Sunday, July 6, 2008

The only thing we have to fear

I keep up with a women's health community online, and by far the most common question asked by people on the board is something along the lines of, "I'm on hormonal birth control and my period isn't due for another week yet and I haven't ever actually had sex but my boobs are kind of sore and yesterday I was nauseous which may be because I had the stomach flu but I hear it's a symptom of pregnancy. AM I PREGNANT?!?!?!"

The fear and paranoia that so many young women have regarding pregnancy is baffling. If the number of questions of this sort are any indication, it seems a good portion of sexually active women - and some who aren't even sexually active - live in almost constant anxiety that the condom broke or they missed a pill or their IUD expelled and now they're preggo. Where does this irrational fear come from? Surely they've read up on the birth control that they're using and know the success/failure rates. After all, why the hell wouldn't you do research on something that can have such a large impact on your life? Just a few minutes of web searching would reveal that most birth control methods, particularly hormonal ones, have a success rate in the 90% range, even for "typical" use. Even the withdrawal method, which is so often ridiculed as an ineffective birth control method, can have a 96% success rate during "perfect use." (Granted, "typical use" has a 73% success rate, but that's still a hell of a lot better than nothing.)

Then again, maybe they don't know these things. Fear is born from ignorance, and it seems the conservative movement is premised entirely on keeping people ignorant. I read in my local paper not too long ago that a Minnesota study showed an increase in abortions among teens (though a decrease in all other demographic groups) in the past year or two, coupled with a decrease in the number of women using contraceptives. When one recalls the spate of investigations that revealed the inaccuracies and outright lies that abstinence-only education feeds to kids, and the current (but waning, fortunately) administration's stance on sex education, it only makes sense, sadly enough.

When I went to public school as a kid, parents were given a choice of which sex ed course to put their kids in either "abstinence-based," which said abstinence is preferred but didn't shy away from teaching about other forms of contraception and safer sex techniques, or "abstinence until marriage," which taught exactly what the name says - and nothing more. Fortunately for me, my parents are of the more progressive bent (most of the time), so they put me in abstinence-based.

Though I'm grateful for my parents' choice, the course still was woefully inadequate. Like most sex-ed courses, it was mostly about scaring kids away from sex. I got to see my share of explicit photographs showing advanced cases of syphillis, gonorrhea, and genital warts - but was never told that most STIs are treatable, even cureable. To their credit, the teachers were very good about dispelling myths on HIV/AIDS; never did I think that HIV could be spread via public toilet seats. In terms of contraception, however, basically all we learned about were condoms - male condoms, at that - probably because condoms also protect against STIs. Birth control pills were mentioned in passing, but that's about it. I didn't even know IUDs existed until I entered college, and I'd be willing to bet that the majority of college-aged women still haven't ever heard of them, despite IUDs being one of the most effective contraceptives available.

I partially blame my good-but-not-good-enough sex education on the one pregnancy panic I've had in my life, which occured a little over a year ago. This was before I'd started on any sort of birth control; the condom fell off at some point, probably after we'd finished and Master was pulling out, and though I didn't feel any semen get on/in my vulva I decided to get some Plan B from the school nurse just to be safe. Looking back on it later, I realized the chances of my getting pregnant were slim to nil - not only was it unlikely any sperm managed to get their way inside me, but my period had ended that day so it was basically impossible for there to be a viable egg for them to find. On top of that, I took the Plan B just as directed, reducing the possibiliy of pregnancy even further.

Even so, for the entire two weeks between taking the Plan B and seeing the nurse for follow-up, I was constantly wondering what if? what if? Keeping the baby was out of the question, but the nearest abortion clinic was all the way in the Twin Cities, to my knowledge. How would I get down there? There was no way I could tell my parents about it, but keeping a secret like that from them would tear me up inside. And then, of course, there was the small part of me that said I wouldn't have to get an abortion, that maybe having a baby would be okay. That part scared me the most.

Though the pregnancy test I took at my follow-up was negative, I couldn't truly relax until my period arrived, right on schedule, a week later. (Contrast that to now: I haven't had my period in... oh... two months? Three? (Cessation of menstruation is a side effect of the Mirena.) But I'm not worried in the least.)

And while I partially blame my own ignorance on my anxiety - I didn't know at the time how incredibly unlikely it was that I was pregnant - I know all too well that reason goes flying out the window when one is worried about something. Take for example all the parents who stay up late imagining all the horrible scenarios that could happen to their kids when they're just playing video games at a friend's house and lost track of the time. So while education does a lot to reduce fear of pregnancy, it can only do so much.

No comments: