The contraception conversation

When I was 16, my mother found my contraceptive pills in my top drawer.

She brought them and held them out in front of me, like something dead and dirty, accusing:

“What are these, and where did you get them?”

“They’re my pills,” I said. “I didn’t want to get pregnant.”

“Are you having sex?” she demanded, her face angry.

“No, no,” I denied, lying to her face. “I just want them…just in case…you know…” My voice drifted away into nothing.

That was how the brief conversation went, all those years ago, but I remember it clearly.

pill

Pressure from all sides…

What I didn’t tell my mother was the fact that those pills were like gold to me. Three months earlier, I’d started having sex. We’d used condoms that time, but then my boyfriend had asked me to go on the Pill.

Of course, it was the woman’s job to get contraceptives and sort all that out. It still is mostly, here, nearly thirty years later from back then.

But I did what I had to do. The sexual health clinic was nearly two hours away by bus, and I didn’t have a car. I was 16. I arrived way too early for my appointment, and walked around the block near the clinic about three or four times before I summoned up the nerve to go inside.

I felt like a criminal. All I wanted was to not get pregnant. You wouldn’t think it would be so difficult to avoid that. Yet it was, for me. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I’d been taught to think of sex that way.

The people in the clinic were friendly, and put me on a low dose pill, but it was really expensive. I wasn’t earning much at that point, and it used up all the money I had just to get three months’ supply. But what else was I supposed to do?

I remember wondering if my boyfriend, who had a lot more money than me, would chip in for some of the cost, then threw that idea right out. Guys didn’t pay for this sort of stuff. Sex was free for them.

My mother held my pills in her hand. “I’m throwing these out. You shouldn’t be having sex yet. You’re too young.”

And she took them away.

I looked in the bins to see if I could find them, and even went through the garbage cans outside, but no luck. They were gone. And I started bleeding a couple of days later, because I’d stopped in the middle of taking them.

The next day, I rang the sexual health clinic again the moment my parents were out of the house. They couldn’t get me in until the following week, and I asked if I could pay for just one month of pills, not three. I couldn’t. They were sorry about that.

I said I’d see what I could do and made the appointment anyway.

That was the only thing I ever stole money from anyone for: I took the money I needed from my mother’s purse.

I don’t think she missed it.

Next time I got hold of my pills, I made sure Mum wouldn’t find them – I hid them in my secret hiding spot that even she didn’t know about, under the bottom of my wardrobe at the back. If she found them, she never said anything.

From then on, whenever I needed more money for more pills, I just stole it from my mother.

I think that was the point at which I began to grow up: when I stopped trusting my parents. When I realised they would steal my things and they weren’t on my side.

I stopped trusting them when they stopped trusting me.

Sluts and whores

Looking back, there is so much wrong with my experience that I don’t know where to begin.

The fact that contraception was, and still commonly is, solely a woman’s responsibility.
The fact that I had to deal with all this alone, even though I was hardly still a woman.
The fact that my boyfriend was absent from the conversation and from responsibility.
The fact that my mother felt she had control both over my body and my property.
The fact that my mother judged me, and felt she had the right to judge.
The fact that caring for my body was seen as a shameful thing by my mother, as was sex.
The fact that, even at 16, my mother had still never talked about sex with me, even though I desperately needed her support and help.

Most of all, looking back, I’m amazed that my mother was angry that I took care and responsibility for my own body.

If I had a daughter do that, and go get pills all by herself, no matter what age, I’d be proud of her actions and initiative. I’d be glad she was keeping herself safe from pregnancy.

I’d be sorry I didn’t get a chance to help her first, but glad she respected her body enough to care for it and plan ahead.

But maybe I don’t see sex as something we should be ashamed of.

For my mother, women who had sex before marriage were sluts and whores. I don’t know whether she was silly enough to believe that taking my pills away would stop me having sex, but if she was, she was wrong. All it did was make me steal from her, lie to her, and not trust her.

prudewhore

The contraception conversation

Contraception – and sex generally – is the conversation we desperately need to have with our children.

And it’s the one conversation we’re not having.

When we judge our kids, this is what happens.
When we judge our kids, this is what happens.

Over and over, I hear parents say that they want to talk to their kids about sex, but “just not yet”.

If not now, then when?
When they steal from you for their contraception?
When they get pregnant, or get someone else pregnant?
Or maybe when they get an STI?

“Tomorrow” is too late.
We need to talk today.

It is our responsibility to keep our children safe, until they’re able to do that for themselves. That’s what parenting is.

Our kids need to be able to trust us, and in order to earn that, we need to start the conversation by trusting them.

We need to talk.

So why the emphasis on “purity” anyway?

We all know that the churches of the Bible belt have been placing a massive emphasis on “purity” and virginity lately. Especially for women.

Actually, purity isn't a commandment at all. The nearest the Commandments get to talking about purity is Commandment No. 7, which says no adultery.
Actually, purity isn’t a commandment at all. The nearest the Commandments get to talking about purity is Commandment No. 7, which says no adultery.

Teens are taking “purity pledges” and being “re-virginized” (whatever THAT means!) and promising to “wait” until they get married.

But have you ever stopped to ask – why?

Why the emphasis on this one aspect of human behaviour?

Good works

Think about it for a moment. How is a “good person” or a “valued member of society” usually defined?

Think of the people in history you’d consider to be heroes. They might be Jesus, if you’re a Christian – but I bet his sex life was never a big issue for you (do you even know how many sex partners he had? is it even mentioned in the Bible?)

Or you might think of Nelson Mandela. Or you might be thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. Or Marie Curie, if you’re a scientist. Or Fred Hollows, who restored eyesight for countless people in the world.

What about Mozart and Beethoven, and the beautiful music they gifted the world? Or Van Gogh, for his stunning artwork?

The Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh.
The Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh.

Or modern composers like Eric Whitacre, and the gorgeous pieces he’s currently writing for us to enjoy?

Other heroes you might consider could include people like your family doctor. Or a favourite teacher. Or the physiotherapist who helped you to walk again after you had a terrible brain injury.

They’re all heroes. Every one of them. All doing good works. All worthy of admiration.

If you believe in Heaven, every one of them deserves a place, wouldn’t you think?

I sure would.

Were they virgins when they married? If they married? And does God even care?

Of all these people, do you know for certain if any of them were virgins when they married? Did it matter? Did it make a difference to them being good people?

Did it affect their being valuable people, of worth to the world and those they loved and that loved them?

I’ll answer the question for you: not one bit.

Their sexual status when they married didn’t affect their contributions as unique individuals. And neither does your sexual status affect your contribution as a unique individual.

Don’t think so little of God!

If you think the Divine is so petty as to care about your virginity, well then, you’ve got one really petty little God you’re worshipping.

If you think God will judge you based on whether you’ve had sex or not, you’re really underestimating God. Plus, you’re really overestimating your own self-importance. The Divine has better things to worry about.

So why do the Churches care?

Firstly, don’t get Church and God muddled up. They’re NOT one and the same. Churches are made up of people. People with all their human frailties and mistakes and bigotries and confusions.

Churches have been telling people what to do and what to think for a long, long time. And a lot of the time, they simply represented what society thought.

When society got it wrong, so too did the Churches.

For example, when society didn’t know better and thought the sun revolved around the earth, the Churches defended this belief to the death. Literally. Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for his challenge to this theory, his books were banned, and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Other scientists that challenged the same belief (such as Giordano Bruno) were burned at the stake by the Church.

Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake by the Church in 1600.
Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake by the Church in 1600.

This all happened a long time ago, but what I’m pointing out is that the churches are fallible. They make mistakes, because they’re controlled and made up of people. They reflect common beliefs of society at the time. And sometimes not so common!

Better believe it - this is what some creationists are teaching their kids: that dinosaurs existed with humans, and we *rode* them!
Better believe it – this is what some creationists are teaching their kids: that dinosaurs existed with humans, and we *rode* them!

What’s more, the Churches, due to their generally conservative nature, tend to lag behind society, and are slow to change and update as society changes.

Society has changed, but the Church is still playing catchup

This is what we have now. Reliable contraception is relatively new (the pill was first approved in 1960, very recently in historical terms) and was a massive change to how women could control their fertility.

ThePill

With that huge change, the status of women changed quickly. Women were suddenly no longer tied to house and children. We could choose to work and pursue careers, knowing that pregnancy wasn’t lying in wait for us unexpectedly.

Reliable laws supporting safe termination followed swiftly in 1973 with Roe v Wade, enabling women who did find themselves unexpectedly pregnant to end it with a safe termination. Terminations are very common – I’ve had one, as have about half of my friends. These days they’re safe and supported by public health insurance in most western countries – the days of backyard coathangers are thankfully over.

But all these changes, including other further advances such as the morning after pill (1997), are very new. Too new for the Churches to cope with. They’re still more than a century behind, back in the Victorian era, advocating abstinence until marriage.

But what’s wrong with abstinence?

Quite a lot, actually. But let’s start with numbers.

The average age of menarche (first period) for girls in the US is 12.5 years of age. Boys hit puberty on average at age 13.

The average age for first marriage in the United States is 28.9 years for men and 26.9 years for women.

So if they’re going to be abstinent, women are going to, on average, have to be abstinent for 14.4 years. Men are going to have to remain abstinent for 15.9 years.

Are you beginning to see a problem? I sure am! Can you imagine, as an adult, going without sex for about 15 years? It’s just not practical or reasonable to expect young people, at the height of their fertility, to not have sex for that long.

Furthermore, the same communities that are preaching the abstinence mantras are typically

a) not providing young people with full sex education, so they are more at risk of pregnancy, STIs and dangerous / abusive relationships should sex occur
b) not providing young people with access to contraception or teaching them how to use contraception properly
c) dumping guilt on young people when the inevitable does occur and they do have sex.

In other words, they’re preaching a virtually unachievable mode of behaviour for all but the most asexual of young people, then blaming those same young people when they cannot meet unrealistic expectations.

So why purity?

Purity has, and always will be until it finally suffers a permanent demise as a concept, been about control. It’s a way of making people feel: dirty, cheap, worthless, not good enough, not able enough. It’s a way of judging people and labelling people and keeping people (women) in their place that is hurtful and can be very cruel.

Decidly unChristian!

Yes, the pretty white dresses and “purity rings” are all very nice, but they’re a veil over a brutal attempt to control women.

A purity ball. Actually, I find the whole father-daughter emphasis a little incestuous and creepy.
A purity ball. Actually, I find the whole father-daughter emphasis a little incestuous and creepy.

What to do?

Don’t buy the lie. Don’t buy into the purity lie.

Instead, focus on being a good person. Do good works. Let your actions speak for who you are and what you believe is important and right. If you choose to wait until you find someone you love for sex, that’s only your business: no-one else’s.

It’s not the church’s. Or your minister’s. Or your parents. Or your friends.

Ignore the purity rings. And the purity balls. And the purity pledges. Be a good person because that’s who you choose to be, not to fit into someone else’s rules and regulations and guidelines and boundaries.

Have sex when you choose to. With who you want to. With as many or as few people as you choose.

Do it safely. Feel no guilt, because sex can be a beautiful, fun, pleasurable gift when you do it right.

But the only purity that you should ever concern yourself with is the purity of your food and drink. Because that’s the only purity that matters.