," she said.

"My underwear or special cloth was taken to the Rabbi and he would inspect it and then make his ruling."

After experiencing postpartum depression following the birth of her first child, she begged her husband to ask the Rabbi if she could go on birth control.

"My husband refused to ask, and this played a part in the breakdown of our marriage," she said.

"All of my reproductive decisions ultimately were made by the Rabbi and a lack of education meant I believed this was the norm."

It's difficult to know just how much reproductive coercion is having an impact on Australia's health system and economy without further research, the paper said.

But the link between reproductive coercion and violence -- for example, women are four times more likely to experience violence from a partner when their pregnancy is unintentional -- means that it's safe to say there is an impact.

"We need to do our best to make sure we know how to remove barriers and support people so the decisions they make are theirs and theirs alone," Thompson said.

"This is the heart of our advocacy work."

*Names have been changed for privacy.

To access support, speak to 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732, Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (between ages 5 and 25), the Aboriginal Family Domestic Violence Hotline on 1800 019 120 or the Safe Relationships Project on 1800 244 481.

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au

Lead photo: Getty