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I woke up this morning feeling weighed down by all of the recent news. I told a friend that, while I continue to take steps to support things I believe in every day, it is increasingly feeling like I’ve used all of my fingers to plug holes in the dike and tomorrow when I wake up there will be a new leak that I don’t have capacity for. I know from experience that I feel this way from time to time and eventually I find my footing and get grounded in the knowledge that there are lots of others with their fingers holding the deluge back too and that the little things I am doing are important. And yet, here I am, today, feeling overwhelmed.

I don’t write about reproductive rights much anymore which is a huge departure for me. For years, mostly when my kids were young, I wrote about it on my blog, for online outlets like The Feminist Wire, and even for an anthology called Get Out of My Crotch! I spent years interviewing people who had struggled with the decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy and crafted a manuscript out of those stories, determined to humanize the “Pro-Choice/Pro-Life” debate once and for all.

Naïve. Yes.

Despite years of shopping the manuscript to agents and publishers, nobody wanted it. It was either “not controversial enough” (because I told stories of abortion, adoption, and even those people who chose to raise a child) or “not interesting” (because one – male – publisher told me it wouldn’t be interesting to men and therefore, it wouldn’t sell enough copies). Every year or so I pulled it out, dusted it off, updated it (because there were always new laws and new fights to talk about) and tried again. Until finally, I decided to put it out into the world anyway, because I felt bad that these people had trusted me with their stories and they weren’t being shared. I asked a friend to help me make it into a website, hired a graphic designer and a web designer, took pains to make sure that it was entirely anonymous (which is bullshit in and of itself because I wanted to make sure that my children wouldn’t be targets for some anti-choice militant who was angry about my views on abortion), and launched it. But it didn’t gain traction, mostly because I am crap at marketing and social media buzz and also because it’s hard to do that when you’re trying to protect your identity.

In the years since, I have wrestled with the idea of whether or not to keep resurrecting the book or the website for a variety of reasons. I got busy with other things and frankly, the older I get, the more I think that this is a Sisyphean feat – the topic of reproductive rights in the United States. But also, because, in a very idealistic way, I don’t think that women should have to bare their souls and rip open their wounds in order to be seen as human and deserving of the right to make their own healthcare decisions. In many cases, the people who are making the draconian laws such as the one that just took effect in Texas don’t deserve to hear my story and Bianca’s story and Ayesha’s story. I am past believing that it will make a difference. Despair. That’s why I stopped writing about reproductive rights. And it makes me sick to say that, to admit it. I had such hope that the Plan B pills and the abortion pills would end the conversation for the most part. But I’m certain that when Roe v. Wade was enacted, some folks hoped that it would be the end of it, too.

That same friend I was talking to this morning reflected on the last year and noted that he had harbored such hope that things would look different now in terms of Covid. He admitted that six months ago, he believed that the rollout of vaccines would have an enormous impact and we would not be where we are now with new outbreaks and variants and many places still locked down.

It occurred to me that part of the problem is that we come up with these ideas, these solutions, perched atop the old systems, and we try to implement them that way. We are mapping our solutions on the old, broken systems that were designed for rich white men in Western countries. Of course they won’t work for societies made up of people who aren’t mostly rich white men. The vaccine rollout didn’t fundamentally change anything because it was largely rolled out in Western countries that are mostly ruled by white men. Variants are coming from parts of the world that don’t have the same access to vaccines and other public health measures. These restrictive abortion laws are being mapped on to a system that was created by and for white men – with principles of punishment and control – and because the majority of the populace of this country is not white men, there is a great deal of suffering that will come with them. The upheaval we are experiencing right now, over and over again, is thanks to things being determined and run by people who don’t represent the actual people who live within the systems. The majority of Americans support abortion rights, so why is it that these laws keep getting prioritized? Because the lawmakers are white men, by and large. The majority of Americans didn’t support the war in Afghanistan, so why did it keep getting funded to the detriment of other social programs for people in America? Because the lawmakers are white men, by and large. Or they are well-served by the systems that white men created, and they have an interest in upholding them.

I have no answers today, I’m afraid, only the message that if you are feeling despair and frustration and overwhelm, you are not alone. If you are feeling hopeful that we are beginning to dismantle these old systems, please let me know and send me a light in the darkness today. In the meantime, I will support the outside-the-system things that are happening to give women who are pregnant options and amplify the voices of the folks who are calling for a new way of being.

We know the power of story to motivate and connect people, to convince and add color. But I am increasingly aware of how storytelling has become co-opted over time, bent and twisted to be used as a power tactic or a marketing tool.

Story is a tool – it used to be a tool to educate; elders would tell fables and parables to illustrate concepts. It is used to entertain, to take us out of ourselves, and it is an incredible way to build empathy. Telling our stories helps us release them from our bodies and, in the right setting, reminds us that we aren’t alone.

In the last several decades, story has also become a way to ask for validation, acceptance, consideration. And while that might not seem like a bad thing on its face, in the context of people without power telling their stories to people in power as a plea for empathy or understanding, it feels heavy in my gut. It feels more and more like justifying our existence, defending our choices, hoping to be considered equally human and deserving of care.

Many years ago, I began interviewing women about their stories. Specifically, their stories around being pregnant and having to choose whether or not to stay pregnant. I was increasingly frustrated that the political tug-of-war around abortion rights seemed never ending and I was certain that the conversation was all wrong. My hope was that centering the stories I wrote on the issue of choice would shift the spotlight a bit and add depth – open people’s eyes to the notion that the issue wasn’t two sides of the same coin, but far more complicated than that.

I had fully bought in to this new notion of what story was for. I was using these stories to not only educate people, but to convince them that these women deserved their consideration.

Sharing our stories is an enormous act of vulnerability. Opening ourselves up and shining a light on the parts of us that feel different, look different, are different is incredibly courageous, especially if the listener is not simply a vessel, but a judge. And while story is known for building empathy, it shouldn’t be the key that opens the gate to empathy. If, in telling our stories, we are hoping to gain acceptance and validation of our worth, and the listener is the one who gets to grant that (or not), story has become twisted and co-opted.

The notion of needing to tell our stories so that people in power will acknowledge us and tap us on the shoulder with their scepters, allowing us entry in to the world of Worthy Humans is abhorrent to me. We need to start with the belief that we are all worthy and cherished. People with disabilities, people of color, transgender or non-binary people, women, elders, childless folks, immigrants – nobody should have to tell their story in order to be regarded as worthy of respect. Nobody should have to show their scars and bare their souls so that they can be deemed worthy of care and honor.

Our stories are reminders that we are not alone. They teach us about the depth and the breadth of human experience, but they should not be a pre-requisite for civil rights, for love, for worthiness. The power of our stories is that they help us connect to others, and to use them as currency for equality and humane treatment is wrong.

I admit that when I started my interview project, it was with the intent to use the stories as political capital. I hoped that they would be published in a book that would reach the ears of people in power, that the stories would shift something inside them fundamentally and convince them once and for all that reproductive rights are vital, foundational, human rights. The women who spoke with me trusted me and, in some cases, had never told their story to anyone else but me. I was powerfully moved and believed that it would make a difference. These days, I resent the fact that I should have to tell my story in order to gain agency over my own body, in order to maintain or regain my civil rights and be seen worthy of that by people in power.

I believe in the power of story. When someone trusts me with their truest, deepest truth, it is a gift I do not take lightly. As receivers of story, we have an opportunity to be deliberate and generous with our listening, to recognize that we are being given a gift. I have felt the significant difference between telling my story to someone who is willing to hear it, contain it, hold it and reflect back to me that I am not alone in my difference, in my pain, in my perspective and telling my story to someone in an effort to get them to recognize my humanity. The first instance feels healing and fuels connection – the second feels defensive and frantic and defiant. Sharing something profound in an effort to find community is expansive. Sharing something profound as a way to justify my existence or worth or right to have agency over my body is like always being a step behind, and it reinforces the power differential between me and the receiver.

I appreciate the people who gather the courage to speak for themselves and others – the ones who testify in public hearings in support of accommodations or policy shifts or funding sources. I simultaneously lament that movements like #shoutyourabortion  or #youknowme have to exist, that we have been forced to use our stories as justification for our choices, to plead for help from those in power. It isn’t as though there is some tipping point, some critical number of stories that are told that will shift the narrative in favor of acceptance and compassion, in favor of the foundational belief that we are all human and, as such, equally deserving of the right to live freely, move through the world without obstacles in our way or a target on our back.

Until we can start at a baseline of humanity for all, equal rights, and acknowledgment of the historical systemic ways we oppress women and people of color and folks with disabilities and non-binary gender expression, etc. etc. we will not be able to truly hear the stories of our fellow humans. We will always be looking for the “hook,” the seminal difference, the spark that makes us say, “Oh, ok, you’re not like those other __________.” But in my heart, that’s not what story is about. Story is about bringing us together, reminding us of our connections, and reinforcing the power of being acknowledged.

I have felt nauseous for two days, a feeling that’s pretty unusual for me since I stopped eating gluten over ten years ago. It’s pretty rare that I have any stomach issues, to be honest, and when I first started feeling off, i instantly began running through what I’d eaten in the last 24 hours in an effort to figure it out.

Since a week ago, I’ve been careful about what I look at on social media. I needed to step back from the Kavanaugh hearings because of some difficulties in my life that were closer, more personal. And frankly, I had noticed that even seeing the ubiquitous photos of his angry, red, yelling face in every other Facebook post made my chest constrict uncomfortably.

Angry men are frightening


I don’t know if that’s something they know and use as a tool, but for most women and girls, male anger is tremendously upsetting. Men in our culture are taught to translate their anger and frustration in to physical outlets – hitting, throwing, slamming, shooting.

And yesterday, Lola and I got on a plane to fly across the country to visit Eve who is in her first year of college. I couldn’t afford to be angry or rage-filled or incapacitated by grief. I was filled with joy at the thought of being in her presence again, the presence of both of these young women who love each other and make each other laugh. We travel together well, easing in to activities and rest with comfort, somehow managing each others’ desires without fighting.

I woke up nauseous again, desperately pleading with the Universe to help me be 100%, to feel ok, to be able to enjoy my girls this weekend. Before my feet touched the floor, I took a deep breath and tried to pinpoint the feeling of unease and when it became clear that it wasn’t inside me, but surrounding me, I finally acknowledged it. I am receiving the energy of others outside me – the overwhelming despair and rage and fury of women everywhere who know they can’t stop this confirmation despite all our efforts.

Lola and Eve politely waited until I’d hugged Eve to fall in to each others’ arms and stay there for a minute. Little do they know that while I loved hugging Eve myself, witnessing the two of them resting together, holding each other up, was the biggest gift. My heart is full.

Not far in to the day, things turned. The ride to breakfast was a bumpy one and Lola felt carsick. Eve wanted to know what the plan was after breakfast. The weather forecast was horrid – humid and thunderstorms. The wait for breakfast seemed interminable. They exchanged (quiet) sarcastic words and there were tears. As we sat at the table, the girls ignoring each other on their phones, I remembered family trips where our parents were angry with us for being  “spoiled brats.”

We are spending money to bring you to this place and have a vacation, an adventure, and you repay us by bickering and complaining? Knock it off right now or you can forget about us taking you on any more trips.


I nearly laughed out loud, knowing that I could never say something like that to my girls. Not only would they think I’d been inhabited by some alien life form, but I know better. The very air is tainted right now, with anger and frustration and despair. And we are all entitled to feel overwhelmed, sad, confused, upset.

We soldiered on. And many hours later, as we sat eating lunch, our phones all pinged with the notification that Kavanaugh had been confirmed by the Senate. And I was reminded that what we are learning is valuable. We are learning, over and over again, that the solutions we can come up with within the paradigm of the current system are limited.

Had I threatened the girls, made them feel small and embarrassed, it might have made them less likely to express their frustrations outwardly, behave slightly better in public, but it wouldn’t have addressed the root of the issues. Had I dug in to the “root” of the issues, things would likely have gotten a lot worse in the short term (and they probably would have both turned on me instead of being angry with each other).  Those were tactics my parents used. My tactic shifted – I created a new system. I decided that since I’m the grownup here, I would trust my girls to let me know if they needed my help sorting out their emotions, and in the meantime, I would forge ahead, doing what I thought would make me happy. We headed to a burgeoning neighborhood and wandered through bookstores, thrift shops, stationery stores. I stopped to pet an adorable puppy, mused about birthday gifts for my nieces, begged Lola to try on an outrageously gorgeous, outrageously tiny pantsuit that she looked phenomenal wearing. By lunch time, we were doing ok. Good, even. And when I suggested we head back to the hotel so Eve could have a hot bath (there’s no tub in her dorm, so it’s been a long time since she had a therapeutic soak), Lola could chill by herself and watch TV, and I would head to the lobby and write, there were huge smiles all around.

Protesting, signing petitions, calling our representatives, those are all things we do to address the problems within the system. And I’m certainly not saying that those efforts are useless. But it’s the system itself that allows for these things to happen. The system that was created by white men for white men will always benefit white men. We need to get rid of that system. We need to dismantle (smash? burn?) the set of rules and mores that keep us small and compliant. We need to get a lot more comfortable imagining what a different paradigm would look like – one that is created for all of us – and work vigorously toward that end. Especially those of us who have benefited a great deal from this system, by playing by the rules and excusing the white men who make those rules.

It won’t be easy. And it won’t be comfortable. But we can’t make substantive changes within this system that will end up benefitting all of us. While I am still furiously angry that Kavanaugh was confirmed, there is a tiny sense of relief in that now I know that this fire will forge steel. Should we still work our asses off to get out the vote in November? Absolutely! When we take back the House, should we start impeachment proceedings on Kavanaugh and Drumpf? First. Fucking. Order. Of. Business.

And then, we should not rest. We should not think we’ve won. Small victories within this broken, broken system are not enough. We have to burn this SOB down.

It is not like a rock in your shoe – rolling free in the arch where you can’t feel it until it somehow lodges beneath your heel and annoys you. It’s not like that. That is a memory from when I was seven and a neighbor kid stole my new bike. Pissing me off decades later, but really just an annoyance.


This is a virus that lives in my bones. A virus that comes roaring back to life and makes me feverish, weak, agitated like I’m covered in hives.

This is sexual assault. 

The fact that I couldn’t sleep last night from the ache in my lower back. It’s not some metaphor or literary device – it’s the seat of my shame, of my pain, of my sexual assault. This is where it lives in me, dormant until triggered. Once released, it is overwhelming.

It is why I cannot watch the hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee because that feels like drinking castor oil when you have the flu. Why would I want to make myself puke even more?

It is why, even though I’m not watching, I can’t stop crying.
It is why I took the dogs for a very long walk this morning; because movement makes me feel better – gives me the illusion that I am not trapped like I once was, or twice, or three times. Outside, headed for the park, at least I’m not in the car with my boss groping me – unable to get away because we’re on the highway and I’m buckled in and I need that job. At least I’m not in the dark back bedroom at the babysitter’s house, floating away in my mind while her 17-year old son does what he does to my 8-year old body.

There is a war between my bones and my mind that I cannot reconcile. 

My mind wants me to tell, to release the stories, to join the #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport movements – to add to the ground swell. It knows the power of story. It says it will make a difference.

My bones push back. They know that telling is not a guarantee of release. That doing so is not like picking that small rock out of my shoe and flinging it away. These stories will always be with me. They are a virus.

There is another part of me, a part whose name I don’t know, that is enraged. This part of me, she is furious at the idea that more stories will get us to some tipping point – that there is some magical number of reported rapes and molestations and assaults that will flip a switch, turn the tide, change the cultural narrative. She wonders why we have to continue to rip our scars open and present them to others to be believed. SHE IS ANGRY BECAUSE WE NEED THEM TO BELIEVE US. Because it means that we are captive again – trapped until they “believe” us and release us. Because it reinforces the power differential.

The stories live within us. Always. 

It is why some of us drink too much, because numb is better sometimes.
It is why some of us cut ourselves, because the idea of release is so tempting.
It is why others deny themselves food or eat too much, because anything we can do to be in control of our own physical bodies feels like taking back power.
It is why some of us talk and talk and talk when we tell our stories, to still the questions waiting to tumble from your lips. Believe me, we’ve asked ourselves those questions over and over again and we still don’t have the answers. Because the answer lies outside us – with the perpetrators – while the pain lives inside.

And yet, no recounting of the story will matter if you’re not listening. If you are only waiting to turn this in to a philosophical debate or thought experiment, our stories will never matter, because your “What ifs” (she is lying/he was drunk/she was drunk/this is a setup/he thought he had consent/you’re not remembering right) are about you and your discomfort with our stories. Turning it in to a “conversation” means you’re not willing to listen to our lived experience. And if you’re uncomfortable with the details hitting your ears, imagine how we feel with them living in our bones.

By Father of JGKlein, used with permission – Father of JGKlein, used with permission, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10787084
If you are among the men who claim to have awakened to feminism because you had a daughter, I just want to let you in on a secret: that’s not feminism. If, before you had a female child who shares your DNA, who may or may not continue your legacy, you didn’t identify as a feminist – despite the fact that you have spent your life surrounded by women in one way or another – you’re not one now.
You may be on your way to finding feminism, but you’ve got a ways to go, so keep moving. You are not yet enlightened.

What you’ve found is narcissism. Or, alternately, patriarchy masquerading as feminism. If you suddenly see your daughter as a human being who might be mistreated based on her gender, if you feel compelled to protect her and fight for her rights, that’s patriarchy. If you look in to your daughter’s eyes and see yourself, or watch her on the soccer field and think, “she got that from me,” that’s narcissism. You feel as though you have a vested interest in her equality simply because she is ‘of you.’ 

Feminism is about all women and girls, so if you had a mother or a sister or aunties or female teachers or friends who were girls, and you didn’t feel compelled to support their struggle for equality before now, keep working. 

I’m happy you’ve gotten this far, but I’m not going to congratulate you on your newfound social justice muscle. We have way too much work to do for me to take the time or energy to make you feel better. You can join us, watch us, learn from us, and hopefully you’ll make it to feminism at some point. But you are not the center of the universe here. 

Women and girls have been raised to believe that the male gaze is the one that is most important – their daddies, their coaches, their bosses. Because men are the ones who have traditionally been in power, it is their acknowledgment and support we have been taught to seek, so I understand why you might think you deserve to be praised for this novel idea you had – that girls are people, too – thanks to your fatherhood. I’m here to tell you that that is all nonsense and you’ve been sold a lie. Women and girls are people regardless of whether you think they are or not. Women and girls are powerful, smart, and deserving of all the same things men are, their relationship to or with men notwithstanding. We don’t deserve equality because we are your sisters or your cousins or we have your eyes. We deserve equality. Period.


So put away your self-concern and self-congratulation and get on with it. We have miles to go and you’re a bit behind. 

This is a response to Elizabeth’s comment on the previous post about sex as a commodity, and I will preface it by saying I wish I had a definitive answer. She asked how I would educate my sons about sex and rape culture if I had sons, and I think it is a particularly salient question. I thought about it in the context of my brothers and my dad, but my teenage years were a different time. Not that there wasn’t a hearty dose of misogyny and male entitlement, but it wasn’t talked about at all, and rarely was it ever challenged.

After puzzling on it for a bit, I went to a source I trust: Lola. As a 13-year old girl who is proficient in social media, steeped in girls’ empowerment, and has a strong, vocal opinion on social justice, I was interested in her ideas about how to talk to teenage boys about rape culture.  She started out by encouraging parents to watch this YouTube video about consent with their kids. All of them, boys and girls, starting at a pretty young age. It’s a pretty powerful analogy and points out just how absurd our ideas about sexual consent are.

I love this video because it doesn’t avoid the idea that a person’s consent status can change at any point. Yes, it is possible for someone to say “yes” and then change their mind, two or five or twenty-five minutes later. And no matter when it happens, it’s valid. I’ve talked to my kids about the concept of the Least Common Denominator (don’t let your eyes glaze over – this has nothing to do with math). That means that the person who is the least comfortable gets to make the rules. The lowest threshold for sexual intimacy is the trump card. So if I really want to have full sexual intercourse but my partner just really wants to make out on the couch, we stop there. Period.

The second point Lola said was important to share with teenage boys is that, even though they may not have personally done anything to make a girl feel uncomfortable, rape culture means that in many situations, we just are.  Even I, in my mid-40s and fairly fit, am always nervous when I get into an elevator with just one other person who is male. Always. That is rape culture. Rape culture is me not feeling comfortable getting into an Uber or a Lyft by myself with a male driver. Chances are, he is a nice guy who will pick me up and take me to the destination I requested without any detours, but rape culture means that I am acutely aware at all times that I lack power – and therefore physical autonomy – until I get out of the car.  And rape culture also means that I often suffer through comments on my physical appearance and speculation about what I might be going out to do (often with lewd body language) and don’t speak up because it might anger the driver and then I’m screwed. Lola said she would want boys to know that these kind of experiences happen daily to girls and women, even if they themselves aren’t perpetuating it. She wondered if they might be willing to imagine what it would be like to be constantly on guard, wondering if the next guy who spoke to you would try to do more than speak.

We ended up having a conversation about street harassment and she cracked me up when she said, “They should know that girls and women don’t get dressed in the morning so that they can go out and get comments on their appearance from total strangers. Ever. That’s not a thing.” Even if guys think it’s totally innocent or a compliment to tell someone how they look, it ultimately makes women and girls feel unsafe simply walking down the street.  This video is a powerful one because it is a small sampling of what many women experience on a daily basis as they go about their business. And the irony is, no matter how she was dressed, if she had been accompanied by a man her age or older, none of that would have happened.  Nobody would have commented on her appearance – some out of fear of the other man, and some out of respect for him. But none of them out of respect for her. And that is rape culture.

The fact is, as I wrote in my last post, in our culture sex is often about power, and those who are born with more power are the ones who often make the rules about sex. Frankly, the most impactful thing I’ve been able to do when I’m having a conversation about sex with my girls is to listen. I like to think that I’m fairly plugged in to pop culture, but I know that there is a lot that goes on that I don’t see. And I’ve discovered that if I listen without judgment, my kids actually first love to shock me with the tales of goings-on in their world, and then feel like they can dig a little deeper and think about how all of it makes them feel.  I have also discovered that talking about sex and sexuality in lots of different ways – commenting when we’re watching a TV show together or when I hear a story on NPR with them in the car, showing them a video like the ones in this post and watching for their reactions, or slipping this letter under someone’s bedroom door – gives us opportunities to continually explore and challenge the ideas we have about sex.

Elizabeth is right. Talking to our kids about sex is incredibly hard. Sometimes they get annoyed and don’t want to talk (or listen). Sometimes I’m not the best at explaining something or helping them understand where I’m coming from. Sometimes I’m not good at listening without judgment. But the most important thing I ever did for my girls was to let them know that I’m willing to keep trying. That they can come talk to me about hard things whenever they want to and that I will bring tough subjects up from time to time and ask them to indulge me. Because if we as parents don’t work to counter the basic themes about sex that our kids get from school and the mass media, nobody will.

Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
The New England Prep School rape case
Peggy Orenstein’s latest book, Girls & Sex
Sex trafficking rates skyrocketing
The advertising phrase (and perhaps its most bedrock belief) “sex sells”

I could go on, but I think you’ll get the point. I’ve written here many times about rape culture and Sex Ed and I have very, very strong opinions, both as a sex assault survivor and as the mother of two daughters. But more than that, I am concerned for the way our entire culture treats the topic of sex because I think that from a very young age we are taught that sex is, first and foremost, a commodity, and secondly (sadly, a distant second for many, many people), an act of affection and/or love between individuals.

Long before most parents even consider broaching the subject of sex and sexuality with their children, they are bombarded by slick magazine ads, television shows, movies, and books that depict sex as a commodity, as something that we all ought to want and that we can buy our way into. There are many young people who are taught by older children or adults that their sexuality is something that can “buy” affection or special favors. Parents who prostitute their children are not only profiting financially, but they are teaching their children that sex has power and if you want money – or if you have it – you need only sell yourself. Many teenagers, both girls and boys, have a deep understanding of sexual favors – there are those who purchase social capital by giving blow jobs or hand jobs to others and those already in power who cement their status by receiving those favors.

Even if these kids do get “Sex Ed” in school, it is largely mechanical in scope, outlining anatomical features and talking about how pregnancy happens and how to avoid STDs. By the time they are adults, very few of them have an understanding of sex as something that is theirs to define – that they have every right to engage in it with an expectation of pleasure as opposed to some “reward.” Our American notion of “sex” is a very transactional one that is often one-sided. By the time we have the courage to really talk to our kids about sex (if we ever do), there is so much damage to undo that it feels overwhelming. And for children who learn early on, through abuse or sex trafficking, that sex is a tool, it is possible that their fundamental understanding of this act that is supposed to make their lives more whole has been forever damaged. How do you undo the notion that the person with more (power, control, money, status) has the right to obtain sex from the one with less when that is what you are shown in so many different ways over and over, nearly from the time you were born?

When girls are raised with the idea that their power lies in their ability to grant or withhold sex (the most egregious example of this I’ve heard of recently was Spike Lee’s latest movie Chi-Raq), it is damaging to their ability to see sex as something that is more intrinsically rewarding. When they are surrounded by images of women who are sexually provocative and who are praised for it (Kim Kardashian’s nude Instagram photos, anyone?), they are taught that sex is a tool, and that it ought to only look one way or it isn’t right.

When boys are raised with the notion that the more sex they have, the more masculine they are, it is equally damaging. Because, in our culture, they are born with more power at the outset, when they are presented with the idea that sex is a commodity, it isn’t much of a mental leap to imagine taking sex when they want it, simply because they can. When we set sex up to be about power, we can expect rape to follow along shortly. When business lunches are conducted in strip clubs and sex trafficking rates rise sharply during the Super Bowl, you can be sure that we have embraced sex as a commodity.

The question is, are we willing to live with the consequences of that or can we start talking to our young people about what else sex might be, instead?

In light of the most recent Congressional vote to de-fund Planned Parenthood, I would like my response to reflect the same approach I’ve had to this issue for most of my life. Some folks know that about ten years ago I embarked on a project called The Faces of Choice where I endeavored to provide a forum for women to tell their stories regarding difficult or unwanted pregnancies. I wanted to elevate the conversation to include women that chose termination as well as those who didn’t, but nonetheless struggled with the decision (because it is NEVER an easy one). I had hoped to publish these stories as a book and that didn’t work out. I then moved on to creating a website where a community could be established for women who wanted to share their stories and support each other. For a whole host of reasons, that didn’t take off, either. But the website still exists and I write here about why I was so passionate about the work. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but if anyone is on the fence about whether or not it is important to fund the work that organizations like Planned Parenthood does and to stay the hell out of a woman’s private medical decisions, I encourage you to go read it.

I had an entirely different post in mind for today, but I can’t let this one go.

Pope Allows Priests to Forgive Abortion if Women are ‘Contrite’

Being a long-lapsed Catholic, I am not really worried about this for myself. And I admit to having watched this Pope with a significant degree of awe because I feel like he really is being true to his Jesuit roots with regard to many of the decisions he makes and the things he says. I admire his commitment to being a voice for those in poverty and his courage when speaking about climate change. But this, well, perhaps there is something lost in translation, but this makes my blood begin to boil.

“I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women] to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”

I call bullshit.

With all due respect, you don’t know. You have no idea what a woman who is trying to make a decision like this goes through. And you have no right to assume that you know, especially as the head of the organization that puts many of the roadblocks in her way in the first place (what’s your church’s official position on birth control, again?)

I think that the Pope is trying to do the right thing here, and I can appreciate the sentiment. But the notion that a woman, any woman, needs a man to absolve her for making a private medical decision makes me sick to my stomach. Some folks have commented that priests have no business ‘forgiving’ anyone, that that is God’s job. Others have praised the Pope for his liberal stance on this issue. In the context of the Catholic Church, a horrifyingly patriarchal system in and of itself, I suppose this seemed like a noble thing to offer.  Indeed, devout Catholics can be forgiven for a whole host of sins if they just ask with contrition, regardless of whether they are male or female, but to ask a woman to be contrite for a choice she made that is entirely private is utterly ridiculous. What’s next, you can have birth control if every time you go to pick up your prescription you go straight to confessional afterward and ask for forgiveness?

Asking a woman to be ‘contrite’ is whitewashing the entire set of cultural pressures that Catholic women live under daily. The Pope’s slight nod to the church’s anti-birth control stance (if that is what it was) doesn’t erase the reality for many women around the globe that basically tells them their highest purpose is to get married and procreate and be subservient to their husbands. It ignores the reality that women are the main caregivers of these children and yet are powerless to determine how many of them they are willing to risk their health and life having and give up their careers to raise. It ignores the reality that the only alternative to birth control or abortion is to refuse their husbands, often at their own peril. It ignores the reality that women often have very little control over whether or not they will engage in sex, especially in areas of the world where sexual assault is used as a weapon of war, but that these women are the ones left behind to deal with the consequences of that violation. Are these women to feel ‘contrite?’ Are they to come to the church and beg a powerful male figure for forgiveness because they made a decision that that powerful man who has taken a vow of celibacy could not possibly understand or have the right to judge?

I call bullshit.

Nice try, but it’s time to move along. Perpetuating the idea that a woman’s sexuality either belongs to the church or to her husband is so last-Pope. Don’t even get me started on the fact that abortion isn’t mentioned in the Bible even once…. The bible is a religious text, not a medical one. It has no authority to tell a woman how to make a medical choice, nor to forgive her for making it.

Sexual assault weighs heavily on my mind of late. Between the former Subway pitchman admitting to child pornography and rape of children, and the New York Times story of ISIS using rape as a strategic tactic, and the trial of a prep school graduate who is alleged to have raped a fellow student as part of a graduation ritual, the news seems saturated with it. I am reading Jon Krakauer’s book on campus rape, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” at a snail’s pace because the stories give me a stomach ache, both with regard to what the students went through as they were sexually assaulted and the treatment they faced from police officers and prosecutors and school officials, not to mention the perpetrators. As the mother of two daughters, it is increasingly difficult to not see threats around every corner. As a sexual assault survivor, I know all to well the power of such violations and the trails they weave throughout a life.

This morning, I was particularly struck by the article on Jezebel (referenced above) pertaining to the testimony of the alleged victim in the prep school trial. She was quoted as saying,

“I didn’t want to come across as too offensive or rude….I didn’t want to cause conflict,”

 in response to a crude email invitation he sent to her to join him.  In other testimony, she said,

“I tried to be as polite as possible.”
“I wanted to not cause a conflict”
“I feel like I had objected as much as I felt I could at the time. And other than that I felt so powerless”

And while many people have (and will continue to) comment that this girl was stupid, that by making those choices, she clearly wasn’t really objecting to sexual contact with this man (he was over eighteen at the time and she was either 14 or 15), her words resonate with so many women and girls.

To this day, I still wrestle with telling my massage therapist or the dentist that I’m uncomfortable, to go easier, because I don’t want to be rude or tell them how to do their job. Saying it out loud sounds ludicrous, but I was brought up as a compliant Catholic girl who was to always assume that my elders knew what they were doing. I was not to question them or challenge them, but to defer to them and make them feel good. Not only was that the “Right” thing to do, but I quickly learned that it was the best way to get them to like me. It made me the perfect victim of childhood sexual abuse by an older boy. I never said a word. I’m certain that as I lie in his dank, sweat-scented, 17-year-old boy bedroom and he assaulted me multiple times over a period of months, I never cried out, fought back, said no. I know that it was decades before I ever told anyone, and every time I considered it, I saw his mother’s face in my mind and wondered what it would do to her. I saw my own mother’s face in my mind and wondered what impact it might have on her if I told – would she be seen as a horrible mother? Would she think of herself that way? It never occurred to me to ask whether or not anyone would believe me because I wasn’t going to tell – it would disrupt too many lives.  I wasn’t weighing my own life in this equation at all. I had absorbed the messages served up to me by the church and our culture too well. It was more important to be liked than it was to stand up for myself. It was more important to preserve the feelings of someone else (especially if they were older than me or male) than it was to express my own feelings.

Forgive us. And let us learn from this.

Let us teach our children that they can always apologize for being rude, but they can’t ever take back those moments where they didn’t stand up for themselves.

Let us teach our children that they matter as much as everyone else around them, that their opinions and thoughts are just as valid.

Let us teach our children to listen to their gut, to develop that spidey-sense that defies logic and is always right.

Let us teach them that they have a right to draw boundaries, whether anyone else likes it or not.

I have done my level best to help my daughters understand these things. They have been accused of being insolent or rude by some family members for “talking back,” but I’ll take that over being walked on any day. If they ruffle some feathers by being outspoken and opinionated, by refusing to do something they don’t want to do even if it will make someone else happy, I’m okay with that. And I sincerely hope that, with enough practice, if either of them ever finds themselves in a dark room with someone who is determined to overstep their boundaries, these lessons will come back to them and they will say to themselves, “F*ck rude – I said NO!” It is not a silver bullet, but it is something.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages girls to sublimate their own wishes in order to make anyone else feel good.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages boys to find conquests and ignore the wishes of others so that they can make themselves feel good.

It begins here, with a pledge to do better. To teach our girls and boys that they are, first and foremost, human beings deserving of respect, especially by themselves.

Related writings: Campus Rape
10 Things I Want My Daughters to Know About Sex
Rape in the Military