Sexual Health: We Are Not Doing Each Other a Favor by Staying Silent

13 Jul

Today I received an email from an acquaintance. She is pregnant and wants an abortion. She wrote in a tone I recognized from checking the clinic emails – the situation outlined clearly and stripped of emotion, as though she had gone through several drafts, and then at last simply stated her feelings matter-of-factly and almost as an afterthought: “I’m scared”.

This isn’t the first email of this type that I have received. I am certain it won’t be the last. Even as I wrote my reply, reassuring her that she is not alone and outlining her options, I began wondering why it is that young women turn to me first in these situations. Certainly I am an obvious choice because I work in an abortion clinic, and I am vocal about it. They can be sure I will be non-judgemental. But they could always call the clinic and get the same reply. Information is not the only thing these women are seeking: they need to be comforted, supported, understood. They turn to me partially for advice, and partially for friendship. Why isn’t that support present in their lives?

My friends make fun of me because I take an interest in their sexual health. I make no bones about the fact that I always have condoms, and will happily give them to anyone who asks. It frustrates me that I am the only person I know who does this. Why aren’t we looking out for each other? If I have a headache, I can ask a friend if they have any Tylenol. Sexual health is health, and we are not doing each other a favour by staying silent.

The main reason I am outspoken with my peers about safe sex is because I want them to know that they can turn to me for support – for a condom, for vibrator-shopping advice, for a hand to hold at a doctor’s appointment, for information, for support. If I don’t put myself out there, people will not ask. We know so little about our friends that when things are tough, we are afraid to turn to them for fear of judgement.

This is part of the way that abortion is stigmatized, but I believe that it also comes from the taboo nature of women’s sexuality in our society. So many women are suffering in silence: I see them coming to my clinic alone (and you can always tell the difference between the ones who want to be there alone and the ones who wish there was someone with them). I get their emails. And I wonder: where are your friends? How frightening is it to feel that there is nowhere you can turn for support?

I know that it can be difficult, even for those of us who work in sexual and reproductive health, to be upfront about those issues with our friends. But I truly believe it is our responsibility to do so. Not to lecture or patronize, but just to make it explicitly known that your non-judgemental support is available in ANY situation. Even if all you can do is provide a link or a phone number. For most women I talk to, the hardest part of having an abortion is the varying degrees of secrecy. Knowing there is someone to tell is a great relief.


5 Responses to “Sexual Health: We Are Not Doing Each Other a Favor by Staying Silent”

  1. Not Guilty July 13, 2010 at 1:09 pm #

    After having a close friend of mine say that she wouldn’t come with my if I needed to get an abortion, and the sadness that caused me, I began telling all my female friends that I would go with them if they needed to go. Anybody on my facebook knows I am pro-choice, so I hope that any of my friends would know they could come to me. I want to be considered a safe person to talk to about abortion, or any sort of reproductive control. I’ve actually taken to carrying condoms around with me, especially when I go out drinking. I’ve always discussed birth control options with my friends and give my opinion on the 3 I’ve tried. I am totally happy to be that go to person for my friends, even if I am never needed. I agree, if we don’t take the lead we are never going to get rid of the shame and stigma surrounding abortion, etc.

  2. Amy July 13, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Knowing you, Pedge, I think you’d be the first person I’d turn to for advice if I was in this situation. Not only because you give off radical non-judgemental vibes, but because you are very knowledgable about the resources in the community and what I could expect if I needed an abortion. I hope that my friends feel that they could talk to me about the problems that they have that I may be able to help with. But, if I were in this situation, I would turn to a person who I knew for sure would be able to help me out. Abortion is disinfranchised in our society and something that a person is supposed to keep secret. I hope that I give off those radical, non-judgemental vibes too.

  3. placenta sandwich July 14, 2010 at 11:02 am #

    This is a great post. I am apparently that person for a lot of my friends, too. (That is, the friends from outside the field!) That’s totally fine with me, of course, but it does make me sad that they don’t have more people in their lives to ask for support. And @Not Guilty, I love your idea of letting your friends know that you would be their abortion companion if they ever need one. I might do that too 🙂

    There have also been times when they don’t ask for help, and I have to decide whether to offer and how pushy to be — e.g., once an old friend mentioned she and her about-to-be-husband “weren’t using anything” and then moved on to another topic. But they also didn’t want kids yet. Ack.

  4. ksuchoice July 14, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    I’m one of those condom-toting girls too! It’s always interesting going through airport security, and realizing that I’m in whichever state, which could arrest me on basis of having 10 condoms in my purse, and would they believe me if I said I just carry them around for whenever they’re needed, by me or someone else?

    When I was in school and would have boxes of 500 condoms show up on my doorstep (Thanks Trojan/Great American Condom Campaign) I would ALWAYS get the “so, you go through a lot of those in a semester? What do you DO?”. I got to the answer of “I help keep YOU healthy!”. Also, we used to use old condoms for balloon art, decorations (wreaths!), comedy routines… anything to get people more comfortable with them in a college with a high STD rate.

  5. Katherine Kramer July 15, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    I, too, have been very outspoken about my friends sexual health. One of my friends already has a child, but is in a new relationship. I had to ask what she used for birth control–and was surprised that she still counted on the pull out method. So we talked about it. I always hand out condoms to people who need it, especially in clinics!

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