Monday, April 2, 2012

How Abstinence-Only Education Nearly Fucked Me For Life

[TW for abstinence-only propaganda, denial of autonomy, menstruation (and all the horrid symptoms that come with it), miscarriage, STIs]
It is a proven fact that an abstinence-only “education” that fails to teach young women how to protect themselves from pregnancy and STIs, that removes women from their bodily autonomy and forces them to make “choices” that aren’t really choices, is the real cause of the physical and psychological harm that abstinence-only advocates claim comes from premarital sex.

I didn’t have my first “sex-ed” class until I was in my sophomore year of high school.  A lovely woman from the local health clinic volunteered, like she did every year, to teach us young folk how to properly use condoms, complete with the traditional demonstration with a banana.  Along with this pertinent and relevant information, she also informed us of the proper ways to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and all was well with the world.  That is, until she was banned from teaching at our school right after that lesson.  According to the school, who as far as I know wasn’t officially teaching sexual education under an abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) curriculum at the time, the lesson was “obscene” and would no longer be available to us.  Instead, the following year (we had sexual education classes every year), we were given a brief summary of the same information that we had heard the previous year, albeit censored and without the demonstrations, and the rest of the lesson was spent teaching us about abstinence.  I actually stood up and told the gym teacher (they wouldn’t even allow a health professional to give the lesson), “You do realize that most of us in the room have already had sex, right?”  She paused for a moment, probably to clutch her metaphorical pearls, and instead of actually answering my question, completely ignored it and continued her speech about abstinence.

The AOUM curriculum is teaching young people that sex is dangerous to their health, when in reality, it’s the AOUM curriculum that is the real danger to young people.  The AOUM curriculum failed me personally in multiple ways, both reproductively and medically. The first time AOUM failed me was when I was having heavy periods that would last anywhere from 7-10 days (one time I had my period for two weeks straight), accompanied by debilitating cramps that left me nauseated and unable to move.  I didn’t know anything about birth control pills.  I knew how they worked, sure, but I was never told how to procure them.  I was never told that I could go to Planned Parenthood and get them without my parents’ knowledge for a reduced fee, or even no fee at all.  So for six years, from the time I was 12 until I was 18, I suffered in agony. 

The second time AOUM failed me was when I was 17.  I was in a possibly-romantic but definitely-sexual relationship with a young man I had met a few months prior.  We were using condoms, of course, because I was a smart young woman who didn’t want to get pregnant or get an STI.  However, when my period was two weeks late, I began to panic.  I couldn’t bring myself to take a pregnancy test after the first week.  “Just one more day,” I would tell myself.  “Just one more day and then if it doesn’t show up I’ll take a test.”  I never did, of course, despite the fact that the thought of food made me feel sick to my stomach and my breasts felt like two heavily-beaten piƱatas.  About three days after the “two week wait,” my period finally showed.  It was the heaviest, most painful period I had ever had, accompanied by strange masses of grayish matter that I had never seen before.  At the time, I thought it was just extra-heavy because it was so late;  the thought of a miscarriage never crossed my mind.  I actually never did find out if I was pregnant or if that period was a miscarriage;  part of me still wonders sometimes, and part of me never wants to know.  The point of this story is that if I had known about how to procure and use birth control pills, if AOUM hadn’t suppressed that information and made me feel ashamed to ask anyone about them, the answer would have had a 99.9% chance instead of a 50/50 chance of being no.   

The third time AOUM failed me was when I entered a monogamous relationship with another man four years later.  While my school hadn’t gone so far as to say you had to be married in order to have sex, you had to at least be monogamous, and the implication was that this somehow made you immune to STIs.  Because I was finally on the pill and, hey, we were monogamous after all, the condom use fell by the wayside.  So you can imagine my surprise when my gynecologist called me at home a few days after my annual pap smear to tell me that not only did I have an abnormal pap smear result, I also had Chlamydia. (I wrote a whole other post about this, which you can find here.) Turns out that my partner at the time had had some not-so-safe fun with another woman before we got together and he had passed what she had given him along to me.  What the school failed to tell me, no thanks to AOUM, was that previous partners of my current partner might have had (or still have) something that they passed on to him, who could in turn pass it on to me, no matter how faithfully monogamous we both were.  Thanks to the privilege of health insurance, we both got treated right away, but if AOUM had given me the proper information in the first place, this whole situation might have been avoided.

The way AOUM chooses to educate young people about sex is atrocious.  As Michelle Fine and Sara I. McClelland state in their article "Sexuality Education and Desire: Still Missing after All These Years," we are “being educated to mistrust condoms and contraception, to feel shame about [our] premarital sexuality, and to remain silent about [our] own sexual development…by condemning premarital sexual activity, contraception, and condoms—educators, policymakers, and families are placing young people at risk” (24).  Despite the fact that sex education doesn’t increase sexual activity among young people, and instead increases the sense of sexual responsibility held by each person getting involved in a sexual relationship (25), more often than not, AOUM is the chosen curriculum for sexual education for our young people.  Rather than arming young people, particularly young women (who will feel the brunt of the reproductive and social responsibility should they get pregnant or contract an STI) with the knowledge they will need to navigate the world of sexuality without reproductive or health consequences, we are sending them into battle unarmed, and the evidence proves it.  I hope that by sharing my real-life examples and adding them to the evidence pile, I have made this fact as crystal clear and as salient as possible.

Fine, Michelle, and Sara I. McClelland. "Sexuality Education and Desire: Still Missing after All These 
Years." Graduate Center, City University of New York. Print.