Choose Wife?


That was a sign being held up by a protester this week in front of the clinic where I work in addition to my job here. Two words, but they speak volumes. (Though I confess, it took me a little while to get pissed, because I couldn't stop saying it in an Elmer Fudd voice for a few minutes.)

This has been one of the biggest blind spots I've had to contend with when it comes to both working in sexuality education and working in women's health, and with women's reproductive choice. There's a very pervasive idea out there -- and boy howdy, does it serve the agenda of the far right -- that somehow, getting married fixes absolutely everything for women when it comes to unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and just about anything and everything you could think of when it comes to sex, sexuality and reproductive health and choice. That married people -- but more to the point, married women -- don't need sex education, don't need birth control, don't need abortion, don't need sexual healthcare, don't need to know about their bodies, don't need safer sex, don't need to know sexual negotiation skills. Women, if you want to be protected and safe, get married. That's what's been said to women for most of our history, and despite knowing better now -- especially if you provide any of the above services and happen to notice that married women are among the clients you serve -- it's still what is said to women daily and incessantly.

I've talked before about the flaw in that logic when it comes to STIs. Historically and currently, marriage, in and of itself, does not and never has offered protection from sexually transmitted infections, especially when you consider not only what the rates of infidelity are -- particularly among men, who more often transmit disease to their spouses, simply when we're talking about the physiology of sexually transmitted infections -- and as well, when you consider that most people will have had other sexual partners before marriage, and how many people (again, especially men) never get STI screenings, and also don't use latex barriers consistently, or at all. I've talked before -- and you hardly need me to deliver this news flash -- about how anyone with ears and eyes knows that marriage does not guarantee a safe or satisfying sex life. I've talked before about how given domestic violence rates, the notion that women are guaranteed lifelong safety, on every level, simply by getting married is an incredibly cruel piece of propaganda.

There's not likely a woman in the world who needs me to tell her that getting married does not mean that birth control is no longer needed or wanted at times, or constantly -- remembering that funny little factoid that not all women or couples want to reproduce at all -- or that getting married does not mean a woman thus wants to spend the rest of her reproductive life pregnant or risking pregnancy. Getting married doesn't necessarily provide even the woman who DOES love being pregnant and does love rearing children, who wants to be pregnant and parenting every waking minute of her life the financial or practical means to do so. My mother grew up with two parents in an Irish Catholic family: she has eight siblings, and would have had more save one stillbirth and a couple of miscarriages. Mind, her mother hardly had a choice in when she got pregnant, or when she had sex, but still. Anyone who wants to tell me I just don't know what I'm talking about and what nirvana it is to be a kid in a household stretched that thin can bite one of my grandmothers dry Bisquick-and-water biscuits (and be unable to afford the dental care needed to repair their chipped teeth, too).

Even conservative women know these truths. They too, are either using a method of birth control, or if they are not, are trying to just avoid sex to try and prevent pregnancy. Very few women in the world with any real agency are choosing to have ten children, and to be at constant risk of pregnancy, unsure when they'll be pregnant again at any time. Conservative women come into clinics for abortions who make very clear that they do not believe in abortion, all while choosing to have one. For those most vocal about how not-okay with abortion they are, when a clinician tells them that IF they are really not okay with it, they can't perform a procedure for them, the outrage is often astounding. (Because, of course, abortion providers are supposed to be just DYING to give everyone on earth an abortion, since the aim is apparently to wipe out the human race and make millions from abortion procedures, so we are never, ever supposed to say no to anyone. After all, we're supposed to be lying when we say that we're committed to women, committed to their choices being choices they can live with: when we show up that untruth, the antichoicers get mighty pissed.)

I'd posit that a lot of conservative women have the best of all possible worlds. They can malign or try and limit sexuality education, birth control and abortion all they like, even very publicly, even fight it actively, and yet, it's still there for them -- for now, and tenuously because of their efforts to make it so -- when they need it, without judgment, and most of them do use at least some of these things. They can benefit from the feminist movement when it comes to getting them out of the house, allowing them the ability to be public spokespeople, to be politically visible, and reap those benefits while denouncing their source. They can even beg off sex to prevent pregnancy by being able to say they are so, so tired from doing the things in a day that only movements they oppose have allowed them to do. They can also cheerlead marriage and abstinence even if their marriages are a mess and they didn't abstain from sex themselves. They don't have to be consistent or truthful in any of this, because they know they can rely on our consistency, and the truth of our commitments.

From what I can gather by polls at Scarleteen over the years, as well as the daily conversations I have with teens and young adults here, around 30% of our users are not yet sexually active. Plenty have no intention of becoming so any time soon, and plenty are, in fact, right now waiting for marriage. (Some of them even know they may well change their minds about that later on, but acknowledge that even if that's how things work out, this is their plan for now.) What they're doing, see, is this crazy-smart thing we call preparedness. They know that someday they likely will become sexually active, and that at that time, they're going to need to know about their bodies, about how to work sexuality out alone and with partners, about birth control and/or safer sex. They're looking this stuff up now, asking questions now because they both know they'll need it later and because they are curious about it now. Some of them WILL be people's wives or husbands later, but most are smart enough to know -- smarter than some of their elders in this regard -- that that doesn't mean they won't need to have an idea about using birth control or how to take care of their sexual health. I feel pretty confident saying that most teens would do this -- including those who do become sexually active in their teens -- but many don't simply because having the information in advance isn't an option for them, and they don't know where to find it.

As a former -- though it still informs the way I educate -- Montessori educator, it's a very big deal to me to try and educate in such a way that I am teaching what I am in the windows in which someone's mind is absorbent, or for you non-Montessori geeks out there, at the times when a person is in a stage of development where a given set of skills or knowledge are most likely to be learned, and a natural curiosity is most prevalent. For instance, the usual window for language is, not surprisingly, under the age of six. Children under six can often become bilingual or trilingual without even trying, just by listening and being talked to in several languages, simply because that time is when they're forming most of their basic language skills and when doing so is so gangbusters for them. And one of the ways we, as educators, determine windows of the best absorbency is simply by watching and listening to our students: they tend to show us or ask us, pretty directly, when they want to learn something. Of course, when it comes to sex education, that can be tricky simply because so many young people have been shown by so many that it's just not okay to ask questions about sex.

In the same vein, it's no big shocker that during the big peak of physical and emotional sexual development, young adult minds tend to be particularly absorbent to sexuality information. For sure, if they are or are becoming sexually active at that time, that information is all the more essential because it has a very immediate and practical application. But even for those young adults who are NOT yet sexually active, even for those few who WILL not be in any way sexually active until their twenties, this is STILL a great time to teach them about it because they are so absorbent, and also because it's obviously ideal to try and educate someone about something they will need before they actually need it. There's a reason we try and do Driver's Ed before someone is ever behind the wheel, after all, and why people who start factory jobs with big, sharp machines are given training first, rather than just being told to blindly try it out, see what happens, and hope they don't lose a limb.

Again, I'm going to state the obvious. Speaking as one longtime sex educator, the idea that I somehow would profit from someone getting a sexually transmitted infection is hilarious. No one is going to donate to Scarleteen because what I do results in greater levels of infection. I bust my buns trying to do everything I know or suspect will be effective to reduce rates of STIs. Really, either way, profit isn't my motivation, because I'd be a moron if I hadn't figured out by now that no matter how great a job I do, I will rarely get paid, and when I am, I should never have any expectation that I will be paid at a rate at or much higher than your average high school kid working at the drive-through gets: in a good year, I tend to make around the minimum wage. If I wanted to work in sex ed for money (and had no problem leaving my conscience at the door), I'd work for the abstinence-only faction. THAT is who has been making the big bucks in sex "education" over the last ten years, kids. Leslie Unruh, for example, as executive director for the Abstinence Clearinghouse, reported compensation in 2004 at $109,920. In the same year, her reported compensation as executive director of the Alpha Center -- a CPC -- was $57,547. That's an annual personal salary -- not a gross for her organizations -- of almost $170,000. I haven't done my taxes yet this year, but for my sex ed work -- at Scarleteen and with the book -- I'd estimate that my personal salary for 2007 is going to have been somewhere around $16,000, if that, and I likely work more hours than she does, no less. Without the one larger private grant I get (knock on wood), I just couldn't do this as a job at all anymore -- in 2004, the same year Unruh was raking in the big bucks, that huge profit I was making from sex ed was a big, fat $7,026 -- and it's been crystal clear over the years that how hard I work, how many people I educate, or how good a job I do has little to no bearing on if I get paid and how much. No matter what, this girl just picked the wrong side of the wrong fence, and it is THAT which influences my finances.

I'm sure I'd horrify Wendy Wright and her ilk and perhaps even prove the link she's reaching for: after all, I am not only a sex educator, I now also work at an abortion clinic. Surely, this has been a very crafty plan on my part. Work like the demon I am in sex ed for ten years, talk myself blue in the face about safer sex knowing that all sexy talk about condoms and Chlamydia is only going to make teens want to race out and have sex even more (Herpes sores, in case no one told you, are all the rage now, because with all that public hair removed, you've got to have something to decorate your vulva with, after all), know that those young girls with the STIs will get pregnant because of them, which assures that they'll wind up for an abortion at my other job. And don't you think for a minute that given the lousy pay, I didn't negotiate in advance for a steep commission from all that new business I'm going to be bringing them. I'm no fool.

(Ten bucks and two doses of EC says that at some point I find what I just said there quoted out of context in some conservative blog or book.)

But what Wright and the woman standing in front of our clinic doesn't seem to realize is that our lobby isn't overflowing with nothing but teenagers and fallen, unmarried women. Married women are in there every single day, some even with their husbands sitting right beside them. Some of those couples are military, flag-waving, apple-pie baking, churchgoing folk. Why on earth would they be there?

It's a stupid question, and we all -- even Wright -- probably know the obvious answer. Because there is NO woman on earth, no matter her age, marital status or station, for whom it is always the right time to be pregnant and no child on earth for whom it is always the right time and environment in which to be born and raised. Women like Wright, of course, are likely planets away from families who can barely afford to feed themselves, let alone more -- or any -- kids. Most women who come into the clinic do already have at least one child. I saw someone just last week who already had two kids, and whose biggest concern about having an abortion was that it would impact her fertility, because while there was just no way she could afford to remain pregnant or have another child now, she wasn't sure she wouldn't want to have another somewhere down the road if things improved. She "chose wife," and yet, there she was. A lot of women who get abortions do use birth control, and plenty correctly -- this business about BC not being 100% effective isn't a fairy tale. This one, though, not only wasn't, she didn't know how to. No one had ever taught her how, discussed her options, or even let her know that if she wanted to keep using natural family planning as she had been, there was a far more effective way to do that than the calendar method.

Suffice it to say, an abortion clinic doesn't profit from STIs. That's just silly. But it also doesn't exist to profit from unwanted pregnancy. When I took this other job, for certain, some of it was financially motivated. I was working full-time and still having a helluva time paying my bills, despite already being without things many people have: a car, a house they actually own or are in the process of buying, health insurance. And this other job will help me pay my bills, but only because I live so leanly to begin with. Your average pencil-pusher makes more on the hour than most of us at the clinic, just for sitting in a cubicle and clockwatching every day, and he's also not risking being shot or bombed, nor is he likely responsible for anyone's physical or emotional health. And if suddenly there were methods of birth control that were 100% effective, totally safe for, and affordable and available to everyone (and you can tell me complete abstinence is when a) people stop having a libido and b) men stop raping women or obligating them to have heterocourse), if suddenly there was no more unwanted pregnancy, ever, I can assure you that not a single person at the clinic would shed a tear and be upset that the part of our job that is about providing abortions was over.

The thing that gets me the most about this "Choose Wife" stuff, whether it's on a sign in front of my workplace or on the nightly news is that I have to also hear strong statements -- from these same mouths -- that women are no longer mere chattel. And yet, it is also stated or implied that once/if a woman marries, there's just no need for any of these discussions about birth control, choice or sexual health because part of marriage presumably still requires a woman to forfeit all of that agency to one's husband, or somehow removes a woman's desire to have any of that ownership over her own life and body. Suffice it to say, it also -- so far as I can make sense of it -- implies that these children we're told are SO important, are so UNimportant as to disregard their quality of life, whether we're talking about having the means to feed and clothe them or we're talking about assuring that they grow up without one or both of their parents resenting the hell out of them, telling -- overtly or covertly -- them HOW much they gave up to bring them into the world. Gee, thanks, Mom: lucky me.

I'm a blunt gal. I'm not going to say that some people's opinions don't horrify the hell out of me, they obviously do, particularly when they seek to make those personal opinions public policy. However, even with the seriously scary stuff, I prefer it straight up.

If you just think, as a woman yourself, that it'd be best for women to be without options anymore, for women's lives to revert (and when I say that, I'm not even talking about all women: for the poorest women and women of color in many areas, marriage never even pretended to offer financial security, stability or safety) to being about nothing but preparation for marriage-and-mothering-as-career, then just freaking say it, and out of both sides of your face, please, with baby food in your hair and in your sweatpants, not a $500 hairdo and a Brooks Brothers suit. If you want to say that comprehensive, accurate sex education benefits no one, then you'd best start planning now for how you're going to cover it up when your perfect teenage kid who has pledged abstinence gets knocked up, or winds up with PID due to an untreated STI from their new husband -- who wanted to marry them, so he must have been a good guy, and who said he loved God and was waiting until marriage, so he must have been -- an STI they didn't even know they had since marriage = safe sex and no one who waits for sex until marriage needs regular pap smears and STI screenings. If you think, as a woman, women should have no choice as to when they have sex, when they become pregnant, if they remain pregnant, if they parent, then just say so and mean it.... which means you're going to be saying it to a house full of whining tots, not on the evening news, not in your new Random House book; not with your sign you can somehow afford to stand holding every day in front of clinics where women are working, plenty to support the freaking kids women have already, plenty to support women just like you on the day you show up there, talking about how against abortion you are while you're getting one.


I regard to the "best of both worlds" point, I'd have to agree. Just like conservative politicians can freak out about Roe v. Wade, they don't actually have any power to overturn it, and therefore see the consequences of what they say they'd like to do, so they can get as extreme as they want and have it mean nothing, practically.

This is a wonderful and considered response to a simplistic argument made by the opposition. Please continue doing your important work. Other than providing education, pointing out reality and uncovering hypocrisy is the most important thing we can do. Thanks! Karen, NP, Kansas

Heather, You make me want to go into sex education myself.
Reading your blog has made me think extensively about my own sexual choices and knowledge.
As an artist, though, I can't help but think of visual approaches to all of this.
If only a practical sex ed comic could be guaranteed distribution in high schools (junior highs and elementary schools too, in fact. I believe we started sex "education" in 4th grade)! But the uproar would be too tremendous.


I found your site while researching ways to talk to my sister, who is in her late teens and has recently started college, about her choice to forgo the HPV vaccine and also about her choice to forgo a visit to the gynecologist (even though she is presenting symptoms that indicate the usefulness of such a visit). She, like the women you mention in this article, believes that because she does not plan to have sex until she's married, she has no need of reproductive health care or even knowledge. My mother and I, both of us married women, have tried to convince her that marriage is not the be all and end all of reproductive health, but our advice falls on deaf ears. I am not certain that your site will help me to change my sister's mind about going to the doctor; her choice is hers, after all. Still, I want to thank you for your dedication to your field and for providing such an informative website. As a wife myself, I agree that the act of simply getting married does not somehow negate the necessity of taking proper care of one's body. I hope you find success as you continue to teach young people.