My sophomore year of high school, a guest speaker came to talk to us in our health class. She put a Hershey’s Kiss on each of our desks and told us that we could eat it whenever we wanted: now, later, or even with lunch! At this juncture, I opened mine up and popped it right into my mouth. She then proceeded to show us a PowerPoint detailing various STIs and how each of them could ruin our lives, how having multiple sexual partners would increase our risk of contracting an STI tenfold and how condoms were not 100 percent guaranteed to work, so why would we even be thinking about sex outside of marriage? Processing all this information, my classmates and I packed up our things to head to our next block. As I put my notebook back into my bag, she left us these parting words: “Oh, and for those of you who didn’t eat that Hershey’s Kiss just yet: Doesn’t it feel good to wait?”
Not to be dramatic, but thinking about that makes me feel terrible to this day. That little spiel –– the little comment about the Hershey’s Kiss I couldn’t keep myself from eating –– made up the entirety of my high school sex education. I was 15 at an all-girls Catholic school who barely interacted with any boys. I wasn’t “sexually active” and was probably nowhere near ready to be, but I still felt disgusting and guilty for having eaten that Hershey’s Kiss and for not waiting. There are a lot of things that I loved about my high school, but it was Catholic and predominantly pro-life, which made it near impossible to talk about sex, sexuality and reproductive rights without sparking great controversy among the militantly pro-life crowd. And in this current time period, I wish I had received a little more guidance. I wish I could have had guidance when navigating the world of contraception. I wish I could have had an adult to talk to whom I trusted, someone who had told me that I didn’t need to be ashamed of my body and my choices; someone to hold my hand and walk me through the process; someone who could give me an honest and frank education. I wish I had someone with me at Planned Parenthood when I started crying while trying to get birth control because I was overwhelmed and I had no idea what my options were or what to do. I am eternally grateful to the friend who came with me to Walgreens the morning I had to purchase Plan B, but I wish I had a grown-up I trusted to tell me that what I was doing was OK.
Having such a limited scope when it comes to sex education makes it difficult to really parse out the nuances that come up when we discuss reproductive rights. For instance, the guest speaker did insinuate to us that Planned Parenthood was lying to us, that there was no point in going to them for birth control or contraceptives because those were immoral, and besides, they provide abortions. She neglected to tell us about the litany of services provided other than abortion, even aside from contraceptives, and how the federal funding they receive doesn’t even pay for abortions. She told us life begins at conception, but there was no discussion of how a fetus doesn’t even feel pain until 20 to 26 weeks into a pregnancy and the complexity of ethics surrounding personhood. She cheerfully assumed that we all had the eventual intention of becoming wives and mothers, without mentioning that abortions are statistically safer than carrying to term, and the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is rising. In retrospect, it was odd for her to claim moral authority on behalf of the church when we could talk about how women terminating pregnancies without moral condemnation was incredibly common for a great deal of human history. By not providing us with the information we need to make crucial decisions about our bodies — indeed, our health — the guest speaker my high school hired to handle our sex education was essentially telling us she didn’t trust us. She didn’t trust us with facts, and she didn’t trust us to use those facts to make informed decisions about our bodies.
As further efforts to restrict abortion are made by the government at the federal, state and local levels, it becomes clear the guest speaker is not the only one with the trust issue, but our nation as a whole is having trouble trusting women. It seems as though reproductive rights are constantly under attack, and women are often shamed and judged under the guise of concern. When we examine frankly how women’s behavior is policed, it reveals the true patriarchal (and oftentimes racist and classist) nature of how we view women and their sexual behavior. If the concern was about the loss of fertilized eggs, then why do we not see more pro-life activists talking about and investing in attempts to prevent miscarriages? This is already an under-discussed issue, yet about 15-25 percent of recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. When data show that access to comprehensive sex education and contraceptives decreases abortion rates, why does the pro-life movement insist on abstinence-only sex education and limiting access to contraceptives? To me, this serves to solely to police the behavior of women and to punish them for not adhering to arbitrary standards of sexual purity.
Why is society unable to trust women as rational, thoughtful, responsible moral agents, perfectly capable of weighing the moral decision of what to do when and while they’re pregnant? Using abortion laws and abstinence-only sex education to police women and their bodies prevents us from having open, honest discussions about the health and well-being of women and their families. If we truly want reproductive justice, we need to shift the conversations we’re having about women and abortion from controlling, policing and judging to fact-based and honest conversations, and we need to start with young women.
My younger sister is a sophomore in high school now and she’s probably going to take a health class very similar to the one I took. The thought of her going out into a world where her reproductive rights are called into question; where she is so utterly without a clue that she, too, starts crying at Planned Parenthood because no one ever taught her how to be the authority on her own body. We need to trust women to be the authorities of their own bodies, but we need to give them the language, the confidence, the knowledge and the education to do so. Speak to young women candidly about their bodies and their reproductive choices. Maybe then we can prevent at least one more girl from having a nervous breakdown at Planned Parenthood and from having Hershey’s Kisses ruined for her forever.
Caroline Llanes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.