As I roll down rural New York roads pitted with faded construction marks, I think about how what we've built is beautiful, and I think about how what we've built is failing us.
I am three weeks into a solo bicycle trip across the country to explore politics, sex, and culture across America and to learn about how people are working to gain autonomy over their bodies and their lives. I travel from city to city, relying on the kindness of friends I haven't met yet for showers, kitchens, and a place to rest my head. In each place I visit I'm learning about my history, the premises that I operate under as I work for autonomy over my body and my life. This trip is aimed at discovering if my premises are shared by others, and what people are doing to try to change the ways in which we think about and talk about sexuality in our culture.
In San Francisco, I worked for a variety of organizations concerned with reproductive health and justice. Although my work was primarily focused on organizing and advocacy, I came from a background of sexuality education — a background I brought to the organizing I did. Working as an organizer, I observed a curious phenomenon. Although reproductive health care, sexuality education, and advocacy are inextricably linked in the struggle for reproductive justice, in practice there is often very little overlap between educators, advocates, and health care providers. They exist in their own spheres and don't — or can't — integrate the disciplines. In my experience, this means that the people involved with advocacy efforts are the people who already see reproductive health care in a political context. These advocates are seldom the same people who are most affected by restrictions on access to services. Educators work to provide information about sexuality, setting boundaries, healthy relationships — how to advocate for yourself personally, but rarely make the connection to political advocacy. And health care providers are trained by medical schools to deal with all the negative consequences of sex — unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, etc, but aren't given the tools or the language to help their clients be sexually healthy and enjoy sex.
What is to be done? What is being done? So far I have circled the Eastern seaboard, met with organizers and educators at Planned Parenthood, midwives, sex therapists, healers, educators, sex store employees, and lots of other people who don't spend all day talking about sex but have taught me about how their sexuality was formed and influenced and how that influences the relationships they have.
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Right now I am full of more questions than answers, but each premise I challenge leads me to more premises and deeper into the ways we deal with power and autonomy. Many conversations lead to the ways in which two systems form our understanding of personal ability to make decisions about our lives — our medical system, and our educational system. The more I look into it, the more I realize that both systems are set up in ways which are fundamentally disempowering for the individuals within them — and that it doesn't have to be that way.
Organizations like Choice USA are working to empower and engage the next generation of pro-choice activists through leadership training and development, which is at its core teaching people how to recognize and use their power as individuals to create change. There are countless other organizations that are doing similar work, from the peer education programs at Planned Parenthood to doulas working to help women advocate for their right to give birth naturally. But all of this exists outside our mainstream educational system. Is it possible to create an educational system that works to help children and young adults recognize their power and their worth?
There are many parallels between the medical and educational systems and many ways in which the medical system seems designed to prevent people from being truly healthy — from the focus on disease and pregnancy prevention to the failure to combat stigmas around talking about sexuality openly.
So far, I have had the privilege to meet many incredible people working in organizations and as individuals to challenge these systems and the premises they're built on.
Over the next few months, I'm traveling to Washington DC for the Choice USA Generation Awards, where I will get the opportunity to talk with other fierce, groundbreaking activists about why they do what they do. From there I'll be in Chicago for Sistersong's conference "Let's Talk About Sex" — examining the intersection of sexuality and reproductive justice. From Chicago I'm heading West across the prairie and back to California. I will be posting to http://wanderlustwithrhonda.com about my conversations and observations as I go.
I have been inspired by the depth of passion and vision I have encountered from the people I've met so far, and I will continue to explore and challenge my premises about sexuality and autonomy. I welcome your thoughts and experiences and if I'm rolling through your part of the world, I'd love to stop by and say hello.