This blog post is part of our participation and support of the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women.
The role of social media and reproductive coercion has made major news headlines this past year and I was recently asked to provide some comments about this topic for Planned Parenthood Ottawa. I want to use this space to expand on thinking through reproductive coercion, “stealthing”, and social media.
Reproductive coercion is where someone else has control over a women’s reproduction, for instance, by demanding or refusing a woman from having an abortion or by stealing/replacing their birth control pills. The term “stealthing” – which refers to the nonconsensual removal of a condom during sex, a form of reproductive coercion – was coined in an April 2017 study posted in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. Although the term itself is new, this violent act of rape is unfortunately not. This particular study looked at the issue of reproductive coercion by interviewing a number of survivors who experienced this type of violence (but had no name for it) and also involved an examination of an online community where men discuss the subject and support one another with tips, tricks, and best practices for doing such acts. Yet, another controversy around social media and reproductive coercion hit major headline when celebrity couple, Ian Somerhalder and Nikki Reed were interviewed on Dr. Berlin’s Informed Pregnancy podcast, Ian admitted to (and joked about) replacing his wife’s birth control without her knowledge in the hopes of getting her pregnant.
While the issue of reproductive coercion is hardly new, the combination of online discussions and mainstream news appear to be amplifying these discussions – especially relevant today for mainstream news because of the celebrity angle, and the current pointing at powerful men in Hollywood and Silicon Valley for overall aggressive sexist behaviors. However, many social media platforms are not designed to facilitate such discussions because Twitter, for instance, limits you to 280 characters a post (it was limited to 140 characters up until September 2017), and there’s little room for interaction and debate. What tends to be the norm on Twitter are people talking to their circles and talking at, but not listening to other voices that may disagree. This has been called an “echo chamber effect” a metaphor similar to “preaching to the choir”.
At the same time, social media and online communities can exacerbate forms of sexual violence even with the little discussion around it. Posts that describe sexual assaults and violence recreate and extend the trauma through the spread of such content because of the characteristics of social media platforms – its permanence, ubiquity, immediacy, and anonymity of the forums where these discussions are taking place. But what I am seeing online is awareness with some discussion, a lot of judgement, and I’d like to see more action.
One of the issues cited in the previously mentioned research study discussed an online forum in which men encourage other men to “stealth” their partners. Violence like reproductive coercion ideas can spread easily online and become amplified in conversations that are already happening with some people. Seeing the evidence of this in an online forum attracted much media attention, however, a closer look at this online forum also reveals some nuance to the discussion of stealthing online.
As you browse through the posts, you don’t just see the discussion of people egging each other on – you see interruption, albeit somewhat brief at times, of opposition, of discussions of this being rape and/or morally wrong and a discussion of consequences. Amongst the comments in this online forum (that has not been shut down but is archived) most of the participants express their desire to do so one day but haven’t actually done so, while there are many calling out this act as rape. There are very few offering their own tips and enjoyment of this act. This is a problem, but we can’t blame social media although it plays a part, and our mainstream news is also playing a part by drawing even more attention to it since the publication of the article. .
The real issue is that this act of violence has been ongoing and only now are some people starting to take notice – the good that has come out of this is that for many survivors of such an assault, is that there is now a term, albeit perhaps not the best one, to be used to identify the act and to help support these cases to be brought to trial.
My worry on this term “stealthing” becoming a buzzword is that it makes such a violent act seem somewhat exciting or glamorous, like with some of these news headlines: “Stealthing: Man explains why he takes off his condom during sex”; “‘Stealthing‘: The Disturbing New Sex Trend You Need To Know About”. At the same time, not all forms of stealthing are tied to only heterosexual couples, as mainstream media keeps focusing on. The discussion on social media and mainstream news about this happening solely within heterosexual couples also takes away from this form of violence that also happens, and has been happening, in queer and trans communities as well, exposing partners to STIs.
This research study is a good first look into this community but more research is needed to see the extent and pervasiveness of these communities but I’m interested to see communities of resistance peak up and get picked up by mainstream media with as much coverage. What will online resistance look like about stealthing and reproductive coercion?
Thank you, so much for Planned Parenthood Ottawa for talking with me about this very important issue! Check out the entire podcast interview here as part of their 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women series and follow the Twitter discussion at #ReproductiveCoercionIs.