Crossposted @ Amplify
Recently I was struck by the decision of a Wyoming school to offer two sex education courses, one abstinence only and one comprehensive, in order to allow parents to choose which education their children will be receiving. On the surface this may seem like a slight step forward, progress in the sense that at least all of the information is now being offered. This is what I originally thought, and yet, there was a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away, a feeling that told the truth: nothing has changed.
The thing is, the whole sex-education debate boils down to trust in the end. Do we (society, parents, school administrators, etc.) trust teenagers enough to make wise decisions, once armed with all of the information? What this decision (and others) show us is that, obviously, we do not (at least not in this school district and others like it.)
While I find the idea of two separate classes completely ridiculous (teenagers who choose abstinence for now will still, most likely, need to know about contraceptives and safe sex later in life. Why not get them the education now?) I do think that this program could have seemed like progress to me – if it empowered the teens. If the school district were to allowed the students to decide which class they would like to attend then I could appreciate this program more because it would symbolize the school district, and the parents, trusting their teens enough to take license over their own sex education and, by extension, their own bodies.
However, that’s not what happened, and I for one am not surprised. This fundamental mistrust is evident throughout the “culture wars” over sex. It can be seen clearly in the fight over comprehensive sex education but it is also very clear in another area – abortions. Just like many abstinence-only advocates don’t seem to trust teens to be able to listen to information about sex and safe sex without running out and having sex (whether they originally wanted to or not), many anti-abortion advocates and people with considerable power don’t seem to trust women to understand what they are doing when they get an abortion. For evidence of this just look to the states that impose mandatory counseling or waiting periods for a woman to “reflect” before getting her abortion – as if she had not already given the issue enough thought on her own?
This mistrust even extends to women looking for contraceptives, or surgeries, that would keep them from becoming pregnant. This article, for instance, speaks of a situation that is all too common; a woman goes to her doctor to request a tubal litigation (this happens with many long-term or permanent types of contraceptive choices) and is told by her doctor…
The article goes on the express this particular couple’s frustration in a way that is very applicable to this blog post:
A tubal ligation was simply not even open for discussion. He told her that she might get involved with someone else down the road and regret her decision. He told her it’s a permanent sterilization method and he’s had so many patients wanting it reversed, that he won’t even consider performing one now on any woman under 25.
Seymour and Sylvester were shocked.
“I don’t really understand,” her husband says. “I thought it would be our decision to make, not somebody else’s, about what we can and cannot do.”
Seymour resented being treated as if she weren’t old enough to know what she was doing. She’s a married college graduate and mother; she’s weighed the ramifications and decided, with her husband, that this is what she wants.
This story occurs far too often (and far more often, incidentally, then we hear about men being refused vasectomies*) because doctors just can’t seem to trust a woman to know herself well enough to be able to decide when she does not want to be able to get pregnant.
As you can see this mistrust causes people, especially women, stress – it shames teenage girls who choose sex, makes getting an abortion an even more unnecessarily stressful experience, and even keeps women from being able to choose when they want to stop having children. Yet this mistrust is even more harmful then we may first estimate.
Just look at the number of articles written about cases of rape or sexual assault where the victim is blamed in some way for their attack**, or (even worse) accused of lying for attention or to cover up a drunken mistake – this is the consequence of a society that is taught not to trust women with their own bodies. If we are taught that teenagers (especially teenage girls***) cannot be trusted to make their own choices about sex then why would we trust them when they claim to have been assaulted?
Its worse than that though, this mistrust itself actually fuels many of these assaults; all too often it seems people operate under the false assumption that when a woman says no, she really means yes – an assumption that comes directly from the idea that women are not strong enough to make decisions about sex and need to have their “virtue” protected.
Obviously this lack of trust needs to be eradicated fast.
In one of my first posts on Amplify I wrote (indirectly) about this lack of trust. I was talking about a conversation between Jessica Valentia and Laura Ingram on the Laura Ingram show, and how Laura worked very hard to make it seems as if all teenage girls who have sex are somehow damaged from the experience. In this post I said:
Whether you’ve had sex or not you can fight this horrible dichotomy simply by using your voice, expressing who you are (sexuality and all) and not putting up with value judgment based on virginity anymore. If we can make strides in breaking down the idea that all women who have premarital sex are “girls gone wild” then, who knows, people like Ingram may even realize we have more in common than we think![…] I really believe that Jessica has the right idea, she’s getting out there and opening the conversation as a mature, strong, intelligent and lovely woman who happens to be sexually active. I believe the saying, “the best revenge is living well” can be applied here… the best way to fight this dichotomy is living well and being open about our sexuality.
Today I stand by those words and would even like to take them further. One of the most powerful things I have witnessed was the abortion speakout at the CLPP Conference this year. I can’t go into specifics (those familiar with speakouts will know that they typically come with a promise not to repeat the stories that you are lucky enough to bear witness to) but that was the first time I ever heard abortion spoken about in a positive way and it amazed me. There were stories of regret, of course, because some women do regret abortions – just like some women regret carrying to term and wither keeping the baby or putting it up for adoption.
Basically, we’ve been silent too long. The best thing for us, as pro-choice teenagers, to do is to tell our stories and show those around us that we are strong, smart, and capable of deciding what happens to our bodies.
* I’m fairly sure this happens because, we as a society, seem to trust men more to know what they want – but I wonder why that is. Is it because of our cultural perception of women as weak and in need of “protection”? The cultural idea of women as nurturers (who will always regret permanent/long-term contraception because the “automatically” will always have the urge to keep reproducing) and men as more work-oriented (thus not really wanting children)? Or, maybe it has to do with our cultural perception of men as more analytical, thus, able to make better decisions?
** I actually wrote about an occurrence of victim blaming and rape apology here.
** Abstinence-only programs often, very clearly, place more pressure on teenage girls to stay “pure” than teenage boys – just look at the hyper-focus we, as a society, place on virginity for evidence. Most disturbing (to me) is the implication often made that it is up to teenage boys to resist sex, not for the sake of their own “purity”, but so that they don’t sully “some other man’s future wife” and the large amounts of pressure put on fathers to protect their daughter’s “virtue.”