Editor’s Note: This article is part of a pre-election series
featuring leading voices in sexual and reproductive health advocacy,
showing how shared American values underpin their support for sexual
and reproductive health, rights, and justice. Read them all here.
When all life and all the souls of men and women are discharged from any part of the earth-then only shall the instinct of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth. – Walt Whitman
Liberty is — as simply put as something so grand can be — the freedom to act or believe without being stopped by unnecessary force. It is freedom from oppression, from servitude, from confinement. It is full autonomy; not a synonym for freedom, but a prerequisite. While liberty is writ in the preamble to our Constitution, it remains, for most if not all, a faraway and lofty ideal. In fact, by my read, the preamble misunderstands liberty entirely: we cannot secure liberty " to ourselves," if we are not also doing so for others. If we want to realize that ideal as a nation, we have to affirm and work to secure liberty for everyone: if any one of us does not have it, then none of us does.
I look to my own life, where I know all too well what both the lack and the gift of liberty — particularly in the arena of my body and my sexuality — feels like. While we can speak about liberty as a symbol, the fact of the matter is that it is so essential that it deserves more than a smart polemic. And while I have a profound and abiding dedication to working in the field of reproductive and sexual health to, there is a deeper red thread sewn throughout all of my work in reproductive and sexual health — one which is not about merely preventing negative outcomes like unwanted pregnancy, disease or abuse and which has everything to do with liberty.
My adolescence offered me far too many object lessons in the antonyms of liberty.
Twice before I reached my teens, I was sexually assaulted; both assaults coincided with the visible development of my female body. Police were called to one of those assaults, but I was sent home admonished that my shorts were too short. My home environment, meanwhile, was abusive and ever-escalating. My stepfather derided me routinely, my female body his favorite topic. I spent a year abusing over-the-counter diet drugs in an effort to be thin enough that I might quell some of those abuses, and to keep myself awake during the day at school since I infrequently slept. I was ever fearful of what might happen to me if I wasn’t alert, particularly since I would wake to the worst abuse in the middle of the night. A couple nights things really exploded, and I was forced to listen to him account how he was going to cut parts of my developing body off to punish me.
I thank my lucky stars I didn’t become pregnant due to my sexual assault. I know full well that at 12, not only would I not have been allowed to make my own choice, not only would a pregnancy, have compounded my trauma, but any choice made for me by my family would have been one intended to cause me the most suffering and shame.
I hid my menstrual pads when I had my period out of fear of my period being one more thing to use to torment me; I hid the birth control pills I was using to deal with debilitating cramps, knowing I would never be believed that that was all I was using them for at the time. I self-injured, and pulled the hair out of my body which was growing in places that illustrated my loss of the safety of childhood and the danger of womanhood. I suppressed my developing sexuality for fear of what might happen were it exposed. I learned to slide a chair under the doorknob in the bathroom to assure I could bathe or use the toilet without a surprise attack. I attempted suicide three times before my sixteenth birthday, and was hospitalized more than once. I knew I was attracted to women as well as men by the time I was ten or eleven, and was often kept from my closest female friends. Forced to pretend that my life was as normal and sane as everyone else’s, I lost who I was, and my friends knew a person who didn’t actually exist. I made some bad choices during those years which had all the undeniable marks of choices made in captivity.
By the time I was able to get out of that home, my body had become my enemy.
Just before my sixteenth birthday, I was finally able to get out for good, and with a permanent place to stay with my father. While it still took me years to process and heal from what I had gone through — and I’m still doing that work, and likely always will be — I was able to turn a page, to see what had happened to me exactly for what it was, and to experience glimmers of liberty.
I soon found liberation in sex and in my body, one of the very last places I ever expected to find it.
When I chose to be sexual I had the sex I wanted, only with whom I wanted, be my partner male, female or myself, and without shame, admonition or judgment. I was able to get lost and found in a sweet and salty tangle of limbs and tongues and words and sweat and electric chemistry. I could howl out in pleasure and weep with communion. The sex I had was the sex I felt, and the sex uniquely made by two or more unique people, rather than a mimicry or performance of what someone else thought it should be or painted it as with a limited or shameful palette. I discovered that power could be shared and transformative, rather than a thing one person lords over another to oppress.
I suddenly celebrated my body. I could feel safe having it seen and shared. I found a home in myself through my body, what should be the natural home of the self. I reclaimed my body as mine, back from the actions and views of those who assaulted or abused me, able to withhold it when it was not something I wanted to share. I didn’t feel ugly or worthless or objectified when I enacted or thought about my sexuality: I felt whole, flowering, rich, alive. I was even able to develop a sense of humor about my sexual body. I stopped self-mutilating easily, I couldn’t believe I’d been so foolish as to try and change my weight to avoid ridicule, and I found a marvelous beauty not just in my own parts, but in those of everyone else. My body stopped being my enemy and became a dear friend. I could both express and experience love and care with more than words: my body, the body of another, could be a bard for those feelings, not a place to conceal or guard them.
Being responsible about sex was a no-brainer when I had the support and tools to do so and the freedom to use and value them. The gender of my partners was accepted and embraced, I was allowed to have privacy and personal boundaries, and the difference between abuse and sex was not denied or obscured by the people around me. I was never again told I was stupid, and was trusted to be mindful and responsible. I was able to go to the free clinic provided in my neighborhood, where I could get my yearly sexual healthcare and contraception at no cost, and without any experience of judgment or any denial of services. I hear adults claim that young people or women do not have the capacity to be responsible, and I do not understand how it escapes them that if people are not afforded liberty, we cannot even discuss real responsibility. If we are not the absolute owners of our choices, we cannot be expected to be fully responsible for them even if we want to be. Withholding liberty necessarily withholds responsibility, because liberty and responsibility are inseparable. It is not a gift nor a favor to take responsibility from someone: it is robbery. I refuse to believe that anyone with a real sense of self does not want to be responsible and accountable. Without liberty, responsibility is merely a burden, but with it, a blessing.
You can think what you like about my teenage experiences. But here’s what I think about my experiences: while in many arenas of my life, I have been anything but lucky, this is one where I was, and not just because orgasms are nice or sex can be a good time. I knew very well what it was to be denied liberty, even right down to my conception. I was conceived in 1969 within a woman who was not able to make the choice she knew was best. The experiences of being denied liberty — and to a strange degree, of having my very existence be about a denial of someone else’s liberty — never permitted me to take liberty for granted. And the things I found in a largely unfettered sexuality provided a gateway for me to find those things in other areas. It’s entirely possible that I have my sexuality — and the way I was able to explore and express it — to thank for coming through all I did whole.
I don’t see many teens or women having that experience. Even at the time (and hell, that was the 80’s), I knew it was a rarity.
As at the director of Scarleteen, and as a counselor at a feminist health center, I see a very different picture. I see women who have trouble using birth control because their partners sabotage their methods; women who have sex not because it is a wanted, shared experience of pleasure and care, but because it is an obligation, one that for some, if not met, will result in rape or other abuses. Way too many women express relief when I tell them that they need to abstain from sex for a couple of weeks after an abortion: some even ask if they can tell a partner the waiting period is longer than advised. For many young people, sex is not about pleasure or liberation, but about hoping they make it out alive and unscathed. Young people are trying to make sound sexual decisions in the environment and culture of fear and panic, environments which stand counter to sound decision-making. Young women struggle with a culture which sexualizes them for monetary gain or adult enjoyment, but which refuses to acknowledge their own authentic sexuality, or support them expressing their own authentic sexuality it for their own. Rates of suicide within the GLBT youth population remain terribly high, and the majority if young women who become sexually active before the age of 15 report they were coerced. Young people and women, in these ways and many more, consistently try to achieve a liberated sexuality — whether they choose to have sex or not — in a culture which doesn’t afford them the freedom to do so.
If all that sex had to offer us, at best, was a lack of negative outcome or loss, I’d tell everyone to go do something else with their time. But I have a profound reverence, awe and love of sexuality and the body, and a firm belief that sexuality and the body are — when we are given the opportunity for them to be so — places of liberation. Whatever sexuality a person has and expresses, whatever their mutually-wanted sex life is, it should be an arena in which one can find union and communion — with themselves, with others — which is about creative, authentic and shared personal expression and an enriching, freeing celebration of all of our bodies and selves. I don’t think there is any one right sexuality, any one right way for everyone to enact or envision that sexuality, nor do I presume that my sexual history or experiences could possibly be right for everyone. But, from nearly everyone I have ever spoken with about sex or the body, I have heard a deep and abiding want for that feeling of sexual liberation. Who doesn’t want to experience their bodies as a place of exuberant joy?
I think we’ve yet to see a real sexual revolution, despite claims to the contrary.
To have a bona fide sexual revolution we first need to all have real liberty. That includes full and autonomous reproductive choice for all women, regardless of age, race or economic class, access to all methods of contraception for everyone who wants them, real bodily autonomy and integrity (which includes things like an end to forced or coerced genital mutilation among both men and women as well as reproductive rights), equal rights and equal acceptance for all of us no matter our sexual orientation or marital status, the end of any and all obligatory, forced or coerced sex and sexual slavery and the recognition that no way is the right way when not freely chosen. These freedoms and more would need to be unilaterally accepted so that every single one of us could know, deep in our bones, without doubt, that our own bodies and our own sexualities were sovereign and free.
I think we can get there: if I didn’t, I couldn’t get through each day of doing the work that I do. A woman who finally learns that she does not have to gamble with pregnancy and can do something to prevent it, a woman whose face floods with relief when she finally hears someone voice that being forced or nagged into sex is a wrong done her, a woman who is offered reproductive choices ; the young people who express a long-awaited moment of complete acceptance for their same-sex love and attraction, who hear that their bodies are not their enemy but their home: all of these moments are powerful and meaningful because they are tastes of liberty.
Those glimmers empower. They illuminate. They seek and envision a more perfect union — sound familiar? — and give hope that that kind of union is attainable.
We have, as a people, a profound problem accepting and trusting ourselves and others, and thus fully affording liberty and full responsibility to others and ourselves. We also have a problem recognizing that so often the reason people make poor choices or oppress others — including the kinds of abuse I and others have survived — is likely because that spirit of mistrust, disrespect and lack of real liberty. We hoard liberty (and thus responsibility). People act poorly or irresponsibly, and so we mistrust more. We then seek to withhold even more liberty. In doing so, we are getting further and further away from knowing who all of us really are, and seeing us all at our best.
It is scary to extend that kind of universal faith and trust, to engage in such a wild experiment, particularly if and when we have seen or lived through what appear to be abuses of liberty. I get that. But I think that is flawed thinking. If we are fearful of liberty, it is not because we have seen it go horribly wrong, but because we have not seen it at all: it’s a social experiment we have yet to even try. I trust people, despite having sound reason not to. And I have far greater faith and trust in anyone to do that when they act with liberty intact, rather than out of fear, coercion or obedience to outside authority.
I don’t know what a world with real sexual and reproductive liberty would look like, but I sure don’t like how the world looks without it. What I do know is that my best choices have always been made when I am free to make them. I know that the times I have tasted liberty and liberation — including in something as loaded and precarious, particularly for women and young people in our world, as sex — have been transformative, enriching, fortifying, sometimes profound, and have shown me and empowered a humanity in myself and others I would not have seen or experienced otherwise. I know that withholding that from someone else, for whatever reason, no matter how I might justify it or what the outcome might be, is not only no less an abuse than any other kind, but at the heart of all abuses. I know that I can not only extend liberty and not lose myself, but that doing so can only help me find who I am, who all of us really are.
This is what we all can do, if liberty means anything at all. And it does: it means everything.