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Abortion bans threaten sexuality development

As America tumbles headlong into an election season accompanied by the most restrictive, neo-Puritanical abortion landscape we’ve seen in 50 years, it’s difficult to imagine the ubiquity and normalcy that once accompanied abortions. Supported even by the Catholic church, abortions weren’t outlawed until the mid 1880s

This piece of American history—accompanied by less stigma and more dignity—must feel like a fever dream for young people, a far cry from their lived reality. Amid growing panic around criminalization, loss of reproductive health care access, and a dearth of meaningful sex education, youth are not only up against attacks on their reproductive rights, but the very formation of their sexuality, a vital piece of the puzzle in becoming a healthy human.

“Sexuality is a normal part of development, so if we’re putting up barriers to people experimenting in a safe way, free of coercion, with the ability to have safe sexual experiences … we’re doing people a disservice,” said Sarah Nathan, an associate clinical professor in the UCSF School of Nursing and a provider at La Clinica in Oakland, California. “It’s like when we’re teaching kids to walk or talk, right? We’re not gonna put them in a space where they don’t have the ability to explore a room, right?”

The GOP’s attacks on abortions and contraception and the systematic erosion of sex education are resulting in a psychological fallout that makes “recreational” sex synonymous with an unwanted pregnancy at best and punishment at worst.

“It’s really important to facilitate young people’s autonomy around their reproductive health decision-making … providing young people the information about their own bodies—exploring sexual pleasure, sexual health,” said Melissa Torres-Montoya, a lawyer specializing in reproductive justice and a former sex educator in California. 

Torres-Montoya describes a snowballing that affects every aspect of a young person’s life as an absence of information, exposure, consent, and healthy sexuality leaves them deeply vulnerable. This coupling of misformation and fear could mean staying in an abusive relationship, having unwanted sex, or waiting too long to identify a pregnancy and realizing an abortion is no longer legal.

“With the abortion laws being rolled back and with the social climate being where it is, it is even more dangerous for young people, for birthing people to find community and acceptance … It’s definitely going to have an enormous impact on young people’s self-esteem and their mental health,” said Jacqueline Miranda, an abortion activist and a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies student at the University of Massachusetts. 

A first-generation Cape Verdean American raised by staunchly Catholic parents, Miranda was wracked with guilt by her two abortions before she joined Advocates for Youth and was empowered to change the narrative.

“I felt like I didn’t deserve intimacy, sex, or love,” Miranda said, adding that owning one’s sexuality and being able to freely discover what that means is where sex education comes in. “Inclusive, gender-neutral sex ed that deviates from puritanical views and from heteronormative views, all of that is so important because our sexuality is our creativity, is our spark, is who we are. And when you kill that spark, I really feel like you kill who someone is on the inside.” 

How can anyone develop a healthy sexuality when fear and confusion are the dominant emotions accompanying any conversations around the few conversations about sex that even happen at all? One need look no further than Alabama, where a Republican-led state Senate committee has advanced legislation prohibiting “comprehensive” sex education and banning information on contraception—but the disenfranchisement is coming from all sides.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has blocked a bill that would have made access to contraception a legal right. Florida’s six-week abortion ban went into effect this month, and the Oklahoma state House just passed a bill aiming to make trafficking abortion drugs a felony carrying fines up to $100,000 and 10 years in prison. Meanwhile, Texans have been living under a near-total ban, including the straight-out-of-dystopian-fiction Senate Bill 8, which deputizes private citizens, offering them $10,000 for reporting and suing anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion. 

“I feel that we are regressing when it comes to our sexuality here in the U.S., and I’m starting to see trends where there is more shame and more responsibility being thrown at young women for not getting pregnant, yet there isn’t sex education … We know that’s the only way to prevent teen pregnancy: advocacy and education,” Miranda said.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, only half of adolescents received sex education, and among teens reporting penile-vaginal intercourse, fewer than half received said instruction before they first had sex. Only five states—California, Colorado, Washington, Illinois, and Oregon—have mandatory comprehensive sex education, and “comprehensive” can mean very different things.

One of the biggest pieces of the education conundrum is providing youth with critical thinking skills and a vital sense of autonomy and self-determination, especially as the barriers to such access are compounded by structural inequities and racism. 

“People are getting abortions who want to parent, but they don’t think they can based on structural factors in their life, like poverty, lack of educational opportunities, lack of stable housing,” Nathan said. “We need to move away from this model of ‘everybody needs to have an IUD when they turn 12’ [because] there are multiple structural factors that influence somebody. Like racism in medicine. There is a long history of forced sterilization of women of color in this country. A young person of color might be holding all of those pieces and saying, ‘I don’t want to have an IUD, I don’t want something put in my body.’”

While Torres-Montoya maintains that “living in a world where you think young people don’t have sex is just not reality,” she said it’s equally important to let young people determine whether they want to be having sex at all and equip them “with the information to interrogate their own readiness. Being open about sex is not a bad thing, but let’s make sure you have thought this through.”

Miranda explains that fostering space for a child’s burgeoning sexuality is a necessary but complicated task—her repressive experience repression “feels like a microcosm of the bigger experience in the Black diaspora.” Culture is a tremendous thing to counterbalance.

“It’s a way the Black community thinks they’re protecting young women—they shame them out of sexual experiences,” she said. “I’ve been called every name in the book since I was, like, 5—a ‘fast little girl.’ I developed physically very early … And that ties into so much about how repressed our sexuality is, because we don’t want to be seen as ‘fast’ … [Children] don’t know about respectability politics. We don’t know the Madonna-whore complex, Jezebel stereotypes. But we can feel that shame.”

Despite what can feel like an exhausting game of legislative whack-a-mole—how to stay vigilant on the rights conservative leaders are stripping away with every passing day—Torres-Montoya said these policies and people “are out of step with the country.” Today, more than 51% of the country supports abortion under certain circumstances, and 70% of parents want better sex education for their children.

But Miranda warns of complacency because sexuality doesn’t operate in a vacuum; it sits at the crossroads of our identity and our rights.

“Everybody can do something for the movement,” she said.They’re coming for birth control. They’re coming for gay marriage. They’re coming for so many things that are all tied to sexuality and human dignity, and we can’t keep letting it slip under our noses because it ‘doesn’t affect us’ … As a young Black girl, I will scream this until the day I die.”

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