The Choice is the Thing

by Sophiedoodle
by Sophiedoodle

I’ve never been a teen mom, and I don’t have an abortion story to tell. I’ve only had one pregnancy, when I was in my 20s, and it resulted in the very premature birth of Little Jedi. But my story is atypical of those from my home, a small town in Mississippi with high teen pregnancy rates and virtually zero sex education.

*****

I grew up in a small town in Mississippi. Until 3rd grade I went to the local Christian private school, but then I transferred to the local public schools, where I was much happier. My parents took me to church at a small church in town where my grandmother and aunt were also members. I spent a lot of time there—youth group meetings, church services on Sundays and Wednesdays, and monthly denomination meetings in addition to a week of summer camp.

I’m not sure when someone first talked to me about sex, but I know that it was after I already knew what it was; I’d figured that out from the daytime soaps and inspired-by-a-true-story movies that were often on the TV as well as from long conversations with a few savvy friends. Discussions I had with my parents was frank but short.

Conversations tended to happen, at the times they did, in school and in youth group at church, and the talk was always framed in a negative way, even though it was an attempt to be positive. “Sex is special and wonderful” was an oft-echoed refrain—but sex wasn’t meant to be shared with anyone except a husband and wife, and It Could Change You.

The closest anyone got to giving practical advice about how to actually be abstinent was to say it was necessary to “set boundaries” and “avoid crossing them.” That didn’t mean anything to me—except maybe Never Be Alone With A Boy. It seemed fraught with peril—and that’s always where the girls in the stories got into trouble, the ones who either eventually could not maintain the boundaries they’d set for themselves or whose boundaries were violated by a person they’d trusted, those girls who ended up either with a baby at 16 or with multiple abortions by then.

The closest anyone got to giving practical advice about having safe premarital sex was to mutter the words “use condoms” before reminding us loudly that it was best just not to have sex. That was in school. We didn’t really have a sex education class—but our school nurse came to talk to us about sex in health class sometimes. She was candid and funny, but there were limits to what she was allowed to do and say in class.

Sometime in high school, the True Love Waits campaign was introduced to us. I took the pledge because it felt like I had to, like not doing so would make me impure even though I’d only ever kissed one by the time I was 16. I felt too afraid to ask for the birth control that I needed to regulate my periods, because I thought just the taking of the pill would taint me somehow. I would be a college student before I’d finally admit that my periods were, in fact, that bad and get some help from a gyno.

nekkocaseMine was one of two seeming reactions to the way sex education was approached in our area—either strict adherence to the abstinence education or absolute abandonment of it. And because we didn’t have many people advocating for our sexual health, those who abandoned the abstinence only route were wading into dangerous territory. They were less likely to have birth control or condoms, which made STIs and teen pregnancy more common. There was virtually no access to abortion in our area—anyone seeking an abortion would’ve needed to drive several hours, have several hundred dollars, and be willing to endure whatever insults were hurled at them on their way into the clinic.

And though I have never been a clinic protester, I have to own up to my own share of condemning abortion when I was younger. I didn’t understand then, all the nuances and arguments. It had been presented as a very absolute thing to me, and I was resolute.

But then I went to university. I got engaged to the first boy I slept with, and at 19, that was a terrible idea. That I was going to marry him at all is a mark of how strongly I felt about having lost my virginity to the boy—we were wholly unsuited to one another, but I could still be a Good Girl if we were engaged. Luckily, that wedding was called off well before I could make a major mistake.

At university I also met Lisa, whose name was not Lisa at all, but we’ll call her that because hers is not my story to tell. I was a university sophomore, and Lisa was a university freshman and a city local. She openly acknowledged the abortion she had the year before, and she was unwilling to apologize for it. I learned a lot from her—and I learned from Sally (also not a real name), who gave up her baby for adoption when she was a college senior.

bodiesThese were women making their own choices, and they needed to be free to do so. Sally and Lisa didn’t have to make the same choice—-nor did I. In fact, I made a completely different choice, to have Little Jedi and raise him. But I was 25, not 17 or 21.

I don’t know what I would’ve done at 17. Or at 21. I know I would’ve wanted to be able to choose for myself.

The choice is the thing.

 

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21 Comments

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  1. Sex ed is such a mess in our country. I don’t remember if there was any talk of contraception in my sex ed classes, but I was lucky enough to get those talks at home. My mom was very progressive and wanted us to know our rights and our options. She took me to get on the pill at 16 because of debilitating heavy periods. She had multiple talks with me throughout my childhood about sex. I always felt like I could talk to her and didn’t feel guilt or shame in regards to sex. I feel like that was a huge gift she gave me and my brother and sister. I even had some friends who would ask me to relay questions to my mom because they weren’t comfortable asking their own parents about anything related to sex.

    I’ve read some very interesting articles lately about abstinence and the pro-life movement. Basically they drill down with statistics and studies and facts and blow through every argument against birth control. They point out that if you really want to stop abortion, you stop pregnancy. With birth control, not fear or pledges or shame. While that is obvious, they go through the arguments from the pro-life perspective and still prove the fallacy in the reasoning against contraception. Of course, it all goes back to that nifty little idea of controlling women’s sexuality.

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  2. Of course I went to school in the Dark Ages so it should be no surprise that “sex ed” was non existent. What we got in 5th grade was the menstruation film strip and the school nurse who was too embarrassed to answer any questions. Then in 9th grade we had Human Bio, which was required, but parents could sign an opt out slip so that their kids didn’t get that one week unit on human reproduction. My mom signed it. I had to go to a different room during that week. Then my kids, who are 30-ish, attended school in a district that taught only abstinence. They were not allowed to discuss any kind of birth control at all. This was the same school district in which I taught sixth grade. I had one of my 6th graders (about 12 years old) come and ask me one day if it was true that a girl could get pregnant if her boyfriend touched her. I had her stay in at recess so I could talk to her and I had “that talk” with her even though I knew I could lose my job because of that talk. I wasn’t going to help the school district keep these kids in the dark!

    They need to know it all. All the alternatives to sexual intercourse; all the ways to prevent an STD if they do have intercourse; and all the ways to prevent a pregnancy they don’t want. It is their choice and we have to inform them of all the options so they can make an informed choice.

    Great post, Diana!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t imagine being in that situation of knowing that you need to help a kid out and also knowing that you could get fired for doing so. It’s unconscionable. I agree that they need to know it all—-I think we need to start when kids are young and teach them about consent and about sex and about childbirth—-because childbirth was another thing no one told me nearly enough about.

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  3. Great post, Diane. I was in a situation where my mother had had an abortion in college (her ‘cross’ hadn’t actually prevented the pregnancy) and had regretted it immensely, so she was very ‘abstinence!!!’ with my sister and I, even though we weren’t religious in that sense. My father doesn’t believe in birth control, either, so I basically grew up terrified that ANY kind of sex would get me pregnant, and it went so far that I refused, actually refused, to have a relationship of any kind with anyone until I was 24.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Alex.

      My mom had my oldest brother outside of marriage, and I think that she always carried some guilt with her about the way she handled it—-which definitely affected the way she handled the news that I was unmarried and pregnant. She and my dad really pressured me to get married, and I’m not sure I would’ve if they hadn’t insisted. Everything’s worked out for the est now, but it was a really messy situation.

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  4. I didn’t get engaged to the first boy I had sex with (who also happened to be my first boyfriend) but at one point, I expected too…more so because I was convinced I needed him than anything else. Though there was a time period where I was convinced I was pregnant despite being on birth control. Looking back, we were wholly unsuited for each other, too. Plus, the sex was terrible.

    This is a beautiful post, Diana. I wish more people could hear this and understand this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much.

      And yeah—I realized way later that the sex with the first boy was terrible. Maybe first sex usually is? But my goodness, I’m glad I didn’t stick with that first partner: we were unsuited in really every way.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I learned quite a lot from some dog-eared paperbacks that my friend Cat would squirrel away from her mother’s room and bring to school.

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  5. I’m lucky that we had good sex education at my school. Abstinence was encouraged, of course, but they did discuss all forms of birth control (not just condoms or the pill, but also IUDs, the patch, the shot, etc.). The teachers made a relatively comfortable environment, so people felt free to ask questions and participate.

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  6. I’m from a small town as well and teenage sex was a pretty common occurrence. We only heard about the girls who got pregnant – I’m sure there were some who made different choices and if they did, it shows that they had more information to make that choice. I think kids need to have all the information they can gather to make choices, whether to be abstinent or active. We’ve got a new sex-ed program in schools in Toronto and while there are many that are protesting it, I think it’s such a good thing. So many adults can’t talk their kids about sex and the ramifications and if they can learn that in school, I think that’s great. It’s obvious kids need the information to make choices. It’s their bodies and they need to learn about them. Teen pregnancy will always be an issue but I hope with more education, from both parents and schools, if need be, kids can start making the right choices that will protect themselves and others.
    Good topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sex education in the states varies from place-to-place, and I’ve tended to live in areas that insist on abstinence only education. But it’s been proven time and again to be an ineffective way of teaching kids about sex. There’s got to be some revision of the curriculum and an allowance for teaching kids about their own bodies. They need to start learning early, I think.

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  7. Sex education was pretty bad at my school, too–and it was an expensive private school! The first time we had any sex ed, it was in fifth or sixth grade. We got a long lecture about what happens to the sperm cells once they’re inside the woman’s body. When the lecture was over, I asked the innocent question “How does the sperm get inside the woman’s body?” The teacher got very angry at me, and had the basic response of “Don’t ask questions you already know the answers to!” But I honestly had no idea. I was still in grade school, and my parents were always very careful about what they let us watch on television. (If some rudimentary form of Internet existed at this point (late 1980s), it certainly wasn’t available in average homes.) Afterwards, some of the other students came over and made fun of me by way of giving me ludicrous “explanations” of how the sperm makes the leap; the only one I remember is the guy who claimed that men cut their penis off and give it to the woman. Even in 5th (or 6th) grade, I knew that was a lie, though I didn’t exactly call him on it. (Confrontations have never been my thing.) They gave us slightly better sex ed in high school, but even there it wasn’t very good, and mostly focused on the high probability of pregnancy, the dangers of STDs and the importance of using condoms, without any actual explanation of how sex actually works, and they were clearly uncomfortable with the whole process. End result? What little I know about sex, I learned from movies, books and the Internet. (And at this point, I’ve given up on ever getting to experience it.) Strangely, though, while those sex ed classes had the definite message of “don’t have sex because you’ll get pregnant if you do” I don’t think I ever even heard the word “abortion” until I was old enough to have no choice but to start noticing politics. (They forced us into a subscription to Newsweek in 8th grade, and we were expected to read the whole thing. I suspect that was about when I first encountered it.) I don’t think I ever talked about sex with my parents at all, apart from my mother once archly informing me that she waited until she was married, but she was sure *I* would sleep with the first man I could. (The annoying part about that–other than that she has since denied ever having said it–is that because no man ever asked, I can’t even prove that she was wrong.) Maybe they would have had a serious talk about sex with me if I had ever managed to start dating, but I kind of doubt it.

    What gets me about the abortion debate…actually, there’s a lot of things. I think it’s drawing away from much more important issues (like trying to stop polluting while we still have some semblance of an environment left, and cleaning up the mess we’ve already made) and it really bugs me that it’s such a hot button issue that the religious fundamentalists will vote exclusively based on a candidate’s abortion stance. Especially because of the hypocrisy. They call themselves “Pro-Life,” as if the one issue could wipe away everything else they’re voting for. I always want to print up a bunch of little cards and carry them in my purse, and every time I see a “Pro-Life” bumper sticker in a parking lot, I want to stick one of those cards under their windshield wipers, explaining how being anti-abortion is not the same thing as being in favor of life, considering that the politicians who are against abortion are also in *favor* of war and expanding the military, executions, free access to guns, and *against* cleaning up the environment, health care for the poor, et cetera. Every other issue on their plates is pro-death, but they have the gall to call themselves “Pro-Life.” That pisses me off more than anything else. (Especially because I live in a fairly conservative area, so those bumper stickers are bloody everywhere.)

    Just to qualify my earlier statement, when I said “much more important issues” I meant ones that are more important on a global scale. Abortion is obviously a very important issue in terms of the rights of women, and for that reason I’m always in favor of its legality, despite that I think abortion itself is a fairly awful thing (outside of rape and medical emergencies), and it’d be much better to prevent unwanted pregnancies from happening in the first place. (Though many of the people opposed to abortion are also opposed to sex ed in schools and birth control, another reason they make me so mad.) The really awful thing is how long the “debate” has been going on, and how said “debate” is always in the hands of men: in college, I once had to translate a poem where the poet was lambasting his girlfriend for having the gall to try to have an abortion. This poem? I was translating it from *Latin*. The poet, Catullus, once scored a dinner with Julius Caesar after having mocked him in some of his poems. That’s how long men have been complaining about women trying to take control of their own bodies. (I’m sure men complained about it if women tried it in ancient Greece, too, but I doubt they spent much time writing about it, except maybe for Galen, the medical writer. Though maybe if more of Sappho’s poems had survived, maybe then we’d have gotten a woman’s perspective on the issue…) Even worse, about this particular poem, was that the class was either all female or five girls and one guy. (Can’t recall anymore; it was about 20 years ago. But most of the Classics students at that school were girls.) The teacher was the biggest pervert ever, and even though the class title was “Catullus and Horace” he only assigned us Catullus, because Horace didn’t write any dirty poems. (I had only taken the class because I liked Horace’s work, naturally. I was not happy about the change.) What kind of sick man makes a class of five or so young college girls translate a poem about a man condemning his girlfriend–mistress, rather; he was probably married–for attempting to have an abortion? Especially since he didn’t, as I recall, seem at all worried about the fact that abortion in those days was as likely to kill the mother as the baby. He was just angry at her for trying to kill his kid. Her safety didn’t register with him at all. And this teacher thought it was a great idea to force a bunch of 20ish girls to translate this poem. Ugh.

    Uh, sorry. That turned into a longer response than some blog posts…

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    1. Oh, where to start?! First of all, thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment.

      I think I learned about the actual mechanics of sex mostly from friends and from TV—it was one of those things that you didn’t talk about. What I learned about sex from any sort of authority figure was either cloaked in language about how much we’d regret not waiting until we were married or was very clinical. I didn’t feel like I could ask a lot of questions, either. And everything was made 12 times more complicated by being bisexual but not knowing that was a thing—LGBT issues were also not discussed except in whispers.

      And I also have a lot of the same problems with the so-called pro-life movement that you mention—it seems like they’re not terribly pro-life at all. If it were up to me, everyone would have clothes, food, shelter, and healthcare at least, but most pro-lifers balk at that thought. It doesn’t make sense to me.

      And oooooh man—what an awful thing for a teacher to do!!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. There are so many things you bring up here. Personally I feel sex education is of utmost importance, however sometimes the parents in our generation did not feel comfortable.
    I live in a very conservative society and abortion is illegal. However the government does distribute condoms freely. This has more to do with the very high HIV rate. Unfortunately even then baby dumping is done, and that is so heart breaking. People tend to be judgmental but the circumstances of a woman doing that must be very dire. The rate of domestic violence and rape of women here is also very high.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think sex ed is an incredibly important thing—and I’m stuck in a place where the older generation does not agree at all, too. We don’t have the same sort of problems that you mention, but we’re moving so far backward from the progress we’d made for abortion and birth control rights here in the U.S. that I fear we’re headed toward another very dark time for women here.

      Liked by 1 person

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