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'He Thought a Baby Would Keep Me in His Life Forever': When Partner Abuse Isn't a Bruise But a Pregnant Belly

Intimate partner violence doesn't always show up in police photos as swollen bruises. Instead, the evidence might be the victim's pregnant belly.

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What drives young men to abuse in this way?

"It's clearly out-and-out control of a woman's body. Control for control's sake," says Miller. It's an urge that stems, experts say, from an inability to manage their own fears and insecurities.

In one 2007 study, some boys acknowledged outright that they insisted on condomless sex as a way to establish power over female partners. (There is evidence of analogous male-on-male sexual violence, but it hasn't been studied in depth.)

Other research found that some men took a woman's request for a condom as an accusation of cheating, or an admission that she had slept around or strayed. And for some, yes, the goal is fatherhood -- but not so much of the "involved" variety; rather, it's a desire -- as with Janey's ex -- to mark one woman as "mine" forever. Or, according to Patti Giggans, young men in gangs say, "I'm not gonna be around forever. I've gotta leave my legacy."  

(Still, Jill Murray is quick to note, she sees this problem in all classes, schools and neighborhoods she visits. "I don't want parents to think, 'Oh, my kids' aren't in a gang, so they're safe.' ") 

And the girls: Why do they stay? Classic domestic-violence pathology, say experts. In an unfortunate mix of psychological circumstances, some girls take such intense control to mean, "I'm really special to this person," says Giggans. Plus, remember: Often, they have this guy's kid.  

Perhaps most important is: what can be done? Some of the most essential work is already under way: experts like Miller and Teitelman have not only recognized pregnancies, STDs -- or repeat requests for testing -- as warning signs and are working to train other teen health care providers to do the same. (Janey's 10 requests for Plan B should have sent up some sort of red flag.)

"Providers need to be asking questions like, 'Is this a pregnancy that you wanted? Did your partner ever mess with your birth control?' " says Miller.   

Peace Before Violence is one of many organizations working specifically to educate boys about healthy relationships in programs that focus on the positive aspects of strength and masculinity.

Others train boys' coaches to talk to their athletes about calling out their peers on violence against women and misogyny. Researchers, including Teitelman, are also studying exactly how parents can best educate their kids, not just about the birds and the bees, but also about standing up to sexual coercion. (In one study, Teitelman found teen girls whose mothers had talked to them about resisting sexual pressure were twice as likely to delay sex, or use condoms during sex; when fathers did the same, they were five times more likely to have safe sex.)  

And yes, we need to get even more dating-violence education into the schools. Though of course in this economy -- which some blame for a further rise in dating violence itself -- "most schools are barely doing sex ed and basic health," says Elizabeth Miller. Her vision: stop "siloing" the issues that affect teen sexual health and relationships.

"It doesn't make sense to talk about substance abuse use this week and pregnancy next week and STDs the following week and then healthy relationships the week after that," she says. "We need to be talking about how they're all linked together."

 
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