By Monica Edwards, J.D., If/When/How Reproductive Justice Fellow at URGE: Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity
It’s October 2018. The leaves are turning colors, and falling to the ground. Parents are taking their kids into stores to buy pumpkins, and costumes in order to prepare for the October holidays. There’s even a Halloween reboot with Jamie Lee Curtis scheduled for release this month. There’s also a lot going on in the social justice realm. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when activists and organizations, medical professionals, and survivors shed light on breast cancer across the world. And of course, this October was especially difficult for sexual assault survivors as our country confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court for life, despite three women coming forward with accounts of sexual assault and misconduct. It is also the anniversary of #MeToo, created by Tarana Burke, which has amplified a much-needed discussion on sexual assault and rape culture — and especially, in recent weeks, that conversation has happened amid the confirmation of Kavanaugh (or as we say it, KavaNAH).
October is also something else: Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and the intersection of this awareness month with #MeToo shows just how powerfully domestic violence affects every one of us, regardless of race or ethnicity, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, class status, immigrant status or political status.
We simply can’t talk about domestic violence without talking about reproductive justice.
Like sexual violence, abuse, and harassment, domestic violence is, at its core, about two things: power and control. As an If/When/How Fellow, I am deeply invested in the reproductive justice (RJ) movement, which was started and has been led always by Black women. As an activist, a lawyer, and an advocate, I see the world through the RJ lens, using an intersectional framework that goes beyond the “pro-choice” movement, taking a deeper view of cases like Roe v. Wade or Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Reproductive justice goes beyond preserving abortion rights and access to contraception. It expands to comprehensive sex education, the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, police brutality, immigration, voter disenfranchisement, LGBTQ discrimination, racism, sexual and reproductive freedom, sexual assault, and yes — domestic violence. All of these issues connect to the ability to be truly free as a person in our society.
Sexual violence strips a survivor of their autonomy. It disregards them as a person, strips them of their dignity, silences them, and strips them of the ability to control their own body, and their sexual freedom. So does domestic violence. And not only does domestic violence include physical battering, it also includes abuse that is emotional, financial and sexual.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, approximately 7.9 million women are raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked by a current or former partner each year. About 1 in 71 men have experienced rape in their lifetimes. Thus, not only does domestic violence often times directly encompass actual sexual violence, emotional and financial abuse can restrain a survivor’s ability to make sexual and reproductive choices free from coercion, threats, and violence from their abusive partners. Because domestic violence is about power and control, if someone is actively asserting power and control over their partner, it can be difficult and sometimes impossible to make decisions regarding sex and reproductive health. This can include being able to decide which form of birth control to use, if at all. It can include the type of sexual intercourse one has, and it can also include deciding if, when, and how to be or become a parent. Control can be mental as well as physical, and encompass all aspects of a survivor’s life, including choices about sexual and reproductive health.
We simply can’t talk about domestic violence without talking about reproductive justice. While it’s important to destigmatize sex, and keep fighting to make sure that abortion rights aren’t overturned in this current political climate, there are so many reasons that the work doesn’t stop there — and domestic violence is one of those reasons. For many people, the rights supposedly guaranteed under Roe and Casey have never really been fulfilled because of the many barriers to abortion access that disproportionately burden low-income people and people of color who need care. Sure, people can seek an abortion without legal consequences — in theory — but there are still so many obstacles in place. From states that only have one clinic that provides abortions, to mandatory waiting periods, to intrusive parental notification and consent laws, to the long-distance drives or plane rides that many people must make to find their nearest clinic — actually getting an abortion isn’t as simple as it being legal. When we add being in an abusive relationship to the equation — where your partner constantly exerts power over your body, your finances, your emotional health, or the children you already have — there is yet another barrier to getting sexual and reproductive healthcare that you want and need.
True freedom and justice is intersectional.
But we can change this, which is part of what I’m doing at URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, where I have the opportunity to critically examine important issues like the intersection of reproductive justice and domestic violence, and work to make change in federal and state policy. On the state level, URGE works in red states like Kansas, Ohio, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama (my home state — Roll Tide!) opposing harmful ballot measures like Alabama’s Amendment 2, which would virtually ban abortions in Alabama in the event Roe is overturned. URGE field staff are also hosting abortion-positive tours, canvassing, and conducting panels on debunking myths about domestic violence. URGE is a women of color-led organization that focuses on reproductive justice issues affecting young people and marginalized communities. We understand that true freedom and justice is intersectional, and includes many types of people and issues, including domestic violence.
Domestic violence isn’t just something that happens behind closed doors. That fear and control can make its way to every single aspect of a person’s life, intersecting with all the issues that affect our ability to make agent, informed decisions about the way we live, and how we thrive. But even to this day, domestic violence is often categorized as a private issue for couples to solve at home. It is not. It is our issue — everyone’s issue, and we must continue the conversation. Domestic violence is physical, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse, and yes, it takes away sexual freedom, but it also takes away true freedom over every other aspect of our lives. We can reclaim our control by continuing to speak on domestic violence. Our lives depend on it.