On Abstinence: My TEDx Talk & a Partial Response to Roe
A long-term project and heartbroken reply
In the last semester of my last year of Alabama public high school, I read Roxane Gay’s Hunger and Bad Feminist, one right after the other.
In them both, she recounts being brutally assaulted at age twelve by one of her classmates and his group of friends. More specifically, she reveals the complicated sexual relationship she had with the ringleader before the assault, and the relationship they continued to have after.
I considered (and still consider) Gay’s descriptions in both her books to be one of the most exacting characterizations I had ever read of growing up as a woman of color. Though most women of color are (thankfully) not brutalized to Gay’s extent, I do believe a great deal of them experience the distinct, clawing need to barter for a boy’s attention that Gay describes.
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That spring semester, as everything quickly warmed and I worked to complete my IB diploma, I gave an epistemological presentation on consent standards for women of color, centered around the following text pulled from Bad Feminist and Hunger.
“When I was in middle school, when I was young—old enough to like a boy but young enough to have no clue what that meant—there was a boy who I thought was my boyfriend and who said he was my boyfriend but who also completely ignored me at school. It’s a sad, silly story lots of girls know. It was fine because when we were together, he made me feel like he could fill my gaping void. He was terrible, but he was also charming and persuasive. I was nerdy and friendless, all lanky limbs and crazy hair, and he was beautiful and popular. I accepted the state of affairs between us.
When we were together, he’d tell me what he wanted to do to me. He wasn’t asking permission. I was not an unwilling participant. I was not a willing participant. I felt nothing one way or the other. I wanted him to love me. I wanted to make him happy. If doing things to my body made him happy, I would let him do anything to my body. My body was nothing to me. It was just meat and bones around that void he filled by touching me. Technically, we didn’t have sex, but we did everything else. The more I gave, the more he took. At school, he continued looking right through me. I was dying but I was happy. I was happy because he was happy, because if I gave enough, he might love me. As an adult, I don’t understand how I allowed him to treat me like that. I don’t understand how he could be so terrible. I don’t understand how desperately I sacrificed myself. I was young” — p. 137, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist
“We would hang out in his bedroom and flip through worn copies of his older brother's Playboy and Hustler magazines. I studied these naked women, mostly young white blond thin taut. Their bodies seemed alien, unreal. I knew it was wrong to look at these women displaying such wanton nakedness, but I couldn't look away. He clearly found these women exciting, sexually attractive, and I knew, even then, that I was nothing like them. I didn't really want to be like those women but I wanted him to want me and I wanted him to look at me the way he looked at the magazines. He never did, and in his way, he punished me for what I wasn't and couldn't be. He punished me for being too young and too naive, too adoring and too accommodating.
I was a thing to him, even before he and his friends raped me. He wanted to try things and I was extraordinarily pliable. I didn't know how to say no. It never crossed my mind to say no. This was the price I had to pay, I told myself, to be loved by him or, if I was honest with myself, to be tolerated by him. A girl like me, pliable and sheltered and unworthy and desperately craving his attention, did not dare hope for anything more. I knew that.” — p. 42, Roxane Gay’s Hunger
Three years later, as a junior at Duke, I was lucky enough to give a TEDxDuke talk centered around the same concepts. Sex and the Sin of Non-Whiteness is my attempt to build on Gay’s concept work and send a specific message about what it is to grow up as a girl of color, especially in the South.
In short, my talk primarily argues that girls (including many AFAB people) are taught that being sexually desirable is an essential aspect of womanhood, and that girls of color are specifically taught that their non-whiteness precludes them from that desirability unless they are extremely open with their sexuality.
In response to this truth, society ideally would restructure itself so as to not be so influential and damaging to female perceptions of sex. However, as this large-scale work takes place, young girls of color must be willing to interrogate what exactly they want when they are consenting to sexual activity, as consenting to physical experiences to achieve emotional validation can lead to disastrous and often traumatic results*
I wrote and delivered this TEDx talk in February of 2022, after Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization had been heard by the Supreme Court but before opinions were delivered. My talk finally premiered (after some scuffling with Youtube over content guidelines) roughly a week after SCOTUS’s June 24th ruling to officially overturn Roe v. Wade
As a long-term reproductive rights advocate, Roe and what it stood for was an essential aspect of my talk. Roe and its precedents, in addition to being essential rulings in regard to human privacy, allowed people in America to bear the heavy weight of sexual activity that my talk asserts exists.
In the days since the Supreme Court’s decision, I have read much of the reasoning of those who support Roe’s fall. And while many arguments are used to obfuscate true authorial intention, a great deal of anti-abortion thinking boils down to the belief that pregnancy is a consequence of sex that people with uteruses should not be able to avoid. Thus, if people don’t want that consequence, they shouldn’t seek an abortion; they should cease having sex. This reading between the lines isn’t conjecture– it’s simply what anti-abortion speakers say (and have always said) in their arguments.
In an anti-Roe amicus brief Jonathan Mitchell wrote for Dobbs, Mitchell openly asserts that individuals can “simply change [their] behavior in response to the Court’s decision if [they] no longer want to take the risk of an unwanted pregnancy.” As noted by Gail Collins in The New York Times, the founder of the 1873 New York Commission on the Suppression of Vice believed that people did not need contraceptives, even for use against life threatening pregnancy, because they could “use self-control” and not “sink to the level of beasts.”
To anti-abortionists, non-procreative sex has always been beastly. Something filthy we should have elevated above by now, a debasement that should rightfully lead to a downfall, an indulgence you knew would get you in trouble.
And to that, I say, I wish.
I wish sexual activity for all people was an indulgence, purely hedonist, purely pleasurable. But at the heart of my TED talk is the fact that, for most people and especially most women of color, sexual activity is so much more than (and sometimes not even) pleasurable. Sexual activity, as said by Amia Srinivasan, has a complex relationship with “race, class, disability, nationality and caste,” and those who consent to it are consenting to far more than just touch.
Sex is never just sex. Sexual activity can be power, can be currency. Can be leisure, can be work. Can be spiritual, can be forced, can be traumatic.
When anti-abortionists argue that sex is something that can (and should) be easily avoided, what kind of society are they even imagining?
Is it one where (as mentioned in my talk) young girls don’t see 25% of their representation in film show some amount of nudity, and thus come to their own conclusions about what correct girlhood is?
Is it one where a person in America isn’t sexually assaulted every 68 seconds, thus losing their choice in the matter?
One where men themselves don’t think that sex is so difficult to avoid that they’ll murder women to overcome the temptation? One where men themselves don’t think that sex is so important to them that they will murder women who don’t provide it?
Do they imagine a society where sex isn’t intrinsically involved with coming of age, with gender, with feeling like a “man” or like a “woman” or simply like “yourself”? A society where sex doesn’t feel like a genuine biological imperative, as it does for many people?
A society where the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin wouldn’t get made? Or Blockers, or American Pie, or any other movie where the plot centers around the seeming necessity of having sex?
A society where sex work has not long been said to be the oldest profession, a society whose earliest roots were somehow not sewn into the urge to be close with one another, a society where truly laughable numbers of anti-abortion politicians themselves have not fallen into such urges and then gotten abortions?
These societies don’t exist. Passing legislature about sex as if it’s an easily avoidable aspect of society will not make it so.
When people seek to eliminate abortions, they are either delusionally imagining a world where “self control” can stop the social juggernaut that is sex, or they believe people with uteruses should be uniquely punished for the very human, very normal behavior of following an often biological, social, and spiritual imperative.
I wrote my talk to draw attention to the specific factors that make young girls of color feel pressured into sexual activity. I am disgusted by those who are too ignorant to understand the factors that often make abstinence a fallacy, and those who simply don’t care about women bearing the brunt of it.
As I say in my introduction to this site, I became a reproductive rights advocate in May of 2019. I gave my first draft of this TED talk in April of that same year. These ideas— abstinence, validation, race, coercion— are all connected, and it is foolish and dangerous and heartbreaking to pretend otherwise.
As always, there is so much more to say. There are truly hundreds of reasons why abortion access is a human right, only one of which is the societal prioritization of sex. To anyone reading this from the American South or any anti-abortion state, I cannot stress how sorry I am, and how righteous your feelings are. I hope these ideas help a single person, and if they don’t, I hope they at least make them feel less alone.
*In the years I’ve spent developing these ideas, I have struggled the most with encouraging girls and women to interrogate their consent without suggesting, even minorly, that giving in to societal forces is somehow a personal failure. I still don’t have a lot of answers, and the talk itself mentions many important questions. What role should men play in questioning female consent? How do women balance societal forces and personal happiness and personal safety? How does society even begin to start fixing these imbalances? Again, I’m still in the process with these extremely valid inquiries, but it is my sincerest wish that no one reads this and believes I am criticizing women for dealing with these feelings however they deem best.
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U have well presented concerns. I think that a more balanced demographic giving u feedback would paint a more nuanced picture of a complex, often times uninformed, often times biased view of all things discussed in your dissertation. Theres alot to consider with regards to expecting a certain mindset from a populace: deprived of adequate sex ed, a largely religious not scientific censuring of sex in general and unrealistic depictions of sex that take place in media that largely is a substitute for the 2 previously mentioned things. u present a well stated point, to add to your point i just wanted to add what i put. Be well. Thank u for your service in all u do for your school and ppl of color.