I cried at the gynecologist.
I never cry.
Not when I fractured my ankle, not when my dad was in the hospital for a month, not even at my friend’s funeral. I never cry because I tell myself it is easier to be numb.
But today I could not force myself to be numb.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I felt the cold metal arm touch my cervix. A year ago, I’m not even sure I knew what a cervix was. No, I definitely did not know what a cervix was. I laid on the table for the first time and felt this clamp open up my vaginal canal as guilt washed over my body. Guilt. I was not expecting to feel ashamed and that shock caused me to cry.
I was raised in a culture that taught me to fear my own body.
My sexual education, like many young people, was severely lacking. I did not know a penis literally went inside of the vaginal canal until I was at least 16. I am not sure how I never put that together, but somehow I managed. I did not know I had a clitoris until around that same age either. It was never mentioned in my fifth grade health class. We learned about male ejaculation and male pleasure, but never the fact that as few as 7 percent of women reach orgasm from penetration alone. The vagina is not equivalent to the penis, the clitoris is, and I didn’t even know it existed.
I am not alone, either. A recent survey in the U.K. found that 62 percent of college students were unable to locate the vagina on a diagram. Half of women surveyed in Australia wondered if their vulva was “normal” and another half also had never seen a vulva that was not their own. For reference, the “vulva” is the technical term for what most people call the vagina, or even more colloquially, the “pussy.” Vulvas include all the external female genitals– the mons pubis, labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, bulb of vestibule, vulval vestibule, urinary meatus, greater and lesser vestibular glands, and the vaginal opening. Even I am sitting here reading this list and wondering what most of these things are.
Sexual education fails Americans. At age 15, I knew more about the workings of a single cell than I knew about what was between my own legs. The modern American sexual education system is, however, harder to define than in years past. The United States has an incredibly decentralized system that varies from state to state. There is no national requirement to provide sexual education and only 22 states mandate the children receive sex education. Furthermore, only 13 states require that information to be medically accurate. Many states ban contraceptive demonstrations and some states still only provide abstinence-only education.
Abstinence-only education became popular in the late-80s and early-90s, but it is very much still present in schools today. In 2015, the United States Congress approved a $75 million bill to fund abstinence-only education. That means another generation of kids will not realize a penis literally goes inside a vaginal canal. (This is where I insert a blushing emoji, because honestly, I was 16. I should have known.) Schoolchildren will not learn about heterosexual or LGBT sex, asexuality, masturbation, how to stop the spread of STDs, how not to get pregnant, nor the fact that the female equivalent to the penis is the clitoris. We are allowing our kids to remain ignorant of sex until the day they become adults who are scared of their own bodies.
I am getting an IUD in February. The Mirena hormonal IUD, unless I change my mind and decide to select the copper, non-hormonal Paragard. I have to wait until February, which made me irrationally tear up in the doctor’s office a second time. I wanted to get it before Donald Trump took office, but the timing does not work out. IUDs must be inserted during your period and mine is at an awkward time during the next two months. I wanted to get the IUD before Trump took office, frankly because I am scared. I know the Affordable Care Act may not be completely repealed. Trump has previously stated that he might keep the provision for pre-existing conditions, but he has not mentioned whether or not he will keep the mandate for free birth control. IUDs cost anywhere from $500-$1200, plus insertion and removal fees. Birth control pills can cost up to $50 a month without insurance. Before the ACA, insurance companies could refuse to partially or even totally cover birth control. If President Trump repeals the ACA, the future of affordable birth control is unknown.
I panicked on the gynecologist table because all my life I have been told that sex is dirty and disgusting and I would be dirty and disgusting if I did it outside of marriage. I was taught that I was worthless if I was not a virgin or a mother. The pressure of the cold metal clamp felt like sex and reminded me that I was worthless in some people’s eyes.
I don’t blame my religion, nor my family. I learned more positive things from those institutions than negative things. I do not have anyone to blame because we are all at fault. We must demand more from our leaders, religious or political. To be informed about your body is a basic human right.
Right now, the United States is not providing children with quality knowledge to make informed decisions regarding their sexual health. Sex education in the United States is plagued by inconsistency and often lacks medically-accurate information. Double standards tell men that sex is for pleasure and says to women that sex is for getting pregnant.
Thankfully, these standards are slowly changing in our culture. In France, sex ed now includes a 3-D model of a clitoris. Campaigns exist that call for sex ed to teach female masturbation, like some programs teach male masturbation. The Guardian, a major international newspaper, runs a web series called The Vagina Dispatches that teaches young girls and women about their bodies. Slowly and surely, we as a society are talking about our bodies, specifically the female body, more than ever before.