There’s several articles floating around today discussing recent comments made by Bristol Palin about birth control programs in Washington state that allow young women and girls to get birth control without parental consent. Many of these articles make beautiful points about the statistical effectiveness of giving young women birth control for low or no cost… points I’ve made before myself. Because of that, I don’t feel compelled to make any of those same points again.
What I want to talk about are the impacts that parental consent requirements have on young women living in fundamentalist or conservative religious households.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I grew up in a very conservative (bordering on fundamentalist at times) religious household. I never really recognized how much this was the case until long after I had moved out of my parents’ house, but looking back I realize that people were often taken aback by the way things worked in my household. That’s not to say that my parents weren’t good parents. They taught me a lot of important things about personal responsibility, work ethic, and dedication that other friends of mine still struggle with. But they also did some things that were incredibly harmful to me as a young woman.
One of the most common hallmarks of religious fundamentalism is the desire of families to control their daughters’ sexuality. My family was no exception. From the very first time I asked about sex, my parents were very controlling of what information I was and wasn’t given. My father (who gave me “the talk”) told me that sex is something people do after they get married. That was about it. I never learned anything about how you actually have sex. I never learned about the consequences. I never learned about consent, or the ways that people might try to take advantage of me sexually. I suspect this was because in my dad’s eyes, anyone trying to have sex with me before they married me was trying to take advantage of me sexually. Even this, however, was a method of control. By teaching me this, they turned every sexual encounter I might have before I get married into one that I should feel bad about. To a certain extent, I think it also made me easier to take advantage of, because I expected it of men I was sleeping with.
The problem is that my parents couldn’t control all the information I was given about sex. Though they never actually taught me how sex works physically, I figured it out one day in fifth grade when a girl told a dirty joke. I learned even more over the course of the next few years in public school, a fact that probably lead them to put me in a private school. At the private school, another form of control was introduced in that you could be expelled for having sex. This, of course, didn’t stop any of us from doing just that, and although I made it a lot further than many of my peers, I lost my virginity in my senior year. Several of my classmates ended up pregnant, or with STDs.
You see, no matter how much control fundamentalist communities try to exert over the young women in their midst, human sex drives are (quite literally) a force of nature. While there certainly are people who wait to have sex until their wedding night, most people do not. This becomes a problem for young women and girls in fundamentalist communities, because they don’t have the resources to explore their sexuality safely. Which brings me back to birth control. My parents were not against birth control by any means, which separated them from some of their more fundamentalist peers. I know that members of my family have used birth control after they got married to prevent themselves from having children until they were ready. It certainly wasn’t hidden from me that birth control existed.
But if I had ever asked for it, all hell would have broken loose.
After all, women only need birth control if they are sexually active, right? This is wrong, of course; birth control is used to treat all kinds of issues that women may have, from PCOS to endometriosis. But my parents would have never looked at it that way. Giving me birth control would have been tantamount to giving me permission to have sex. The thing is, I was having sex. And I was having it without using any form of protection. Why would I, since I had never been taught how to use any forms of protection? It wasn’t until a particularly sex-positive boyfriend (for lack of a better term) of mine taught me a thing or two about contraceptives that I realized I ought to be using them. That same boyfriend is responsible for undoing a lot of the wrong things I had been taught about sex and sexuality. While I am grateful for his influence (if you ever read this, you know who you are. Thank you.), it shouldn’t have been his job. I was 19 when we were together, and 19 is far too late to start teaching a young woman how to take care of herself in bed.
Programs like the ones that Washington state instituted would have benefitted me and several of my friends greatly. However, allowing that program to be subject to the consent of my parents would have only reinforced the idea that my body and my sexuality is not mine to control. It would have reinforced the idea that I should not be having sex without the consent of my parents. It would have been inaccessible and totally useless to me.
I understand that many of the people complaining about these programs are okay with the notion of parents controlling their daughters’ sexuality. The problem is, that control does not always have the desired effect. Women end up having sex, but they do so in this strange “in-between” land. They know enough to have sex, but not enough to protect themselves. Washington state removing the parental consent requirements allows women to protect themselves, even when their parents don’t want them protected. It allows young women to have agency over their bodies, no matter what their community thinks about it. This is a good thing for women, no matter how much religious fundamentalists claim it is not.