Last month I traveled to East Africa to launch an initiative of Planned Parenthood Global, the international division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, that will support local communities of advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights in several countries in Africa. I helped develop the content for the training and prepared small groups of facilitators to work with Ugandan leaders in the sexual and reproductive health and rights sector.
While preparing for the training Jacob Okumo, my colleague from Tatua Kenya, asked me about my connection to Planned Parenthood. My eyes welled up as I told Jacob about how Planned Parenthood had been my primary healthcare provider when I was young. I grew up in a conservative family that attended a conservative church in a conservative state all of which believed that sex had one place, in a heterosexual marriage. As a sexually active teen who was trying to be responsible, I turned to Planned Parenthood for birth control, STD tests, and annual exams. Planned Parenthood continued to support me through adulthood, providing me with exams when I was uninsured, even inserting my IUD.
At the opening of the initial training for the small group facilitators who would carry out the training in Uganda, we answered the question, “Why do I care about sexual and reproductive health?” As we went around the table I heard stories of women who were fired for being pregnant, shamed for needing birth control, discarded for being sexually active. Many of the stories carried the same disturbing theme: as a woman in East Africa your worth was undeniably tied to your body.
This theme was incredibly disturbing but even more so was the realization that although I was raised in a very different context, this was my story too.
My first formal conversations about sexuality happened in the Conservative Christian Church through a program called Sex, God, and Me (similar to True Love Waits, Love Matters, or Asitia). These programs teach that sex was intended for heterosexual marriage alone and any other sexual activity was sinful, shameful, and made us undesirable to partners in the future. One particular demonstration in the program has the facilitator glue two pieces of paper together and then make students rip it apart, showing that once you join yourself to someone you become forever marked by them and torn/dirtied for the rest of your life. I am sad to say that I not only listened to the message but passed it on to younger women.
Despite the fact that I intended to wait until marriage, I first had sex at 17. The combination of wanting to be liked, raging hormones, and attention from a super cute guy was too much; we ended up having sex one stormy afternoon in a car. Today I remember that day fondly, but at the time I thought the “loss” was pretty much the end of my life. I began having sex frenetically, with little concern to my partner or my own desire. Looking back I can see that the first five years of my sexual activity was a reaction to this idea that I had “lost it all” so why not just have sex with anyone. It wasn’t until I was 24 that I began to think about sex in a positive light. Even now, at 30, I still struggle to fully indulge myself sexually in relationships because I’m afraid that if a partner sees my sexual side he will think I am dirty and undesirable. I know that is a lie but the voices from our past are hard to release.
These voices rage in our U.S. culture. Mainstream culture may not demand abstinence but it encourages women to maintain rigid body standards in order to be desirable to men: all the while being careful to maintain the impossible balance between being flirtatious but not “too promiscuous.” Salary scales enforce the belief that once you reach a certain age you should be at home with children, not competing for managerial positions with the men. Pop culture reinforces this by portraying single women as incomplete and unfulfilled. Each of these instances affirm the idea that a woman’s highest achievement comes when she is desired by a man for the purpose of bearing children and has maintained her purity for him until marriage.
These cultural messages with which we are bombarded daily result in a prolific sense of separation: within ourselves, between one another, and in society as a whole. Men, angered when women step outside of society’s expectations of them as sexual beings and mothers, label women as pushy, aggressive, crazy, slutty, and most frequently, a bitch. Women, fighting to survive in this land of contradictory expectations, struggle to be everything at once even while they are doomed to fail and lead lives fraught with anxiety, depression, and isolation from their communities. The separation bleeds into relationships between women too; we fight for rare leadership opportunities by using the same epithets against our sisters that men use, we secure affection by speaking ill of one another’s bodies, and shame women who have chose a lifestyle different from ours. As a whole, these cultural rules prevent us from connecting with our true selves and celebrating whatever sexuality we feel we possess and instead shame us into silence and estrangement both within ourselves and the world at large.
What I saw in East Africa last week was that Planned Parenthood is healing this divide through the way they treat women. As a patient at Planned Parenthood I was often asked about my sexual past or history and never felt judged for the honest answers I provided. I can say, without any doubt that I found more freedom and grace in the rooms of Planned Parenthood than in any other setting. Their staff had a way of talking about partners, STD’s, sexual abuse, and contraception in a way that completely stripped it of any judgment. This platform allows us to engage with our sexual partners, friends, and family members in a way that promotes open discussion and MUTUAL choice about the way we have sex. Finally, Planned Parenthood fights to extend this type of care to ALL women, regardless of race, economic status, sexual orientation, or gender identification. It is stated in their tagline: “Care. No matter what.” Planned Parenthood honors our wisdom, worth, and value as women by operating under the radical belief that we can be trusted to make good choices for our bodies: elevating us from a place of shame to value.
This elevation of women mirrors what we know of Jesus Christ’s interactions with women; rather than treat women as the “lesser” sex he spent time conversing with them and invited them to join him as leaders. His conversations with Mary and Martha appear innocuous today but in Christ’s time they were countercultural and a threat to the way men in power understood the role of women.
Even racier were his interactions with ‘scandalous women,’ such as his conversation with the woman at the well who is infamous for her many lovers. Here he offers us insight into his ability to see women as much more than their sexual past. Rather than focus his interaction with her on her sexual choices he instead engages with her on the topic of authentic worship and eternal life. He treats this woman’s sexual past in a similar way to the team at Planned Parenthood, a simple fact. Because of this he is able to move on to a more meaningful level of interaction with her and truly connect with her soul.
When it comes to treating a woman with dignity, the church can learn a great deal from Planned Parenthood. Conservative Christian communities continue to devalue women through the glorification of purity, lack of leadership opportunities, use of degrading language, and emphasis on the need to assume the role as mother if they are to be considered “of worth” to society. While progressive Christian communities have moved away from such practices, they still refrain from actively speaking out against this behavior and fail to create a space in which people of faith can discuss sexuality in a healthy way. The silence cannot continue. It is time the church joins Planned Parenthood in promoting a culture of worth for women.
Imagine a church that brings God back into the bedroom by creating a space in which teens can talk about how to integrate sexuality and spirituality, a church that celebrates our bodies for their many facets, a church that offers women the tools to make decisions about their sex and sexuality without judgment. Imagine a church that elevates women as Christ did by paying women and men equally, by encouraging women leadership, and offering generous maternity leave. Imagine a church that leads us to a world in which women are honored for more than our bodies.
We can create that church but it will take a concentrated effort. If you want to join us do the following.
(1) Start with Conversation: Organize a conversation in your local community that creates a space for men and women to share their stories, struggles and hopes for how the church approaches sexuality. Click here to download a one-page guide to having these conversations in your community.
(2) Explore Options: Utilize resources like the Universalist Unitarian Church’s “Our Whole Lives” or Planned Parenthood’s resources for educators to design a curriculum for sex education that works for your church.
(3) Join the Movement: The Katallasso Community is a community of individuals committed to nurturing the leaders of faith-based communities that foster experiences of real reconciliation with God, ourselves, one another and society. Members of the Katallasso Community meet in small groups in their local communities to pray, learn and build relationships for the purpose of becoming ministers of reconciliation in their local context. If you’re interested in connecting to or joining a Katallasso small group please click here to sign up for more information.