During my master’s internship I worked as a counselor at Planned Parenthood for six months. It was a unique style of therapy–short term, solutions-focused crisis work. I had just completed a six month practicum at the University’s Counselor Training Center, where I met with a roster of five clients, individually, once a week for an hour, for fifteen weeks. I hated it. Having to sit there in a room walled with one-way glass, knowing I was being filmed and possibly watched in real time by my supervisor and listen to people vent about their issues was anything but inspiring. I felt completely on display, self-conscious and wooden. As a result the sessions were inorganic, and I doubt I helped any of my clients, who seemed to be there not to work, but to have someone on which to dump their problems at no cost. Planned Parenthood couldn’t have been more different: dynamic, fast-paced. A revolving door of changing faces, I was completely engaged with each client’s unique story, like that of the pregnant virgin.
My schedule was four days a week for six hours, seeing patients for pregnancy options and medication abortion counseling in the afternoons two days a week, and on hand during surgical abortion program days the other two. Our surgical program days began at 7 a.m. and ran on an extremely tight, regimented schedule. Women went through a six-step process at different stations in our clinical area: medical history, ultrasound, rh blood test, medication dose, abortion procedure, and recovery. Each staff member was responsible for a station, and the jobs rotated from week to week. Since I wasn’t a certified health care assistant, I typically did medical history, as often counseling issues would arise during that set of questions. I was also there to manage any emotional or behavioral issues that arose as a woman made her way through the process. A colleague would stride toward me in her scrubs hissing, Kate, get in here, and move on to the next patient in line. There was no room to stop our flow of patients, and we dreaded seeing our MD sit down to work a tiny crossword puzzle he kept in his pocket for delays. That meant we were backed up, and risked not giving safe, timely care to each woman with an appointment.
One morning I was called into the ultrasound room as a colleague walked out, throwing up her hands. “She says she’s never had sex, and her ultrasound measures her pregnancy at twelve weeks, I’m not touching that conversation!” I walked into the room to find a wholesome-looking young woman sitting on the exam table. I asked her to come into my office to check in about her medical history. “I understand you told Anna you haven’t had sex, and I need to ask you about that, since we find that you’re several weeks pregnant. I’d like for you to tell me about your current partner, and the sexual activity you share.” I was trying for direct, but open. “Oh, well my boyfriend is older than me and we mess around and stuff but we haven’t had hardcore sex or anything,” she giggled. “Can you help me understand what you mean by hardcore sex?” I asked. “Oh, you know,” she said, lowering her eyes. Matter-of-factly I asked, “has his penis been in your vagina?” “Yes.” she stammered. “That’s sex.” I informed her. She looked up at me, eyes filling with tears, sobs beginning. “But I wanted to wait until I was married!” she wailed.
You may be wondering, how, in the 21st century (hello, internet!) does a young adult in a major American city not have even a base understanding of what constitutes vaginal intercourse? We had to start from the beginning, she and I, and go over basic sex ed. Tears ran down her shocked, confused face as I explained sex, followed by a survey of birth control methods. Gently, I asked her what she had learned about sex in the past and from whom. Turned out she was the only child of a single father, who was a conservative Christian. During that era, the state allowed parents to opt their children out of sex ed class, which her father did, citing religious reasons. He had sheltered her to the point of alienation from peers, her boyfriend her first act of defiance. This is the story of how a young pregnant woman believed she was a virgin. Her family, educational and religious systems failed her. Terribly.
I went to check on her in the recovery room after her procedure, and found her quiet and bemused. I squatted down next to her and asked how she was. She answered hollowly, staring off, “I still can’t believe I’m not a virgin anymore”. I sensed how heartbroken she was, and knew she wouldn’t be able to process her abortion decision until she resolved this one. I was angry that the adults and educators around her hadn’t allowed her access to critical information about her body. They had taken the choice of when to have sex entirely away from her, ostensibly to prevent her from having sex before marriage. The consequence of that horribly short-sighted decision was that a young woman’s naivete was taken advantage of by an older guy, who had sex with her without her understanding that’s what they were doing, resulting in an unintended pregnancy and a personal choice to have an abortion. She went from not making a choice about sex to making a very difficult choice about a pregnancy.
I asked her if she understood the information I gave her about how sex and birth control work. She did. I then encouraged her to make decisions for herself about sex from that day forward. Now that she understood what sex was, she would be able to decide to wait until marriage, if she wished. Before, the choice was made by authority figures attempting to coerce her into that decision in the guise of protection. Knowledge is power. May we never raise another child to adulthood without them being taught sex ed from a young age, all questions answered, all clinical resources available and accessible.