I wasn’t going to publish this post, because it is substantially more personal than I’ve gotten before. But in light of this recent article about the intersection of purity culture and rape culture, and considering our Vice President has once again declared his dedication to ending safe abortion in the U.S., I figured it might be a timely and helpful addition to the conversation.
I grew up in a household so concerned with “modesty” that I was afraid of my own body. I dressed in baggy clothes because I was ashamed of my womanly shape; even thinking about my own breasts made me blush with guilt. Colorful belts that drew attention to my hips were yanked off my size-too-large jeans by my angry father. He would also make me spin in front of him, displaying my frumpy outfits, to make sure it “wasn’t my fault” when a stranger stared.
Movies or television that had any nudity — especially male nudity — was strictly forbidden (even the one-piece suits from Star Trek were potential stumbling blocks and given a suspicious side eye). We were supposed to close or avert our eyes if two actors kissed on screen, and all sex scenes, no matter how benign, were fast-forwarded. Once the TV got thrown out altogether as a reaction to an actor with a tight T-shirt. Even to this day, when watching TV my littlest siblings are ushered out of the room at any mention of sex or the human body.
Perhaps all of this, while stressful and oppressive, wouldn’t have affected me as much if I’d been attending a public school, but I was home-schooled and had maybe two friends my own age (neither of whom were allowed makeup or piercings well into their teens). We didn’t have access to the internet in my house until 2010, and even then our use of it was heavily monitored. There was no way for me to gain information about the outside world, or learn about my own body — how it worked, how to navigate it, what would make me feel good.
Knowing all of this, it will come as a surprise to no one to realize I didn’t lose my virginity until very late. I was already out of the house and living on my own. All preparation, all education on safe sex, contraception, STD’s, plan B, was left up to me. How to enjoy sex — how to say no when I didn’t feel like it, how to make sure I got what I needed, how to make boundaries for my own mental or physical health — was not even a consideration. That I escaped my first forays into that arena without mental scarring, diseases, or an unwanted pregnancy is still a mystery to me.
How Planned Parenthood Came to the Rescue
When you hear testimonials about Planned Parenthood, they have a lot to do with large scale issues: terminating pregnancies, catching breast cancer, identifying sufferers of abuse. My own story is more mundane, but honestly changed my world by allowing me to exist with confidence, beyond the shame and fear that previously had been the only concepts associated with sex.
An anxious person by nature, and paranoid to the point of tears at the prospect of sex-related complications, I had many questions after becoming sexually active. The only place I had to turn was the Planned Parenthood telephone number. I still remember ducking out of my catering job, leaving shaky messages full of questions I knew I should already know. Did breakthrough bleeding mean the pill wasn’t working? If I missed a pill, should I take two at once when I remembered? If I was on the pill, but the condom broke, did I need to take Plan B? If I took Plan B but also continued taking my daily pill, did the effects cancel each other out? How long before I could take a pregnancy test?
They were infinitely patient with me, and soon knew me by name. They didn’t just answer the questions, they offered instruction and education, facts and statistics that I could carry into my next encounter. I was able to stop stressing, and learned how to be as protected (and as comfortable) as possible.
Here’s the thing, though. If I had still been a devout Conservative Christian while exploring my sexuality for the first time (I’d distanced myself from the family faith a while ago), I don’t know what I would have done. I certainly wouldn’t have called Planned Parenthood. That nonjudgmental, infinitely valuable resource wouldn’t even be a blip on my radar. All they did was perform abortions and sell body parts, after all!
Now that I am older and watching my siblings begin wrestling with similar questions and concerns, I am frustrated. They are all still extremely embedded in the culture of the Religious Right, and even the name Planned Parenthood is taboo. Regardless of one’s position on abortion, to even suggest this institution has value is scandalous.
No Accessible or Acceptable Alternatives Exist For the Right
Perhaps if there were less controversial equivalents, this censoring of the nation’s largest and oldest provider of sex education and preventative care wouldn’t be as devastating. But as far as I know, there are no easily accessible, more “ideologically acceptable” alternatives (and if there were, they almost certainly wouldn’t be a resource for LGBTQ+ individuals.) Of course there aren’t, because the Conservative Christian agenda has an intense hatred for the idea of women controlling the terms of procreation.
This onslaught of ire against contraceptive measures is undeniable, even looking at this last year alone. In February 2017, Oklahoma Representative Justin Humphrey (R) stated that women are merely “hosts” for fetuses when trying to pass HR 1441 and HR 1559. In November 2017, Wisconsin Representative Scott Allen (R) said insurance shouldn’t cover abortions because it would “negatively impact the labor force.” The Trump administration has not stopped its intense onslaught against affordable contraception since he took office in 2016 (and he ties these issues right back to the Christian faith).
The reasons this barrage of attacks and dehumanizing of women is so popular on the Right is anyone’s guess (it can’t be to actually prevent unplanned pregnancy because it’s been proven to do the exact opposite), but one cannot deny that it is happening. And regardless of whether or not liberating and nonjudgmental sex education is coming from the dreaded Double P or not, it is difficult to imagine it being accepted or accessible in those circles.
Best Case Scenarios Are Still Bad Without Sex Education
I can’t imagine what my life would be like now if I hadn’t ditched the limited notions I’d been raised with by the time I started having sex. Where would I be if I still felt that old shame when thinking about my body, if I still operated with a lexicon that didn’t include words like “contraception,” “sex education,” and “safe sex,” if I still felt the same anger and disgust at the very idea of Planned Parenthood? The absolute best case scenario would be prolonged emotional and mental suffering from constant paranoia and confusion, a burden placed squarely and exclusively on the woman (at least in cishet couples).
I don’t want that for my siblings, or for the multitudes of young, sheltered women. I don’t want them to be in a position where they have to deal with an unplanned pregnancy or an abortion that would wreck their lives and relationships because of a lack of sexual education. But when the biggest and best provider of that education is maligned, shunned, and actively attacked, the odds against that don’t look great. And that terrifies me. It should terrify you too.
Originally published on Medium in March 2018.