On Pregnancy, Shame, and Abstinence-Only Sex Education

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I am a person with a uterus who does not want to have children. That is my decision to make about my own body, and I’m quite happy with it. Many other people have discussed how this is an autonomy issue, and how telling persons with uteruses that they’ll change their mind someday or that their life won’t be complete without children is profoundly sexist and part of controlling women’s bodies and women’s lives. We’re far from alone: the birth rate in my country has gone down, which is probably due to several factors including that women have gained more autonomy over their bodies and lives, access to contraception and abortion have improved, cost of raising a child has increased dramatically and my generation is already struggling with high costs of living. There’s another factor that I want to talk about today: abstinence-only sex education.

Like many other people in the United States, I grew up with abstinence-only sex ed. It did not cover contraception of any kind, safer sex barriers, or anything remotely approaching queer sex. Sex acts other than PIV were brought up only to tell us that you can still contract STIs from them (which is true), followed by a battery of propaganda on how STIs are incurable (true for some STIs) and will thoroughly and entirely ruin your life and your future (not true). The whole regime instilled me with shame and confusion regarding sex, and a profound lack of understanding regarding sexual pleasure. It also instilled me and my peers with a deep seated fear of pregnancy.

One day, I was sitting in my college Earth science class with a couple of acquaintances, the kind you don’t know very well but talk to occasionally and do classwork with. The class had a couple hundred students in it, and we sat at the back of the lecture hall. One of my acquaintances noticed a person a few rows down from us who was very clearly pregnant. Her reaction was something along the lines of “oh god how awful, poor thing, I’m so glad that isn’t me.” I responded that she didn’t know the pregnant person’s situation, and that they could be thrilled to be having a baby. That possibility literally had not occurred to my acquaintance. I was really struck by this moment. When did the de facto response to pregnancy change from “congratulations” to “I’m so sorry”? From “yay, a baby!” to “that’s got to be so hard for you”? Probably after young people spent years being told that sex and pregnancy were to be avoided at all costs, and that people who get pregnant are immoral, dirty, and wrong.

Something I’ve never understood is how these same people who advocate for abstinence-only in schools are the ones who still expect us to get married young and start popping out babies. They want to protect their children from the great sin of happy consensual sex, but then expect them to provide grandchildren by the age of 25. They teach teenagers that sex should scare them, and then say that sex is a required part of marriage and expect them to get on board. The things that you teach children have consequences. You can’t just flip a switch and expect eight years of being taught fear and shame surrounding sex and pregnancy to disappear and be replaced by a burning desire to have babies.

It’s okay if you want to have babies. It’s okay if you don’t. What isn’t okay is a system designed to influence people’s choices by making them afraid. Everyone should have access to complete, accurate information before making decisions about their lives and their bodies, and abstinence-only sex education does not even come close to that.

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