This post isn’t about food, and if you’re a subscriber of my blog because you like food, I hope you’ll read it anyway. This post is about living in Texas as a woman, and why I’ll be wearing orange at the State Capitol at noon on Monday. I hope you’ll join me. And if you want to read a post about food, Liz Goulding over at The Dallas Observer is killing it lately.
When I was eleven years old, my school class took a break from learning one afternoon to attend a presentation about “Aiming for Success.” We filed quietly into the library where we listened to two youth pastor types give a lecture on “purity,” and “self discipline.” The focus of their pep-rally style presentation was sexual decision making, namely how practicing abstinence was the only possible way to achieve success as a teen. As they talked, a slide show of herpetic lesions, along with buzzwords about success and goals played behind them. There were other props, too.
“You only get one chance to unwrap a present,” lectured the speaker while she held up a shiny, pink package sealed with a bow. “Once you take off that bow, it’s never special again.”
My eleven year-old self had never considered sexuality in this way, and I was confused. Was I the present? If so, who had wrapped me up in the first place? Did boys have bows, too? And what if I felt like unwrapping my present with a girl instead?
Nothing we discussed in the school library that day helped clear that up. We didn’t talk about consent, contraceptives, or even the basic anatomy of our rapidly changing bodies. We also didn’t talk about what to do if you did want to have intercourse, which seems pretty germane since up to 10% of the children in my class actually were. Instead we focused on abstinence– the one decision they said was right for everyone. At the end we all signed “purity promises,” passing them around to each other like yearbooks. I kept mum about all my questions and signed the agreement.
The group presenting that talk was Aim for Success, a right-wing, abstinence only education group which was founded in Dallas, Texas, in 1993. Based on my math, I was probably one of the first little girls to listen to Aim for Success, and since then they have become the nation’s #1 provider of abstinence education, reaching over 2 million people. Their programs are funded with a mix of private dollars (read: PTAs, churches, etc.) and government funds (read: tax dollars.)
I attended Aim for Success programs again in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. Every year the herpetic lesions on the slide show got more graphic, and we all dutifully signed the “Purity Pledges” at the end. Those days in the school library were my first bitter tastes of life as a woman in Texas. I learned that the rules are different for boys and girls in this state, and that the people in charge will coerce my sexual decision making any way they can.
Not surprisingly, by the time I hit puberty I was full of ambivalence about sexuality, both my own and that of my peers. I viewed sex as all-or-nothing. The present was either wrapped or unwrapped. It never occured to me that I might be able to explore my own needs and negotiate a mutually beneficial relationship with a supportive partner. “Once you take off that bow, it’s never special again,” I remembered.
My feelings towards sex began to change in the office of a Planned Parenthood when I was 16. I had been fooling around with my high school boyfriend for a while and, thank God, my mother figured out what was going on and told me to make an appointment. I skipped class one Tuesday and drove myself to the nearest clinic, about 20 minutes from my house. There, a compassionate nurse practitioner named Dolores gave me The Talk.
She showed me a model of the vulva, and helped me understand how to take care of my body. We talked about ways to say “yes” and “no” to a sexual partner, and she emphasized that my own judgement– not another person’s religious belief or sexual desire– was the most important factor to consider when deciding whether to give consent. I remember being caught off guard when she asked, “What are your goals in the next few years?” before discussing my contraceptive options. It was one of the first times an adult had talked with me about my body without preaching or judging. For the first time, my choice mattered most.
These days I reject the teachings of Aim for Success and other anti-choice groups because I feel their messages are deeply damaging to women. After nearly 20 years, my confusion about that pink present metaphor has matured into anger and deep resentment towards those who use it. There are millions of women in this world who have safe pre-marital sex as part of a consensual, loving relationship. They grow up to be successful women. I am one of those women thanks in large part to Planned Parenthood. That talk with Dolores was the first step in a long road for me, one that led to the Capitol building last week.
There have been various attacks on women’s rights in Texas my whole life. They started long before my generation, and if not for the influence of Aim for Success and Planned Parenthood in my life, I might not think they affect me much at all. The truth is, millions of Texas women are harmed by the gradual erosion of our rights. Rick Perry and the Governor before him have been seemingly all-powerful in Texas my entire life, passing legislation by any means necessary that is harmful to women and minorities.
Governor Perry’s most recent blow came this summer, when he called a special session of the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 5– a group of laws that severely restrict women’s access to healthcare from providers like Planned Parenthood. If those laws had been in effect when I was 16, I never would have been able to visit the Planned Parenthood near my home– it is one of the clinics that will close if the laws pass. Senate Bill 5 has been panned as unsafe for women by moderates, women’s rights advocates, and even doctors. In fact, according to ThinkProgress, 80% of Texans do not want their lawmakers considering this bill in a special session, and 63% of Texans think the state already has enough anti-abortion laws on the books.
I was one of the protesters against Senate Bill 5 at the Capitol on Tuesday. I went along with 1500+ other folks to support Senator Wendy Davis during her heroic, 13-hour stand for women’s rights. Being part of that grassroots gathering of women and the men who love them was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. Senator Davis’ efforts, along with one final outcry from protestors, successfully stopped the passage of Senate Bill 5. It was exhilarating knowing that my body was one reason women in Texas still had access to healthcare on Wednesday morning. Less than 24 hours after Senate Bill 5 died, though, Governor Perry called a second special session to put it and the house version of the bill back on the table. He has made it clear that women’s consent is not a consideration here, and it feels chillingly like I’m back in that elementary school library.
This fight is personal. For years I have heard from Texas Republicans that because I am a woman, I am not equipped to make decisions for myself. Senate Bill 5– now called Senate Bill 9 and House Bill 2– carry the same bullshit message I heard in the sixth grade. The difference is, this time when I hear it I can stand and shout, “NO!”
What I do with my body is none of the government’s business. I have had enough intrusion into my private life, and I do not plan to sit quietly while old men sit behind closed doors and make my healthcare decisions for me. I will be wearing orange at the Capitol on Monday. And again during the remainder of the second special session. And again on the campaign trail in 2014. This is my body. My choice. My vote. And I want them to know it.
If my experience or the thousands that have been shared in the past week resonate with you, I hope you will take a few minutes to read more about Senate Bill 9 and House Bill 2, and why they are harmful to women. Please consider wearing orange, the color we have adopted for women’s rights. Please consider joining me at the Texas Capitol on Monday. Together with thousands of other protesters, I will be standing with Wendy Davis and Texas women.
- Jessica W. Luther’s Blog Post- What to do NEXT to protest SB5
- Information about Monday’s Rally at the Capitol
- “The Problem with Abstinence Education,” D Magazine
- Dan Solomon’s coverage of SB5 for The Austin Chronicle
- Contact information for your State Legislators
- “The Sex Ed Hall of Shame,” Salon
- Abstinence (and Sexism) Only