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#DearJohn: On Rape Culture and a Culture of Reproductive Violence

Working on #DearJohn, something has been made really, creepily clear to me: For my entire life, I’ve been so privileged, and so steeped in a culture of violence, that I’ve been able to remain largely unaware of one really, really important and traumatic form of sexual violence.

I was born in 1982. I started to have consensual sex with dudes in 2000, when I was eighteen. I’ve never lived in a world where I couldn’t have an abortion, if I needed one. I used to say that I would never, ever have an abortion (the same way that I used to say I would never, ever have sex with anyone but my husband, or maybe I’d have sex for the first time once I was engaged, a few months before my beautiful princess wedding, which, WHOOPS, THAT ONE DID NOT PAN OUT FOR ME) but I always knew, on some fundamental level, that if I needed an abortion, the possibility would be there. What I didn’t see — what I just started to see this week — was how much violence exists in our culture, aimed at discouraging me from getting one even as it makes it more likely that I will need one, or around making my access to it so hard as to be impossible.

I’ve needed the Morning After Pill four times, since 2000. Actually, I’ve needed it way more than that, but I’ve only tried to take it four times. Once I officially Lost My Virginity, a lot of my early sexual experiences were abusive: I would classify them as consensual, but they weren’t pleasurable, they often involved a certain degree of coercion or silencing of my needs, and the men had a totally dismissive attitude toward my body, my pleasure, my health, and my needs that I absorbed as a natural and acceptable part of sex. My first boyfriend told me that it “worked better if I didn’t move,” if that tells you anything. And when condoms broke, I was told that it wasn’t a big deal and I shouldn’t talk about it and everything would be fine and the big deal! Stop making it! So I shut up about it. I was used to wrangling with dudes over whether or not they had to use condoms — all guys hate condoms! Being pressured not to use condoms is a totally normal part of sex! I thought — and I thought I was doing a great job of being responsible, because I managed to hold out and insist that they wear them. I was not doing a great job, it turns out. But nothing in my environment told me that I should, I didn’t have any information about sex that didn’t come from the guys I was having sex with, nobody told me that I was valuable enough to take care of myself (or to NOT HAVE SEX with guys who resisted condoms; the first time a guy stopped to put on a condom by himself and without my asking him to, I was fucking flabbergasted) and so I didn’t. I was so divorced from any context in which valuing my own health could be considered appropriate or natural that I didn’t protect myself. I didn’t get tested for STDs (I’m amazed that I never got one, considering how some of these guys operated) and I didn’t try to take Plan B.

Keep in mind: I wasn’t anti-choice, at this point in time. I was staunchly pro-choice, even though the thought of having an abortion myself was still emotional and scary, given the messages I’d gotten growing up. I just wasn’t okay with protecting myself. I’d absorbed so many abusive messages about how little I mattered when it came to sex or life in general that I couldn’t take steps to keep myself healthy and non-pregnant.

The first time I did try to take Plan B was when one of the boys just straight-up “forgot” to put a condom on altogether. It was after a Halloween party, we were both drunk, and he finished so quickly that by the time I said “hey, you need to put on a condom” the damage was done. I thought at the time it was a drunken mistake; now I remember how freaking surly he always was about the condoms, and how many games of “just the tip” we played, and I’m not so sure. He refused to drive me to the Planned Parenthood on the OSU campus in Columbus, even though it was (I learned later) only a few blocks away from his house. I had to get all the way back to my college campus in rural Ohio — and my Mom drove me, so there was no way I was going to ask HER to swing by PP — and then get my college roommate to drive me forty-five minutes in another direction, to a clinic in the middle of nowhere, where Yahoo! web search told me I could get the pill.

And that was where I got my first inkling, of how scary the forces arranged against choice can really be. The first person I saw was a doctor — he was a man of color, and had an accent; I read him as maybe an Indian guy — who made a face when I told him about the situation, then told me he’d write the prescription and that I could go back to the waiting room. Then, when I was in the waiting room, a different doctor — a white lady — came up to me and said that she’d been told I had asked for the morning after pill, and that she needed to speak to me outside for a second. I followed her. And then she told me she couldn’t give me the pill, and that I needed to leave right away.

I freaked out. “I only have a few hours left to take the pill! This is the only place that has it that I could get to! What am I supposed to do if I get pregnant, get an abortion?” She explained to me — with a terrifying lack of scientific accuracy, considering that she was a doctor — that Plan B was an abortion. (It’s not. It changes the chemical climate within your body so that you can’t get pregnant. You probably know this, but I didn’t at the time.) “But you’re a doctor! You can’t just refuse to give people medicine that they need!” She told me that she was a doctor, and had delivered real live babies, so there was no way I was getting the pill. “Well, will you deliver my baby, if I have one? Can I deliver it, to you? Can I, like, send it to you, and you can raise it and send it to fucking school? Because I’m a teenager, I’m in college, there’s no way I can have a kid right now.” And then she said it:

“Well, I guess you should have kept your legs together.”

Yeah. I stormed right the fuck back into that clinic, I demanded that someone fire the bitch — I used the word “bitch,” a lot, really loudly — and I said that I wanted my fucking pill and I was not goddamned leaving until I got one. At which point, the male doctor came out and quietly said that he’d spoken to me before, and he’d filled my prescription already, and he handed me the pill.

I said in an earlier post that this happened in 2000, but when I think about it, it must have been 2001. Because 9/11 had just recently happened, and everybody was pushing to Liberate The Middle East For The Women, and I remember thinking that this was something I should remember: The brown doctor with the accent giving me the pill, and the nice white lady trying to kick me out of her clinic and calling me a slut.

My experience with the pill was weird. I don’t know if I took it wrong — they didn’t give me any instructions for how to take it — and, for a while, I thought that they had somehow given me the wrong thing. I’ve since learned that other people have had reactions that were as bad as mine — through the comments on this very post, in fact — but at the time, I was completely unprepared and freaked out. I started to bleed a lot, right away, and the hormonal experience was intense, like having your period and ovulating at the same time, for several days. None of my other experiences of Plan B have been even remotely similar. When I told my therapist about it, he told my mother. She had a whole long process around “forgiving” me. Which she did, eventually, and which she told me about years later. Still: I cannot say that any part of this experience was handled well by any medical professionals whatsoever.

Anyway, I needed it again in late 2007. That time I went to the emergency room — again, I was clueless; I had just started having sex again, after a six-year relationship, and I really didn’t know how anything worked — and I asked for an STD test as well, and the lady doctor was really nice and patted me on the shoulder and said I was a very responsible person and this must be a scary situation for me. But I still paid sky-high emergency room fees, I still had to wait for four hours to get it done, and I still had a big fight with my insurance company over it. At the time I was frustrated; now I’d give anything to have an insurance company to fight with.

The next two times I needed it, I’d actually spoken to other women — speaking to other women about birth control was just not a part of my experience, before I started blogging about feminism — and I knew it was available over-the-counter, and cheaply, at Planned Parenthood. The last time I needed it, my I actually asked my Mom to drive me to PP. It turns out it’s not that hard to ask, if you take your shit seriously, as I eventually learned to do. Although I still had this bizarre story about a uterine tract infection that needed urgent treatment within twenty-four hours and couldn’t be treated over the counter and no it had nothing to do with that night I went out with my friend’s friend and came back at seven in the morning and oh OKAY mother, IT DID, are you HAPPY NOW, yes this was a PERFECTLY NATURAL REACTION TO A RECENT BREAK-UP and no I did NOT DO THIS A LOT and YES I DID USE A CONDOM it just BROKE, OKAY, will you just DRIVE ME PLEASE. And then it turned out that my mother couldn’t drive me, so my stepfather had to do it, and that is just one more chapter in the story of The Worst Break-Up, Ever, Of All Time. I took my first dose at the counter of a doughnut shop, over my French cruller. I did not even care. Judge me, doughnut-lovers! I fucking dare you! My month officially cannot get any worse at this point, I dare you to try!

But I’ve never needed an abortion. I’ve needed access to birth control that I didn’t have. I’ve needed emergency contraception, when birth control failed, or when my partners refused to honor my need for it. I know that if I needed an abortion, I would get one; I know that if I got pregnant right now, I would need an abortion; I live in New York City, so it wouldn’t even be hard, although I wouldn’t be able to afford it without my partner’s help.

But we’ve been talking about “forcible rape,” right? And how fucked-up that construction is, how all rape is based on a lack of consent and “force,” in the sense that you get beaten up, is just an additional crime? Probably everybody reading this blog knows that a lot of people don’t understand that principle. And they don’t understand it because we live in rape culture; so much sexual violence is normalized, and accepted, that it’s invisible. We can’t understand that it’s rape unless we also see physical injury, or a knife, or a gun.

We also live in a culture of reproductive violence against women, and against trans people with uteruses. We live in a culture of reproductive violence against anyone who can get pregnant. And so, so much of the violence is invisible, even to the people who experience it, because it’s normalized. When my boyfriends tried to pressure and coerce me not to use birth control, it was a form of violence. When I was raised, as a devout Catholic, without any reliable or scientifically accurate information about abortion and birth control — when I was encouraged throughout my own life to value my health less than I valued fetuses — it was a form of violence. When condoms broke, or guys “accidentally” had sex with me without condoms, and I was treated with hostility and shamed for being upset about it, it was a form of violence. When I wasn’t given information about how Plan B worked, when I was told it was “a form of abortion,” when information proving that wrong wasn’t widely accessible to me, it was a form of violence. Having to go 45 minutes away to get it? Violence. Not being taught, as an essential part of self-care, where to access it? Violence. I should have been told “it is a normal part of self-care to brush your teeth, shower frequently, use tampons or pads, always use birth control and to know that Planned Parenthood will give you emergency contraception for $15,” ALL of those messages should have been TOTALLY NORMAL AND WIDESPREAD throughout my adult life, but they weren’t. Not being given appropriate instructions for how to take the pill, or being prepared for or warned about its potential side effects, and experiencing intense physical discomfort with no warning? Violence. Yeah, obviously, being slut-shamed and thrown out of a clinic was violence. But everything that occurred along the road, everything that got me there, was a totally normalized form of reproductive violence, and I didn’t see it, because no-one ever told me to identify it as violence when it happened.

I guess what I’m asking is that we continue this fight, and that we not let our own inability to see reproductive violence — because we live in a culture of reproductive violence, just as we live in a culture of rape — produce apathy. The measures proposed now are forcible: They will harm or kill women and trans people. “Fetal personhood” will harm and kill women and trans people. Denying health coverage to people, if that health coverage stands to harm their fetuses, will harm and kill trans people and women. Making it impossible to access funding for abortion will harm and kill trans people, and it will re-victimize survivors, even if full rape exemptions are in place. And these are the cases in which we can easily identify force and violence. They’re the “forcible reproductive violence” cases, if you will. But it’s still happening all over and in far subtler ways. People’s lives and health are regarded as totally fucking expendable, if they happen to have uteruses which could potentially harbor fetuses, and this is absolutely not in any way unconnected to the fact that women and trans people are disproportionately targeted for rape. The attitudes behind rape and reproductive violence are the same attitude.

So, yes. We have to keep going. We have to keep fighting the fight against reproductive violence, and against bills which legalize its most forcible and lethal manifestations. We have to keep educating ourselves, and we have to keep moving. Because taking “forcible rape” out isn’t a win. We’ve been fighting against rape, and we’ve been fighting against reproductive violence. What I’m asking you to do is to not act as if the “rape” portion is all that matters. Because these two things we’re fighting are very, very, very much the same.


  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Thank you so much for this post. It hit me hard.

    I was born in 1975 and always considered myself a feminist, a protector of my body, a “smart girl”. I made my boyfriend wait a year and a half before we both lost our virginity at age 17.

    But when I finally became sexually active, I found myself feeling like I wasn’t enough. My boyfriend didn’t want to have sex that often and I thought I was a failure. Men were supposed to be about one thing and one thing only, right? And mine wasn’t.

    I became willing to comprimise again and again, hoping somehow to make myself “good enough” for my partner. I felt like I was “not enough”.

    We broke up and my world started expanding. But then one day I was raped in the back of a bar and told the next day by a friend that it wasn’t “rape”, it was a misunderstanding.

    I quit requiring condoms.

    I let guys do stuff to me I never wanted to do.

    Finally, I realized I was putting myself into positions where I could potentially catch something I couldn’t get rid of, I decided to stop having sex altogether.

    I’m in my thirties and it has been a decade since I last had sex. How awful that in my sick twisted mind, the only two options are “sacrifice myself and my happiness for a guy” or say “ABSOLUTELY NOT” for the rest of my life – to feel that my back is in a corner when it comes to sexuality and those are the only choices.

    When the TSA started groping people and taking naked pictures of our bodies, I felt such violation.

    Then all of the legislation started coming out regarding abortion, I felt even more violated.

    I joined the National Organization for Women last week, because while it seemed for awhile like they were old and immaterial, I’m beginning to see that perhaps they are our last hope.

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  2. UKgurl wrote:

    When I lived in London, I once had a condom break.

    Within 20 minutes of getting out of the shower, I had my pill and I was back home taking it.

    Then, when I freaked out cos I’d been bleeding heavily for a week, I saw a doctor who said it was nothing to worry about, and oh did I want to try the birth control pill?

    Different. Fucking. World.

    Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  3. Jennifer wrote:

    I just happened upon this blog…I freaking love you.

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
  4. woland wrote:

    I know I’m very late to this thread, but I was surprised and pleased the first time I noticed that Plan B is available in Ontario on the pharmacy shelf. No worrying about having to deal with blastocyst-fetishist pharmacists.

    I know we Canadians can come across as smug in this kind of situation. I feel so bad for US women for the crap you put up with, and wish I knew what we could do to help.

    Friday, February 25, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  5. Grateful wrote:

    Sady, for ALL the reasons that you’ve listed above, they are the reasons why I’ve had 4 abortions – all before the age of 18. Not one time during that period was sex a choice, enjoyable, or understood by me. My pregnancies were by long-term boyfriend, but the amount of ‘silent abuse’ and other forms of shame that I endured were unknown to me at the time. I remember being literally TIRED of arguing about using condoms, and I had NO IDEA that I could have said ‘it’s my body, so it’s MY choice not to have sex with you’. Actually, the one time I did decide to speak out, I was greeted with a fist to my face – so now I’m pregnant WITH a broken nose…at 15. I distinctly remember thinking to myself HOW did women manage relationships and sex if the man was always fighting, denying use of a condom. Were women just going with the flow and having abortions? I thought this was NORMAL because I wasn’t taught otherwise. I thought sex was SUPPOSED to be an endless, upsetting, discouraging, painful FIGHT. I thought this was normal. THAT is violence.

    I remember asking my boyfriend at the time why he didn’t want to use a condom. His response was ‘because I was his girlfriend, so he didn’t HAVE to use one’. Had I been equipped with the knowledge I have now, I would have cursed him too short to shit.

    I say this to say thank you. Thank you to all of you who are reaching out and sharing your stories. I’m at my computer crying like a water fountain because I hurt for all of you who have had to endure this type of treatment and swallow it as a state of ‘normalcy’. God bless every one of you.

    ..and to the Brits, it is strange to see you all be treated with such dignity and courtesy when applying for your Plan B LOL!

    Friday, February 25, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Permalink
  6. Ailly wrote:

    As a RN student who has just gotten a job at a pharmacy, and as a lady who lives and works in Virginia, this post and comments are all incredibly moving and a big reminder that I have the opportunity to be the positive experience for another woman in need.

    Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink