I’ve been writing this post for several weeks. It’s a hard topic for me to discuss in the ways I feel are most useful for readers and to have a conversation. Originally this piece was called “Could Bristol Palin Be A Sexuality Educator?” and I discussed and outlined how Bristol Palin has been discussed (and basically dissed) by sexuality educators, activists and professionals. Parts of that original post are still included, but now as I read more about Bristol Palin, especially after the release of her memoir, there are other topics that come up and that I think must be included in such a discussion.
Bristol Palin has released her memoir “Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far” where she shares a lot of intimate information about her experiences having sex, discovering she was pregnant, her childbirth, traveling with her mother during the presidential campaign, and her life now. One part of her story that I think is important to this piece is that she shares that the first time she had sex with her partner at the time Levi, she was drunk and had no recollection of the experience. The New York Daily News reviews her memoir and shares:
“The then 17-year-old recounts how she got drunk on too many wine coolers during a camping trip with Levi. She says she woke up in her tent with no memory of what happened. Meanwhile, a boastful Levi told all his friends about his conquest.
"I could tell by the evidence in the tent that all of my plans, my promises, and my moral standards had disappeared in one awful night in a series of bad decisions," Bristol wrote. She insisted that she immediately felt obligated to marry Levi.”
Many of you reading may have the same reaction I did: this sounds like a non-consensual experience, one that many would classify as a sexual assault. From this quote I believe that Bristol does not, at this time, classify her experience as a sexual assault. Yet, there is a lot of room for discussion, education, consciousness-raising, and building from her experience. It is because of this that I believe, yes, Bristol Palin can become a sexuality educator.
Many of the folks who I know who identify in one way or another as sexuality educators come to this work from personal experience and interest. There is a calling to do this work for many of us. A calling that we are not always comfortable with, but that remains nonetheless. I know that we also grow as educators. We grow in what we believe and think about the field, our work, current events, and ourselves. Yes, Palin’s current sexual health focus is on abstinence, let’s be honest, many people do focus on abstinence. One difference is that other folks are trained and experienced in discussing options outside of and in addition to abstinence, ones that complement abstinence.
I want to be clear here, I’d like for us in the reproductive justice movements to really take a look at ourselves, our messages, who we are supporting and why, who we include in our movement, and who we exclude (and do we even know why?).
When Bristol Palin was identified and hired by The Candies Foundation to speak on preventing teen pregnancy, many sexuality educators were not happy about that decision. Many folks, some who I know personally, wrote and spoke exclusively about how this was wrong on numerous levels. Rarely (if ever) did any of these seasoned sexuality educatorsthink about things such as the exploitation of youth, lack of mentors for potential sexuality educators, especially young women, and the communities we are not reaching that others may be able to.
Many of us are in support of helping young people make the best decisions they can for the situation they find themselves in at a given moment. What would we share with a young person in Palin’s situation, who has found herself possibly hung-over, with no memory of the sex she experienced with her partner the day before, and is now in need of support and help? Palin is not the first young person, young woman, to have this experience, and she will not be the last. So, how have we thought about creating spaces for young people to discuss, contemplate, and learn from such experiences?
Many of the people in my community shared a video honoring single mamas of Color and young mothers, who are activists and often forgotten. Why do many so quickly and easily take those forms of support away from someone such as Bristol Palin? Is it because of what her mother represents? Is it because we project what her mother believes and thinks and desires onto her, a completely different human being? Is it because she’s from Alaska? Is racially White, from a wealthy family and now a celebrity? Because she is able-bodied, has access to health care, and a ton of other privileges 99% of US citizens don’t have? Let’s be clear about what our reasons are for taking certain forms of support away from single young mothers.
I wonder what my life would be like if at 18 I was treated by others based on what my parents reacted, thought, and did. There are many things my parents have done, and still do or think and believe, that do not compliment or even support any of my ideologies. We are completely different people, and I love them for their differences, yet they are not who I am and I am not who they are. And guess what, even in my 30s my ideologies are changing because I’m learning so much about myself, what I do, and what world and change I want to be a part of.
How does class intersect with this too? Are we so dismissive of folks who have a higher income than ourselves that we are willing to debunk the work they are trying to do? (and to be clear this is very different from challenging wealthy and extremely privileged folks who take/borrow/steal ideas and plans of working-class folks and claim them as their own as we saw in the film “Bridesmaids”).
At the end of the day, Bristol Palin is a young single mother. We know like many single mothers, she is being told she can’t do a job, that she can’t be a contributing member of society because of her choices and her family formation. Is this really the type of messaging we want to be a part of promoting? Is this example of targeting and dismissing youth a legacy we want to leave for future sexuality educators and activists?
What would it look like if we provided support and mentorship to people who showed an interest in becoming sexuality educators regardless of their background? Do we realize that the work we do does not always reach everyone in our zip code, let alone our state or country? We need all the forms of outreach we can manage, and if Bristol Palin can reach wealthy young people who come from similar backgrounds as her own more effectively than I can, why am I going to limit that interaction? Not everyone responds to the same messaging (this is a media literacy component, different people have different perspectives). So who are we to say what may be effective for youth from wealthy families? I know I can’t speak from that space and probably never will.
Maybe some of you think I’m playing “devils advocate” with this piece. There are many reasons why I have resisted writing this piece for a while and part of it is because I need there to be a larger dialogue about such topics. I can’t just read the same perspective over and over again from sexuality educators. It gets tired debunking, dismissing a young person and essentializing all sexuality educators - that’s not the world I wish to live in or community I desire to be a part of. I know we do better work than this and I wonder why we choose not to at such times.
I’m not the type of sexuality educator that only focuses on abstinence, I don’t think many of us here, and those of you reading are. The reality is that abstinence IS a choice and it remains a choice that we speak about. Many of us may experience abstinence in our lives and many of us define it differently, this is why we must talk about it openly. It’s also an important topic to talk about how it may not work for many folks and why (just as it did not work for Bristol Palin). However, that is not a reason to completely dismiss the work she is attempting to do.
What we can be disappointed about is how our lifes work, how our social justice agendas, are being pimped out by corporations that don’t have any of our interests in mind only their own capital! This is what really irks me and pisses me off, personally.
What also irks and pisses me off is when we dismiss youth so easily. When we question, critique, and mock them in ways that are not helpful. Many folks wrote about Palin’s classification as a sexuality educator a few years ago and a handful of these folks had access to working with Palin as seasoned sexuality educators. Yet none of the folks who wrote about her, critiqued and debunked her attempted to reach out and work with her, train her, mentor her, and give her the support she may need to do the work she claims she wants to do.
That’s definitely not the community of reproductive justice advocates I wish to be a part of. It takes more to be an educator, activist and mentor than dissing other people. It takes dedication, commitment, and being open to unlearning things about ourselves, and challenging ourselves at the same time (and these are just a few things!). So I’d like to ask: what community do you wish to see created as a reproductive justice advocate/educator/professional?