We all remember sex ed, at least in bits and pieces.
The giggly trip to the health center as elementary schoolers, separated by gender and learning about “our changing bodies.”
The awkward days in middle school health classes, when we cringed at the thought of walking around with cotton sticks up there and didn’t know how to ask the questions that were really on our minds.
The stiff conversations in high school health, where at least one class clown made crude jokes and cackled immaturely when the middle-aged (or, even worse, young adult) teacher first said sexual intercourse.
And do you know what I—and so many of my peers—took away from those classes?
That’s mostly it, actually.
The awkward memories and sort of icky feeling of it all. Some vague understanding of sex, of contraception, of “being safe.” The difference between boys and girls. A deep-seated fear of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. A certain sense of taboo curiosity about it all: What does that feel like? Who’s doing what? Why can’t we just be adults already? Why can’t we just go back to being kids?
I learned that boys were “slower to mature” than girls, and that girls could take the Pill to treat acne and painful periods (even if they “didn’t need it” for contraception). I learned that “miscarriage is when a woman thinks she’s pregnant, but then she isn’t anymore.” (Yes. Seriously.) I learned that boys were driven by their hormones and girls should take good care of themselves.
What a load of junk.
Because you know what I didn’t learn?
How my body actually works, independent of how it may be of use (or at risk) in sexual intercourse.
I did not learn about the patterns in which several different hormones rise and fall during my cycle, ensuring my health and ability to carry a pregnancy. I did not learn how cycles are naturally irregular early on, but tend to normalize over time—and, if they don’t, doctors can help achieve proper function instead of just slapping on the bandage of hormonal birth control. I did not learn that hormonal birth control often causes depression. I did not learn that taking birth control could have lasting effects later in life, or that menstrual problems likely won’t be “fixed” when I stop taking it. I did not learn that there are many ways to understand my own fertile patterns instead of assuming I’m fertile all the time, always.
And I certainly did not learn that all of this is worth knowing well before you decide to have a baby, and regardless of whether you’re sexually active. Because you’re entitled to understand how your own body functions, even if no one else is using it at the moment.
In short, sex ed taught me that my fertility was a burden to be managed with birth control and feminine hygiene products, until the time came that I chose to become pregnant—at which point, everything will likely function normally and conceiving will be easy as pie.
But that’s just not how it works. Fertility isn’t always “typical” when we decide to take advantage of it. And conceiving is not easy. In fact, 1 in 8 couples have trouble getting or staying pregnant—and 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage.
So many women end up in an awful position as adults. When they’re finally encouraged to become familiar with their fertility for the very first time, the stakes are as high as they’ll ever be. Their dreams are spreading out—or being cut short—in front of them. Their family is on the line. Their marriage is being tested. Their unborn child’s life is at stake.
I don’t accept that path for my daughter.
It is nuts just how many circumstances must perfectly align to achieve ovulation, let alone conception. The interplay of hormones, physical function, emotion, and general health is staggering. We should not feel obligated to interrupt a perfectly healthy process so that we can minimize inconvenience, for ourselves and especially not for others. If that process isn’t functioning perfectly on its own, we should feel entitled to medical care that will find a root cause and fix it.
If my heart wasn’t working well, I would find a doctor and he would want to help me fix it to restore good health. If my ovaries aren’t working well, I should be able to find a doctor who would want to help me fix them to restore good health—not just turn them off because “I’m not using them right now anyway.”
Fertility, perfect or otherwise, is not something to be squashed like a nagging bug.
So when my daughter hears about the birds and the bees, she won’t just hear about what’s convenient or inconvenient about her changing body. She won’t be told only how her fertility needs a man’s fertility to make a baby.
She’ll learn how her body performs a quiet ballet each cycle, and how that function affects other aspects of her physical and emotional wellbeing. She’ll learn to observe how it’s all working, and what understanding she can take away from her unique patterns each month. She’ll see how my fertility has changed over time, so she can be prepared for how hers will, too, and ask me whatever questions she may have.
And yes, she’ll learn that sexual intercourse makes babies and, if pursued improperly, can put us at high physical and emotional risk. But she’ll also learn how intimacy means loving a whole person—not just the pieces that are convenient at the moment—and why she deserves so much more than what’s being pushed in her face by a broken and lonely world.
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