cross posted from my Media Justice column.
I have never written about my youth and adolescence and when I chose to begin having sex with my partners. Part of me knows I rarely share these stories because I will be judged and who needs that type of virtual and 3D negativity in their life? But today, I think there are important ways I can learn to heal and learn to see how I’ve evolved in sharing my testimonio.
When I was 14 years old I chose to have sex. I partnered with someone in my high school who was five years older than me. Since then, I’ve often been in intergenerational relationships with people who are 5-10 years older. You see when I was 14 I looked the way I do right now: tall, full figured, and I took that opportunity to lie about my age to some of my partners.
One of the things that is missing in sexuality education, and in many curriculums people are attempting to create and implement with youth, especially young working class and youth of Color, is a discussion of power. I knew I had a lot of power when I was 14 simply based on my appearance. My racially White and ethnically Puerto Rican parents had no idea how to raise a woman of Color, one who racially identifies as Black and whose body is not valued or protected in the same way theirs may have been in the US at that time. Nobody ever told me that I would experience a jolt in the power I have when it comes to obtaining certain things: attention, material goods, transportation, food, affection, and the like. For some people this list of things may not be impressive, but for me at 14 in the early 1990s, a bushy haired fat brown girl living in the south, it was everything to me.
I tasted power and I didn’t want to give that power up because it was the first time I had ever had something like it before. I didn’t have teachers who thought I was intelligent and chose to mentor me, I didn’t find value in my work, identity, or existence until I was almost 17 years old and began to mentor young people myself. In those 3 years I had already chose to have several partners and one pregnancy scare.
My experience is mine and I do not see myself as a victim or survivor. I do not believe I was abused or raped by adult men who I chose to be intimate with, because I knew what I was doing. My parents had The Joy Of Sex and Our Bodies, Ourselves. But here’s where texts like these don’t work: I didn’t see myself in those texts. In The Joy Of Sex, I thought the images looked too much like my racially White parents and only looked through the text a handful of times. Our Bodies, Ourselves, was far too middle-class and White. There were too many words and not enough resources for poor Brown girls living in the south. Plus, the reading level was far too high for me to even engage with all that text without having my parents become suspicious. Too much text did not work for me as an adolescent and I have learned it does not reach young people from similar backgrounds (and yes if your organization or website has too many words at a reading level over 8th grade then I’m talking about ya’ll).
So what were the birth control options for a 14 year-old bushy Brown fat girl living in the south? Here’s what some of you may not know about me or this dynamic: I went to public school, both my parents worked, but it was my mother who had a full-time job and my father who worked side hustles, I was a latch-key kid, only got $2 for lunch and walked over 10 blocks to and from high school. If I wanted to go somewhere I had to save my lunch money for bus fare. Usually for lunch I would eat tatar tots and a chocolate chip cookie and save the fifty cents so that by the end of the week I could take the bus one way and come back home from there (back then a roundtrip bus ticket was less than $1.50). If I really wanted to go somewhere earlier in the week I would just eat a chocolate chip cookie and have $1.50 saved in one day.
There were no cell phones and I did not have access to a beeper or some other form of communication, such as email because I didn’t have a computer or Internet access. There was also no Planned Parenthood near me, or any other youth clinic that I knew about in my area. I didn’t even know too much about such health centers until I got to college. Even if I did know of them, I wonder today how I would have even been able to access them without skipping school, which had some of its own consequences, but also without any money to use public transportation. There was no access to any type of information that was age appropriate and so I had to make the best decision for me at that time which was using condoms when my partners had them.
Although by 17 I had a handful of partners I was always using condoms with them because they had them. When I was 17 and knew a lot more about myself and some of my options (and before you ask me about the birth control pill, that was not an option for me), I met a partner who I chose to have unprotected sex with and use the withdrawal method. Sometimes we used condoms, but we talked about our options and that relationship really influenced the person I am today. This partner was the first one I had been with who actually asked me “do you enjoy this” and who told me that I should want and enjoy whatever we do and if I don’t then we should not be doing it together or at all. This partner taught me about consent, pleasure, and communication. I stayed with this partner for 5 years.
It was difficult to learn about access from examining my own history, which is something that I really didn’t get a chance to do in undergrad, but that I had to find time to do on my own. Who knew my testimonio would never be desired in undergrad and that I would have to find my own space to affirm my own histories? Who knew that when I got to graduate school there would be huge stereotypes of young Brown girls, young Latinas, young working class people and our sexual decision-making but no real discussion about our lived reality, no discussion with us, only about us? Who knew these would still be where a majority of the literature, research, and focus remains today?
I’ve learned that when it comes to birth control options I am not the person who needs to judge a patient or client. If their method was jumping up and down after sex, or using condoms, or herbal remedies, or using a hormonal method, I was not to judge them. I was to help them. Today, I am so disheartened by how different narratives and choices are still being judged and criticized. There is this illusion that because we live in the US, were born in the US, that we automatically have access to birth control, education, safety, and love. But the reality that I think we all know, this is not true for everyone. Access to all of those things, some may consider a “human right” while others may consider them privileges.
When a young person approaches me or comes to my office, or asks for help I have to remember where I was as a young person and what I needed. I was nothing close to what half the young people who I interact with are at today, what decisions they must make and how much information they have. I remind myself that my job is not to get a young person on birth control, but to help them make the best decision for them at that time by giving them all of their options without my personal opinion. This is difficult to do, but it is not my job to take away their self-determination, it is my job to affirm their existence because I know all too well what it feels like to be invisible and for people to not find you valuable or important members of a community.
I believe in rememory. I do think that our past is alive in the present and that impacts us in various ways. What I am working towards, especially when it comes to birth control and working with my communities, is how to communally heal so that my past is not something I choose to ignore, forget, or find guilt in. Rather, I choose to see it as an important living part of who I am, a part of my constant evolution. And this, like my birth control option, like my partner selection, and like my writing, is my choice.
I’ll be writing more about birth control for the Latina Week Of Action for Reproductive Justice at VivirLatino and RH Reality Check.