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In fifth and sixth grade every student, except for those whose parents withdrew them for the day (there were many) endured a “Maturation Program.” I knew they were supposed to be educating us about the facts of life, but I had no idea how doing so could require over an hour -- was there so much that I didn’t know?
We were herded into the library and shown diagrams of the male and female reproductive system, given explanations of sperm and eggs, and promised that it was not possible to put a tampon up your urethra. It wasn’t until I was going through the presentation the second time, in the sixth grade, that someone in the audience put two and two together and thought to ask, “but how does the sperm get to the egg?”
“The penis--” the woman giving the presentation paused for the inevitable giggle and gave us a stern glare. In retrospect, knowing how gentle a poke can ignite the fires of a protective Utah parent, it’s hard for me to say if she was trying to secure her job or if she really thought that the intimate details of sex needed such an infinitely serious expression, “—is inserted into the vagina.” That gave me a nightmare.
It was the last time anybody spoke candidly to me about sex. I was scarred, but luckily I had nearly a decade before anyone would find me sexually attractive anyways. Our high school taught abstinence-only education and so every time sex was mentioned, it was steeped in discomfort and shame or else mired completely in biology.
It’s no surprise that when I was 15 and had my first period, I wanted no fanfare, no audience. I dug the folded up instructions out of the tampon box. Most girls start with sanitary pads, but we didn’t have any of those around the house. And these weren’t those slippery, plastic tampons, these were the ones with the cardboard applicators. I held the instructions in one hand and a tampon in the other while I studied the diagrams. The trick about tampons is relaxing; tense up those inner muscles and it turns into an arm wrestling match.
I was so tense that it took three attempts and I was sore for a day afterwards, but I did it. When that box ran out, I went to the store and got another (the wussy plastic ones).
When I knew that I couldn’t put off sex any longer, I wasn’t going to ask for help. I knew that sex was dangerous. Every Sunday School lesson, 7th grade health class, or 10th grade biology class had made the risks abundantly clear, if only because every instructor was so painfully careful about exaggerating only the negatives and none of the positives.
I was in college, living at home. I bought the condoms and did research on the web. The idea that a woman’s first time is painful is pretty much a myth. Most girls are just so nervous that they get tense and rarely use lubrication. I learned everything I could and in the following years, became somewhat of a counselor for other girls in similar situations. “Relax,” I told them. “Despite what they tell you, sex doesn’t change who you are. You don’t feel all different afterwards.”
When one of the condoms tore, I bought a pregnancy test. I learned about rhythm methods, which are essentially useless as a birth control, but basic notions of timing that anyone having sex with a woman should know. I learned that during the week before my period I was very, very unlikely to get pregnant.
I looked up a pamphlet about our insurance plan and made an appointment with a dermatologist. I lied to her and said that my friend’s acne had vastly improved after she started birth control pills. Our family’s health insurance comes from the church my father works for, which doesn’t cover birth control pills, unless they are prescribed for something other than fertility. Luckily for young me, a lot of women use the pill to help mellow out painful menstruation, decrease chances of getting cancer, and relax PMS symptoms. Our family didn’t believe in sex before marriage and so navigating the particulars of insurance benefits was left to me.
Somehow, the insurance company folded and agreed to cover the pill for dermatological reasons. It was a particularly expensive brand of which my insurance hardly paid anything, but $50 a month was worth being able to keep other people away from my sexual health.
Self-educating became a habit. I scheduled my own gynecology appointments. I checked for breast cancer in the shower. When things ended with that first boyfriend I went to a sex store. I asked potential sexual partners uncomfortable questions. How many partners have you had? When was the last time you were tested for STIs? Would you get tested if I asked?
When I got into a steady relationship, I started researching IUDs. We are monogamous, with a low risk of STIs. I’m young, with no history of clotting, and no desire for children in the near future. I’m a perfect candidate. IUDs last 3-5 years and cost about $800. Compared to what it pays for birth control, my insurance could save about $400 by the time the IUD needed to be replaced. That’s not even considering what I currently pay for the pill. And after years on oral contraception, I’m a little tired of having to stop whatever I’m doing to take a pill at the same time every day.
I spoke to two doctors, read the pamphlets and contacted my insurance. I was confident. Everyone I asked said that new Obamacare regulations listed birth control as preventative health care. (Imagine that! Pregnancy might not be just a consequence of sex, but a condition which women have a right to prevent, like how a person might enjoy running but wish to prevent twisting an ankle.) I called my insurance and was told that they didn’t cover any device used for the purposes of “family planning” (such as planning to avoid having a family).
I’m a graduate student now. I moved out of my parent’s house in Utah to the East Coast after I landed a job and a scholarship. I left church life behind for a number of reasons, but largely because the shame associated with sexuality was troubling to me. Even though I never wanted to emulate that shame, the secrecy with which I was forced to shroud my sexuality subtly chipped away at my self-esteem.
I’m an adult, but as a student and a teaching assistant with a meager salary, I don’t have the money to buy my own health insurance. (I can’t afford to see movies while they’re still in the theatres.) Since the passing of the Affordable Care Act, most women finally have access to a variety of options for birth control through their insurance but that doesn’t include all of us. The Supreme Court ruled in the case of Burwell v Hobby Lobby that those of us who receive our health insurance through insurance providing corporations deemed as “closely held religious corporations” can continue to be refused contraception.
My health insurance will likely continue refusing to pay for more than one gynecology visit a year and provide no other birth control options but one very expensive brand of the pill. (“Except for abstinence!” I hear my 7th grade health teacher say.) In some ways it feels like I’m still living with my parents, still having my lifestyle affected by others' religious beliefs. But this time the effect is on an employed, educated adult and the beliefs come from my father’s employer.
There are a hundred other aspects of this ruling that I am not addressing, but then I think back to the girl who preferred to grimace through the pain and force in the tampon. She didn’t know about anti-woman agendas or the systematic regulating of her body. She felt like shame surrounded her body, her health, and her choices in regards to sex. he knew enough not to trust the doctors, or her health insurance; they were people she had to lie to in order to get what she needed to help herself.
And there are still girls growing up like I did, being forced to be the champions of their own sexual health. They’re not asking for help anymore, and maybe it’s because they live an environment that doesn’t seem interested in giving them what they need. I’m not going to get my IUD anytime soon, but I’ll keep taking care of my sexual health without any help.