“My aunt said if you drink Coke when you’re pregnant, the baby will come out with hiccups.”
Eight ten-year-old girls sit with me in a stuffy classroom on a July morning in the Sacramento Valley. All are daughters of migrant workers harvesting peaches in nearby orchards. The year is 1982. Herpes is the big incurable sexually transmitted disease, and I—twenty-one, a newlywed—am a guest speaker in the classroom.
Their teacher has taken the handful of boys outside to play basketball while I show the girls diagrams of their reproductive organs, explaining how they work and saying, gently, that their aunts, cousins, and grandmothers are wrong.
Come September my volunteer work as an educator with Planned Parenthood will take me to high school biology classes where I talk about reproductive anatomy and physiology, birth control and abstinence, pregnancy and STD’s. I do not hand out bananas and condoms. No, I say, you can’t get pregnant from swallowing semen. Yes, you have to wear a new condom every time.
If the classroom teachers step outside, students are freer with their questions. If the teachers stay during the Q&A, most of the questions asked are for shock value. I am unshockable.
Unlike the classroom teachers who know their students and who have formed opinions of them, and who may or may not want to consider them sexual beings, I don’t know these teenagers and I’ll never see them again.
Likewise, these teens don’t have an opinion about me, won’t be grossed out speculating how I know these things. I will answer any question, tell them anything they want to know, whether they ask raising hands during class, question me while I gather up my overhead transparencies, or casually lean against the wall stopping me when I walk out the door. Sex is my field.
I could say I’m speaking in classrooms and staffing information tables on behalf of Planned Parenthood because my parents, like most, couldn’t include the names of their children and the word “sex” in the same sentence and I believe everyone should have information and options, even if they don’t have occasion to use them.
Or I could say that if it hadn’t been for Planned Parenthood, I—a college-bound girl in love—would’ve been a teen pregnancy statistic.
I could say those things, and they’d be true, but not the whole truth. I volunteer to talk about developing bodies and sexual relationships because in my professional life sex is used to gain power and control; men are perpetrators, and women ashamed of their bodies.
My job title is Personal Safety Educator and each afternoon I am buzzed into a small office in the cinder-block bunker that houses the university police department. I spend my days answering phones, writing newsletters, and reading account after horrific account of sexual violence.
I give presentations to college students and campus staff members, telling women that one in three of them will be assaulted in their lifetimes. I demonstrate how to carry keys with the shafts protruding between their knuckles so they can jab an attacker’s eyes or rake his face. I show them a televised interview of a woman after she was raped and slashed with a utility knife.
I make charts, continuums of violence, from sexual harassment (a term that has just been coined) on one end to violent rape on the other. I write scenarios to rank along the continuum. I photocopy quizzes, hand them out in dorm lounges, staff break-rooms and the student union, and repeat key phrases: No always means no. No woman ever asks to be raped.
Now, the people who hang around afterward do not ask easily answered questions. Instead they say, “It happened to me.”
“My boyfriend locked me in his car…”
“It was my stepfather…. My mother still doesn’t know.”
“This guy followed me into the parking lot…”
Their stories, unlike the ones my boss has me read, aren’t confined to pages of journals featuring anonymous victims I do not picture.
Here are college students and employees reaching for my hand, whispering, sometimes crying. They could be my sister, my mother, my grandmother. I listen, nod, and provide referral slips to the counseling center and crisis hotline, but here I am not unshockable.
I am simply the guest educator. Armed with my hour presentation I will raise my voice in the 450-seat lecture hall and shout out the myths and facts about rape so everyone can hear. Later, on my own time, I will slip into a child’s desk and talk with middle-schoolers about breasts and bras and menstrual pads.
I hope something I say makes a speck of difference.
Cathy Warner recently earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. A Californian for 50 years, Cathy now hosts a writing retreat and leads writing workshops on Bainbridge Island, Wash. She blogs about her midlife move and remodeling adventure at This or Something Better.