Like many, my education in reproductive health has been disjointed and lackluster at best, shameful and repressive at worst. I remember my sixth grade teachers holding a co-ed forum of sorts, encouraging us to write in anonymous questions that they read and answered aloud. This would have been great had we any idea what to ask. For most of us, sex was still a vague rite of passage none of us expected to cross any time soon. We hardly understood its physical definitions, let alone its implications towards health and well-being.
High school wasn’t much better. We did exercises in family planning while my female classmates and I were taught to hold a tacit fear towards the mystery of our own bodies. We learned that we were more susceptible to contracting STDs and that doing so could jeopardize our future as mates and mothers. We were encouraged to take pills, insert flexible rings, and allow ourselves to be injected with hormones that would alter our natural reproductive processes. Even those of us who were not sexually active were pressured to take some type of birth control “just in case.” Side effects were not discussed and so we braved the acne, weight gain, and mood swings with as much grace as a teenager can possess, loading up on Maybelline makeup, sugary snacks, and reality TV to balance the scales.
Sadly, these attitudes didn’t change much as I ventured into adulthood. I bought into the “just in case” and took birth control for over a decade, even when I wasn’t in a relationship. I had little understanding of my body beyond its ability to provide pleasure for others. According to Cosmo and other women’s magazines, I was normal in my inability to orgasm during sex. Everything I read seemed to confirm that men and women had different priorities and needs when it came to sex, and that women either got lucky or learned to grin and bear it.
My mother put the fear of Jesus into me at age eighteen, informing me of the phenomena of “down low men,” men who stepped outside of their committed relationships to secretly sleep with other men only to pass along incurable diseases to their unsuspecting female partners. Made to believe this behavior was common, I got tested every three months like clockwork, always working myself into a frenzy of anxiety over the results.
This was in direct contrast with the expectations I had of my partners, from whom I accepted vague answers and paltry reassurances: they’d had a physical before football season; they’d been tested in their last relationship and hadn’t been with anyone since. Nevermind that a physical is hardly substitute for STD testing and transmitted infections often lie dormant. Condoms were used sporadically when my partners had them on hand or it was assumed that I was on birth control if I didn’t object. Only occasionally and always after sex, would my partners display any curiosity towards my sexual health and protection. “You’re on birth control, right?” or “You’re clean, yea?” A swift nod was all the confirmation they needed to feel peace of mind.
My attitude began to shift when I tested positive for HPV at age 25. The gynecologist seemed almost bored as he shared the results, calling the infection an invisible consequence of being sexually active. I was told that condoms couldn’t prevent it and that the non-cancerous strain I’d contracted would likely go away on its own within a couple of years.
This sent me down a rabbit hole of research, wherein I found that my peers’ and my discomfort around sexual health was only allowing for sexually transmitted infections and diseases to become more prevalent. I found out that some of the most maligned infections were more common than we were lead to believe, and that contracting them didn’t equate to sterilization or impotence. Moreover, I realized that being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection or disease didn’t make anyone any less worthy of love, attention, or a fulfilling sex life.
With few resources available, I taught myself how to talk about sex. I learned to approach those conversations with the same curiosity and non-judgment as if I were asking about someone’s career path. I avoided words like “clean” when describing sexual health and came prepared with a copy of my results, no longer willing to accept word of mouth.
And a strange thing happened as I became an advocate for my sexual health: I began to enjoy sex more. A greater understanding of the consequences of sex encouraged me to learn about the wide-ranging capabilities of my body and made me eager to explore them. Open conversations about sexual health easily evolved into discussions of sexual preferences and turn ons. Trust allowed me to surrender more completely in the moment, all my “What if’s” finally put to bed. To put it simply, I finally found my voice.
Feature Image by Larissa Hofmann