"PROTECTION" FROM WHAT?
Abstinence, fertility cycles, and sex education
I committed the unpardonable sin. I knew before I started that I shouldn't even have thought about it. Regardless, I kept thinking about it, and then I acted on it. And the further it went, the more I regretted it, but I couldn't make it stop. It was too late. Mea culpa…
It's not the worst of my sins, not by any measure. Nonetheless, it weighs on me. At least I'll know better next time, right? That's the great comfort in my mistakes: maybe, because I screwed up, someone else can learn without screwing up. They can take away the lesson without making the mistake. I can tell my story, like the Ancient Mariner to the Wedding Guest, and they'll know not to shoot the albatross. Mea culpa…
I confess, and I am heartily sorry for it: I knowingly engaged people on the opposite side of the fence in a discussion about politics and abortion. Worse yet, they were family. But I saw the hole I was digging, and I jumped in anyway. Got buried in it, too. At least I'm still breathing; I can dig my way out. Mea maxima culpa.
The whole thing began during the election as an online debate over the candidates. One of the Bush policies that was a pro-Kerry point of contention was Bush's support of Abstinence-Only sex ed. My relatives see AO as a foolish mode of mis-education, and that's putting their sentiments mildly. Now, I'm not here to open up the AO vs. contraception education can of worms again. It's just that something one of my cousins said is haunting me, and it's playing out in the lives of some of my friends. If it weren't for the dirt I'd swallow, I'd be screaming my head off over it. At least, in my hole in the ground, I can still type. The mistakes can't be allowed to roam the surface of the earth, like Pandora's vices set free.
We've all seen the statistics: teens who are taught AO are less likely to contracept and so more likely to wind up pregnant and, being unprepared for parenthood, more likely to abort. So the only way to prevent abortions is to teach contraception. We all know extra-marital sex is going to keep on happening, no matter what the age of the consenting adults. My cousin asserted that the only way to protect our daughters—she's the mother of one—from becoming single mothers is to teach them to use birth control responsibly, consistently, and correctly. In her words, she was going to make sure her daughter knew how to put on a condom correctly. That would keep her little girl safe.
Well, I've spent a couple of months in my hole ruminating over that statement. It sounds very reasonable, but I have a problem with it, a very serious problem. In the months since the election, and the de facto end of the political debate that raged among my relatives, the lives of three of my friends have started to fall apart. No, not because they knew how to use condoms, although I'll get to that later. My cousin's statement presupposes that girls will sleep with irresponsible jerks who are unfit to raise children. Her daughter will sleep with a man on whom she cannot depend, and the only protection is to make sure there are no children depending on either of them. The fewer people who get hurt, the better. But sex will happen—it's natural, after all—so we just have to minimize the consequences. Condoms do that, so the story goes.
At the end of last November, my friend—we'll call her Robin—called me to chat about her new boyfriend. Less critical than I, she let something slip—something New Guy had said—that set off alarm bells in my head. "He says money is no object, that he'd do anything for me." Do you hear them too? They nearly deafened me. Money is no object? Why not? What's he buying? But she didn't hear the bells. He was sexy and glamorous and took her on exciting dates and treated her like a princess. But he didn't like condoms. Well, she thought she knew where she was in her cycle. She'd used "protection" with all her other boyfriends, so it had nothing to do with her AO training. But he's a great guy, really. And his first question was, "Are you sure it's mine?" She speaks to him as little as possible and is currently looking for an adoptive family.
Another friend of mine—LeeAnne, we'll say—woke me up at five in the morning a month ago. She's been divorced for just over a year ("That's the last time I marry a man I'm not entirely sure of.") and living with someone for a good part of that year. But she and the Live-In are no longer dating. (The two-bedroom apartment is somehow supposed to make that work out.) It kills her to see him dating other women, since she's still in love with him. Yes, she knows they're wrong for each other. She came crying over to my apartment because the Live-In had finally decided to bring home one of his new women. Home to her apartment. She's currently waiting for the lease to run out and looking despondently forward to celibacy.
One of my newest acquaintances—Maggie sounds good for her—told me on Saturday that her husband, the father of two of her children, has been verbally abusing her, grabbing her and leaving bruises (which she has been hiding for a year), and trying to force her to have sex with him. Yup. She also mentioned that there were warning signs before they married, and that she was seven-and-a-half months pregnant at the wedding. Wedding Baby and the one that followed on its heels were both conceived while she was on the Pill. She's currently seeking counseling and a lawyer.
What do you tell a woman when she shows you these bruises? What do you say to someone who is afraid to tell her parents that she's pregnant? "Well, if you hadn't gotten pregnant, there wouldn't be a problem? You could divorce him without worrying that he'd take your babies away." If that's the correct response, then I must be wrong for wanting to scream, "Why were you sleeping with the jerk in the first place?" Don't get me wrong: I know why they did it. My path toward wherever I'm going is pocked like Pointe du Hoc with the holes I've dug, and which other people have usually had to get me out of. I can compare pits with these friends: a memory-gallery of men we shouldn't have been involved with, men we shouldn't have slept with.
Why did we do it? We were madly in love with them, of course. Why did no one tell us what was involved in that choice? "People who sleep together before marriage are bad and go to hell" is not exactly a statement you can take to the bank of Everyday Experience (not FDIC insured). Why did no one say, "I don't care how fast he makes your heart beat—look at what he does. That's not love, no matter what you tell each other." It may not have been love, but it was a natural urge. So we're supposed to slip on a condom and run with it? That's our protection against what comes of sleeping with jerks? Protection? Are you kidding me, Coz?
There is a light at the top of the hole in the ground. I've stumbled; I can hold out my hand to keep someone else from stumbling. I can tell my daughters someday What Mommy Did Was Wrong. I have earned the right to say, "Don't follow my example." Maybe if my mother had made more mistakes at my age, I'd have made fewer. Does it matter where you learn, as long as you get the lesson? Before we teach our daughters the ins and outs of birth control, we need to teach them something much more basic: don't sleep with jerks. But we can't stop there. We have to teach them what a jerk is, teach them the warning signs ("What do you mean he doesn't think you need friends?"), teach them that they can survive without another warm body in the bed at night, and that they deserve humane treatment. Indoctrinate them. Brainwash them, if necessary. Whatever it takes.
Stop telling young women that babies are the only consequence of sex. Stop saying that condoms and the Pill will solve all the problems. Teach them to abstain—don't just say that premarital sex will send them to hell; say that sleeping with the wrong person opens the gates of hell in a very real, practical, personal sense. Start further back than that, and teach them, when they first start menstruating, how to chart their cycles. When are they fertile and when aren't they? Later, when they start to notice, point out that their libidos are strongest right when they're ovulating. Teach them self-control: "Resist the urge right now. This is how and why your body was made—it wants to get pregnant. Hold off, both from pregnancy and from sleeping with someone you wouldn't want as the father of a child." Self-control breeds self-control. Teach each girl—should she want to become sexually active—to look for a man who will abstain with her while she's fertile, a man she can talk to openly about her body and the way it works, a man who will respect the workings of her body. Teach them to look for a man who will work in partnership to make decisions about fertility and children, not one who will assume that birth control is the woman's job, since the baby would really just be hers.Let's actually protect our daughters and ourselves. No, we can't prevent them from digging themselves into a hole if they choose to do so ("Hello, My Name Is Proof"). But if we point out the hole, we'll give them a chance to walk around it. There will always be jerks, and there will always be people who make the wrong decisions anyway. But teaching our sons not to be jerks and our daughters not to sleep with them is the beginning of keeping their heads above ground.