“You don’t want to be Mrs. Tampon do you?” my mother asked, her eyebrow raised. I stared at the white tile in the middle of the drug store, embarrassed, confused. I shook my head no while gripping the blue box, refusing to take the package of spongy maxi pads she was pushing toward me. “Tampons would tear your hymen and take your virginity,” she explained, “that’s how sex works.” I grudgingly placed the box back on the shelf as she tossed the bulky, wingless pads into the shopping cart.
Last week, when curriculum from the abstinence-only education program in Texas was made public (comparing non-virgins to used toothbrushes and tape that had lost its adhesive ability after being passed around the room, for instance), it was another reminder of why shaming students into celibacy doesn’t work. Texas is the fifth highest in teenage pregnancies, after all. But for me, it was a reminder of my past, growing up in a one-stoplight town in North Carolina two decades ago with my Baptist Colombian mother and my Irish Catholic father. Despite their best intentions, I was raised to be ashamed of sex -- and it wasn't until I was 17 that I found an adult who had the courage to simply tell me the truth about what was going on.
“Sex is like glue, Jessica,” my mother said, demonstrating her point in the living room, after we arrived home. She held up two sheets of construction paper, the white presumably representative of me, and the red “your husband,” she said. With glue, she pressed the two sheets together and twisted her palms. When she pulled the sheets apart, a rip began in the middle and by the end, there were only tatters of paper abundant with holes, frayed red throughout. “See,” she said, holding up the sheets proudly, “bloodied, damaged and destroyed.” I was horrified.
I was home-schooled from first grade until high school, and my classroom was my kitchen. My sexual illiteracy began at home. “Mom, what is sex?” I asked soon after my shaming in the middle of Aisle 6. Her response, “Sex is only for marriage, to make babies.” I nodded and prodded, “But what is it, exactly?” She rummaged through her drawer for a pen and pad. Minutes later she provided a diagram, arrows pointing to ovaries, looping around to a uterus. “This is where the sperm goes,” she traced her pencil along the page. No mention of what sperm was or where it came from. “But how do boys have sex with other boys?” I asked, hoping she would expand. “They don’t,” she answered quickly. “OK, enough for today.” She was finished.
I went back to my room and buried myself under the covers, my head aching with endless questions. I couldn’t go to my father for answers. He refused to acknowledge sex, or dating, or the simple fact that I was a girl. My two brothers must have been just as clueless as I was, but I never asked, fearing they would tell on me for talking about S-E-X.
My knowledge went as far as kissing and holding hands, what I’d witnessed in our home. “You can think about kissing boys when you’re 16,” my parents always said. But on my 16th birthday, the approved age of making out was moved to 17. “Kissing leads to spooning, and spooning leads to forking, Jessica. It’s a gateway to sex.” She imparted these gems upon me with such sincerity, such confidence in its correctness that I kept my knees together and listened.
But at 17, I found my first kiss. I was spellbound, debilitated. At a friend's coed sleepover (I neglected to mention that detail when asking for permission to go) I met Joshua, the birthday girl’s cousin who was visiting from Israel. While everyone watched movies and went swimming, we escaped to the basement and kissed until the sun came up. At last we resurfaced, hands innocent as could be, mouths guilty as charged. My cheeks were flushed for a full week, but the second the color came back, confusion rolled in. Why had his thigh gotten so stiff when we lay down on the couch? If he grabbed my breasts was I supposed to do the same to him? What did he mean when he asked to go down? Downstairs? Down to sleep? I’d said no, just in case it was something awful.
My questions outnumbered the answers I’d been given and left me desperate for knowledge. Most teens were flipping through hidden dirty magazines or late-night surfing on the Web. We didn’t have a computer because “there’s nothing the computer will teach you that I can’t,” my mother insisted. As for the magazines, Catholics hide them well.
By my junior year, I transferred to public school: a decision my parents made considering my future college endeavors, a decision I jumped at considering my future sexual endeavors. Around spring semester the buzz began about the sex doctors, educators who came through the freshman classrooms once a year. I needed to be in that room.
I bolted into my guidance counselor’s office explaining my odd situation. My parents were withholding vital information. She smiled and said, “I promise you aren’t missing out, but if you feel that you need a refresher course, it’s next week in room 405. And Jess, make sure you get this signed.” A permission slip. I needed consent to know about my own body. I copied the signature from my father’s checkbook onto the folded white form, turning it in the next morning.
Though I was a grown woman by prairie day standards, in room 405, I sat hidden in the back row, nervous and nauseated. The lights went off and a flickering video played onto the wall. Thick white text in front of a black screen: Abstinence Education, the best way, the only way.
I sat stunned. Sex is for marriage, between husband and wife, the video narrated while a 20-something in a wedding gown walked down the flower-covered aisle. We have the ability to have sex so we can make babies, the voice narrated over a panoramic screen view of a hospital newborn nursery. I quickly glanced over the room, searching for my mother, certain she was behind this. The next shot was an almost identical diagram to the one I kept hidden under my bed, similar arrows to fallopian tubes and a cervix. But this time there was a side diagram, what looked like half the head of a bunny rabbit had arrows marking penis, testicles… no description of what they did or how exactly one goes from that wedding day to conception night. The session ended with a three-minute slideshow of various venereal diseases on body parts, shown so close up that I probably wouldn’t have recognized them had they been healthy. The narrator repeated, Abstinence Education, the best way, the only way … but if you should decide to be sexually active, protect yourself. My hand shot up before the screened flashed "The End."
“Excuse me, is there a part 2 of this course?” I asked the teacher who didn’t hear me as the freshmen left the room, some giggling, others rolling their eyes. I remained seated and furious. Protect myself with what? I grabbed a single-page handout as I left, reading it on the way home.
I pushed open our front door with force, “Mom!” I screamed toward no direction in particular, holding the vowel like a siren. She came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a towel. “What are you so upset about?” she asked. “I’m going to have sex one day, just so you know, and I’m going to do a lot of other sexual things too and you can’t stop me because I’m an adult and I want to protect myself … with birth control,” I said, my voice raised, my fists clenched.
“Jessica, no. Birth control will make you fat.” She turned toward the kitchen.
“You know what, Mom? Getting pregnant will make me fat,” I fought back.
“End of story.” She closed the door behind her.
I went to my bedroom, equipped with a phone book and a cordless phone. If I couldn’t get a shame-free explanation about sex from my parents or professors, I had only one option left.
The next afternoon, I hitched a ride to my first women’s wellness visit. When I walked through the doors of the doctor’s sterile office she assured me that nothing about our bodies or what they were made for is dirty. She encouraged me to ask questions, and I did. Where does it go? Does it hurt? Is any of this fun? What is an orgasm and where do I get one? Two hours later, I left with wide eyes and a purse full of pamphlets. She offered me a variety of condoms and a month of birth control, which I politely declined. Once I had all of the information, I decided for myself that I was not ready. In fact, I wouldn’t be ready for a few years.
Since the abstinence-only movement was conceived, more than $1.5 billion has been spent on programs whose sole focus is to preach the social, psychological and health benefits that could come from abstaining. It took me five years of therapy, a failed first marriage and dozens of embarrassing questions along the way, to erase the “benefits” that abstinence-only education gave me.