Living in a state of freedom

You may wonder why I’m always blogging about emergency contraception (EC) and birth control. What does it have to do with domestic violence? Why would an advocate need to talk about this with a survivor of abuse? And why should domestic violence programs have EC, pregnancy tests, and condoms available on site?

If you have never experienced it, it might be hard to understand how birth control sabotage, or reproductive or sexual coercion, is an incredibly powerful way to exert power and control over someone. Imagine someone flushing your pills down the toilet or poking holes in a condom. What about stopping you from getting to the clinic to get your Depo shot? Or forcibly pulling out your IUD by the strings? If you’re in an abusive relationship, negotiations around birth control and whether to have—or not have—children might happen without your opinion being respected or even considered. The harm of this may be invisible to an outsider, but when survivors of abuse are not allowed to make their own decisions about pregnancy, they lose control over the trajectory of their life and their connection to the abuser. And they have to constantly weigh the risks of any act of resistance, any attempt at independence.

Domestic violence advocates know that survivors coming to their programs are experiencing a range of abusive behaviors. But even if they are experiencing reproductive or sexual coercion, it is usually not something they bring up. If we want long-term solutions for survivors and their children, then we need to bring it up. Offering EC and birth control information, and having it available on site, is a liberatory act.

We need to offer it because Plan B or Levonorgestrel (emergency contraception) is effective within five days after unprotected intercourse and is available to anyone, no matter age or gender, without a prescription. We need to offer it so that survivors know we are comfortable talking about sex, birth control (especially forms that are less likely to be felt by a partner), and reproductive health. We need to offer it because access to timely information and practical help can change the circumstances of someone’s life. And we need to offer it because advocacy is about supporting someone to determine their own life—to live in a state of freedom.

A flock of birds and the words "I'm Free"

Yes! No. Maybe?

Many people equate BDSM with abuse, but in fact that community can teach us a lot of great lessons about healthy relationships. You might be shaking your head in consternation right about now. But playing with power dynamics or intense bdsmphysical sensation is not the same as being abusive, violent, or controlling.

In one of my previous lives, I worked for several years as a sex educator for a feminist sex shop. While I was relatively open-minded, I had a lot to learn. Because even if I wasn’t particularly interested in something for myself, I had to be able to speak knowledgably and non-judgmentally with customers, many of whom were trusting me with vulnerable information. In any given week, I might help a 70-year-old woman who’d never had an orgasm or a 40-year-old man struggling to open up to his partner about his desires to explore role play.

I learned a lot, not just about sex but about communication and boundaries and consent and exploration and healthy relationships. All things that you need to engage successfully in BDSM.

Most people, especially when playing with a new partner, have a get-together where they chat about their yes/no/maybe list. The “yes” list is filled with all the activities you know you enjoy, the “no” list is all about the things you do not want under any circumstances. And the “maybe” list can include things you haven’t tried yet but might be interested in or things that might be okay in certain situations.

This list is one of my favorite tools, and anyone—any gender, any sexuality—can use it, regardless of what kinds of sex they like to have. It’s a great way to think about what your own desires are. And when you do it with a partner, you get to see where your interests overlap, where you might do some new exploration, and where the hard boundaries are. This is just one way to get to that “enthusiastic consent” that so many people are talking about right now.

Or you can do a yes/no/maybe list about other kinds of physical and emotional affection. “Holding hands in public—yes! Hand on my neck—nope. Deep kisses—maybe, but only if we’re in a private place.” For survivors of abuse, this can be a useful bridge to regaining ownership of their bodies and their desires. Being explicit about what is and isn’t okay can help avoid triggering incidents and make them feel safer.

Using the list might seem a little silly or even boring, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. If you find yourself tongue-tied when talking about what you want, it can be a great way to lay your cards on the table ahead of time, when you’re more able to think clearly. Give it a try!

Let’s talk about sex, ba-by

I just watched the trailer for Daddy I Doa documentary about purity balls. What’s a purity ball, you ask? It’s basically a wedding-like ceremony where teen daughters pledge to their fathers that they will remain a virgin until they are married. There are so many things about this that get me riled up, like haven’t we moved past the idea that girls belong to their fathers until they can be married off?

In the trailer, some of the men talk about how they of course wouldn’t tell their daughters how to have safe sex, because they shouldn’t be having sex at all! It’s this way of thinking that is driving support for abstinence-only sex education. But we know abstinence-only sex education is not very effective at lowering teen pregnancy and STI rates.

When I was growing up in the South, this kind of thing was happening. I remember one day in homeroom, we all had a little slip of paper on our desks with the purity pledge on it. The teacher didn’t make us sign it, but she did ask that we take it home, talk with our parents about it, and seriously consider signing it. I was creeped out by it, but at least it wasn’t a substitute for the small amount of medically accurate sex education that we got in school.

condom-die-funny-gifs-Favim.com-918205

These purity balls and pledges send messages that girls shouldn’t have sex (boys will be boys), girls bear the burden of this responsibility (because, boys will be boys), and girls’ virginity is more important than boys’.

But an even bigger problem is that it leaves a gaping hole in the conversations we should be having with our kids about healthy relationships. As much as we might want to stick our fingers in our ears and sing lalalala, the teens in our lives are (probably) making their way around the bases with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Let’s give them accurate and complete info about sex. And I’m not just talking contraceptives and STIs here. Let’s tell them that sex is about pleasure. Let’s tell them that there’s no shame in feeling what they are feeling (whether they’re wanting to have sex or not). Let’s talk about the things you should look for in a healthy relationship like love, respect, and trust and how that should apply to the sex part too. Let’s talk about how powerful they are that they get to make smart, informed choices about their bodies. Let’s talk about that.

Teens want to talk

“It might be easier if you talk to my teenagers and I talk to yours.” That’s where a chat with a good friend went when we realized our teenagers no longer wanted to discuss sex with us or their dads. Even though I have had pretty frank conversations with them in the past about emergency contraception, responses to street harassment, and grinding at dances, I understand that I’m not their only source of information. Most teenagers I know think that conversations at home, school health class, and with their friends are all they need. Maybe so, but I know my daughters forget things and don’t always have the most current information. Sometimes they are just plain wrong. And I’m sure they’ve never practiced telling someone they care about “No, I don’t feel comfortable doing that.” Whatever that is—sex acts, drugs, drinking, or anything else.

Some of the complicated conversations I want someone to have with my kids:

  1. Medically accurate information about all available forms of birth control
  2. Knowing how to respond when a friend or potential partner oversteps their boundaries
  3. Deciding when is the right time to have sex
  4. Knowing how to freely say yes or no to anything involving your sexuality
  5. What to do or say if a friend has difficult questions or secrets they don’t feel comfortable keeping
  6. Knowing where to get good information and help—online or in-person
  7. Strategies for stepping in to help someone else
  8. Knowing the qualities of a healthy relationship and believing they deserve it
  9. Knowing how to talk to a friend about his or her relationship

teens-talkingI think teenagers want lots of chances to talk about these things. As a parent, your best bet may be to find the right person to initiate those conversations. Think about a terrific woman or man that you trust who could engage your teenager. It might be a relative, friend, or an educator from Planned Parenthood. You could set up one or several conversations with this trusted adult, add some food, a couple of your teenager’s close friends and leave for a few hours. I did this with my daughters. I know it was a success because one of my daughters said to me “we talked about a lot of things that I wouldn’t want to talk about with you.” I understood what she meant. With me, she has to worry about my judgment or if I’ll ask too many follow-up questions. This way, we can pick up the conversation whenever they want and I sleep a little better at night.

My birthday reverie for my girls, and for every girl

birthday-cupcakesMy twin daughters just turned 16. Along with the incredible gratitude and hardly-contained love I feel for my children, I wanted to reflect on being a parent in this particular moment in time.

  1. I remember having dreamy day-dreams imagining my twin daughters as sixteen-year-olds.
  2. I wondered what kind of parent I would become. Do I have the freedom to make mistakes?
  3. I want to fearlessly talk with them about sex, life, death, relationships and their place in the world—no matter how anxious it makes me.
  4. I ask myself, will my children actually talk to me or ignore me?
  5. I worry about all that could happen to them and they show me their enduring resilience every day.
  6. I look around and try to understand the world they live in.
  7. I stand back and observe their friendships—what are they saying to each other?
  8. I see who they choose to hang out with. I embrace these new voices of authority and look for openings of influence.
  9. I watch them try to figure out who they are while bathed in pop culture, hoping I resonate down deep.
  10. I expect them to be kind to the awkward kid at school.
  11. I hope they have the right information to share with a friend who’s in trouble.
  12. I quake at the thought of their first relationship—let it be caring, fun, and nurturing.
  13. I yearn for teachers that ignite their curiosity and respect their thinking.
  14. I optimistically expect that all the adults around them will demonstrate loving and equitable relationships.
  15. I imagine them standing up for their friends and joining with strangers to build their community.
  16. I long to raise brave, lion-hearted, compassionate, jubilant, genuine young women who can take care of themselves, will experience sustenance in their work, and express love for themselves and those they hold dear.

Why aren’t they restricting condoms?

Not exactly on point, but I got what my teenager was asking. Even she gets the double-standard of the Obama administration’s position on emergency contraception. She asked, “If they think that making it easy for girls to get emergency contraception means that they are going to have more sex, then why do boys get to buy condoms without any problems?” This is mind-boggling coming after President Obama’s speech at the Planned Parenthood Conference: “When it comes to a woman’s health, no politician should get to decide what’s best for you.”condoms

Why do I have a problem with the government policy? Because of all the barriers: you must be 15, you must have a government-issued or photo id (not something all schools provide), you must purchase it in a store that has a stand-alone pharmacy (rare in rural and remote communities), and it is expensive—even though Medicaid covers other over-the-counter medicines like condoms.

We have plenty of evidence-based scientific studies proving that emergency contraception is safe, prevents ovulation, and cannot terminate an existing pregnancy. We have research that shows the dramatic decline in unintended teen pregnancy and abortion rates when teens learn how to use contraception more effectively.

We also know that teens who are abused experience birth control sabotage, pressure to get pregnant, and significantly higher rates of unintended pregnancy. Emergency contraception is important because negotiating birth control methods is awkward in any relationship, but it’s nearly impossible if you’ve got an abusive partner who wants control.

Emergency Contraception is the breakfast rush conversation

Eggs, toast, and a side of emergency contraception. Not exactly like that but pretty close. My girls and I were listening to a morning radio story about a pharmacist who refused to sell EC to a man whose condom broke while having sex with his girlfriend (who happened to be a law student). The pharmacist said “I can’t sell it to men. Who knows what they could be doing with it?” The law student girlfriend told the pharmacist that her boyfriend waspharmacist allowed to purchase EC under the law—actually, any male or female 17 or older can purchase it without a prescription.

My girls were confused. “Isn’t that the pill you take right after sex if you don’t want to get pregnant?” (How do they know about this??) My exterior demeanor was calm but my insides were sweaty. Try giving clear and simple information in 5 minutes while flipping eggs over easy. The girls asked why the pharmacist would not give the boyfriend medicine that was legal? I explained that some people think that taking emergency contraception was like having an abortion.

The truth is that the  EC pill slows down ovulation and prevents the egg and sperm from fertilizing. If you wait too long to take it and fertilization happens, it can’t undo the pregnancy and it won’t hurt the person taking it.

After my mini-medical lecture, it turned out what the girls really wanted to know was, why was I so upset about the pharmacist’s response? I tell them (with just a little passion) that I want them to have control over their bodies and be able to make their own decisions without any additional barriers—like a pharmacist who won’t follow the law. I say that I want them to have accurate information (which I hope they will share with their friends).

“Yeah,” they say, “I bet that boyfriend felt weird.” Okay, don’t forget your lunch bag, give me a kiss. Hustle, you’re gonna be late to school.

“Mama, what’s a prostitute?”

Listening to the news while parenting is hard. (OK, let’s be honest, doing anything while parenting is hard!) Typically I avoid listening to the NPR headlines when my kids are in the car because I want to filter out the murder, mayhem, and messiness. For instance, when I realized they were about to talk about the secret service agents in Colombia, I looked 30 seconds into the future and decided I didn’t really want to answer the question, “Mama, what’s a prostitute?”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having the tough conversations with my son, but how do you explain prostitution to a 5 year old? Not just the sex part, but the buying another person part. It’s more than a 5 year old needs to think about or worry about right now. (Actually, I don’t really want to think about that either.) It does make me wonder, what if I never had to explain prostitution at all? What if women weren’t treated as commodities to be bought and sold?

Ted Bunch recently asked a very important question: “What if instead of framing our work…as ‘ending violence against women’ we…had the goal of ‘valuing and respecting women and girls’?” Great question and I look forward to answering it alongside all of you. After all, if we valued and respected girls, I wouldn’t have to answer this question for my son and I could spend more time answering his other difficult questions like, “Mama, how do they get the juice in juiceboxes?” (Now you wanna know too? Look here.)

Rush – you’re really making my job as a mom hard!

Photo by Gage Skidmore

It’s 6:45 am and the morning hilarity is on. My back is to my teenage daughters as I scramble eggs, yell out reminders about packing up homework, and try to listen to the morning news on NPR. Wait a minute, what are they talking about? Who is a prostitute, who is a slut? My girls are both talking at once, reacting to a snippet of the morning news roundup. They want to know why Rush Limbaugh is apologizing for calling a college student names and wanting to watch her have sex. They’re confused. Isn’t contraception a good thing? Isn’t it smart to prevent a pregnancy that you’re not ready for?

Thanks Rush, really. I spend lots of time with my daughters trying to untangle the double messages they receive. Like, what is considered beautiful and sexy; when is having sex appropriate; who controls their body; and what is a healthy and respectful relationship. And now this.

If Sandra Fluke, a smart, thoughtful, law student advocating for women’s access to contraception is publically called hateful names historically used to silence women’s voices, what does it mean for my girls? What will they think about the next time they want to speak up for themselves? What will they think about the role of women in the public discourse? I don’t want them to believe or even think for a minute that because they are female their opinions, experiences, and actions are in any way diminished.

Come on, can’t we have a discussion about access to health care and contraception without vilifying women and girls’ choices? After all, last I heard, the use of Viagra was a legitimate medical option for people without ovaries.

Unplanned Parenthood

I was an accident.

My mother would never say that, but let’s face it. My older brother was hell on wheels as an infant and when he turned 6 months, I can’t imagine my mother thinking “oh, wow, I’m getting good at this―I think I’ll have another!”

But 9 months later … ta-da!

That was 1953. I know that unplanned pregnancies were a big part of my parents’ generation, but I kind of assumed by now they were ancient history. Wrong. I just read that 65% of pregnant women surveyed said their pregnancy was unplanned.

What sparks my interest in this whole thing is Traci’s great post from last week and, serendipitously, a visit from a dear friend. I’ll call her Suzie.

She’d just been to visit her niece―let’s call her Kelsey. Kelsey is in her mid-20’s and lives with her fiancé who’s in his late 30’s. Things sound bleak. Kelsey slapped her boyfriend on the butt and he “spanked” her in retaliation leaving bruises and mass confusion. Another time he choked her when they were arguing. Kelsey was asking Aunt Suzie if she should stick with the plan to get married.

Um ….. NO!

Even if Aunt Suzie can’t persuade Kelsey to call off the wedding, they have got to have a heart to heart about the pregnancies. Kelsey has been pregnant twice―neither one intended (at least on her part). She miscarried the first, and terminated the second. It sounds like it’s time for some Aunty-strength advice about getting stealth birth control.

There are countless private battles going on behind closed doors where women are fighting for their sexual health and reproductive autonomy. But each battle is part of the larger war on women’s sexuality, family planning, and access to contraceptives. At least we’ve had one win: the Obama administration just decided to require health insurance companies to cover birth control.

But WE have a lot more work to do. Luckily, the accident of my birth has me here now doing just that.