Friday, January 31, 2014

Sexuality and a Woman's Right to Privacy

Earlier in the week, I stood in line at the pharmacy. This is nothing new for me. I take several different medications to treat a multitude of chronic illnesses. The workers there know me by name. I’m what you might call a good customer. Living the life of a professional patient has its own demands and obligations.

I live in a part of the city adjacent to a major university. During my daily errands, I frequently encounter undergraduate students taking a break from class. Ahead of me in the queue that afternoon was a stressed out, worried young woman. When it came her time, I saw an immediate look of concern in the clerk behind the counter. Perhaps without meaning to, the cashier made a great show of her purchase. Though she held the label of the box upside down, ostensibly to protect the student’s confidentiality, I could still see its contents. It contained Plan B.

Whether the woman working at the pharmacy was aware of it or not, her behavior reinforced a cultural narrative. By implication, she gave the impression that the purchase was something shameful or embarrassing. While she may not have intended to embarrass or guilt her customer, she unintentionally contributed to an existing culture of silence. Even now, women blanch at the thought of talking openly about their gynecological exams, pap smears, or mammograms.

Feminists have sought to demystify a woman’s reproductive life, sexuality, lady bits, and every decision that she makes of her own volition. They’ve encouraged women to speak openly about their abortions, their miscarriages, and their pregnancy scares. Staying mute about such things implies that there is something mortifying and unmentionable about a woman’s sexuality and reproductive system. Men may not wish to speak about erectile dysfunction or prostate issues, but they are less hemmed in or stigmatized. Others without the same reproductive organs have not sought to regulate or control their use.

I imagined the circumstances of the young woman’s plight. I envisioned a hookup gone awry, a broken condom, each a part of the nascent sexual experimentation that many of us experience while in college. Unfortunately, there can be a terrifying and unsettling aspect to this new freedom. That said, many of us have been there a time or two. I’m not a woman, so there’s a limit to my comprehension, but I know fear and panic when I see it. From that perspective, I pitied her and hoped for the best.

When I was in college, one of my good friends exhausted the whole of her paycheck paying for Plan B. She probably had nothing to worry about, but she didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances. She had sex with her boyfriend regularly, usually without protection, but understandably didn’t trust the results of the withdrawal method. Pregnancy scares became fearsome things that required constant certainty, even if her approach might have been excessive.      

In high school, I counseled a male friend of mine in a similar state of panic. He was deathly afraid he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant. Fortunately, this was not the case. Greatly relieved, the two of them resolved to be more careful next time. Each of us learns similar lessons in related ways. When we are learning about sexuality we are also learning about ourselves. We are testing the limits of our autonomy as newly minted adults, and sex is part of that exploration.

Though I may plead for locked doors to open and women to speak, I can only make a respectful request. For many, privacy isn’t always oppressive. Though the details of my own life are always available to the curious, I know that others would prefer a very different approach. What is comfortable to one person might be oversharing to another. I remain of the opinion that it is only when our common life experiences shine through that we recognize our struggles are not really that unique.

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