Get Real! Was it Sexual Harassment? Was It My Fault?

Heather Corinna

What you have described is beyond sexual harassment: it's sexual assault. And it's not your fault.

This article is published in partnership with

Ms.dee asks:

Is it consider sexual harassment if some guy fingered my vagina, but I didn’t want him to…I’m now 17 and this happened when I was 13, I haven’t told anyone about this…I wanna know if it’s my fault that this happened. We were on a bus and this guy undid my pants and fingered me. I didn’t want it to happen, but I was too scared to stop him. Is it my fault? I mean, when he tried to kiss me I did sort of slide away. Is this my fault?

Heather Corinna replies:

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I’m so glad you were able to ask about this and break your silence. I know how scary it can be to do that. It’s a very big deal to take that step and I hope you give yourself a lot of credit for taking it. I certainly do.

What you have described is beyond sexual harassment: it’s sexual assault. And it’s not your fault.

Sexual harassment is generally emotional and/or verbal abuse that is sexual in nature, like sexual name-calling or jokes, or continued sexual propositions or sexual attention after a person has already said no. Gay-bashing is also a form of sexual harassment as is harassing someone about their gender or gender identity. Rape and/or sexual assault or abuse is a person forcing someone, physically, verbally or emotionally, to engage in any given sexual activity they do not want to, have not consented to and/or have not been in a position to give full consent to — usually manual sex, oral sex, vaginal or anal sex or sexual fondling.

It is sexual assault ANY time one person does not want to be engaging in any kind of sex and another person does it to them anyway without their consent and against their will.

Silence is not consent. Because someone does not verbally say no does NOT mean someone is saying yes; because you were not able to say anything our of fear does not mean you actively participated in this or gave your consent. You were not silent because you wanted this to happen or enjoyed being silent. You were silent because you felt validly afraid of someone who was abusing you. That is not a context for consent or a scenario that demonstrates consent, and it is very unlikely the person who assaulted you mistook your silence for consent. The dynamics of rape/assault for an attacker are usually about power. Most commonly, someone who is sexually assaulting someone else knows the other person is not consenting and want to do what they are doing because they are not consenting in order to make themselves feel powerful.

It’s not hard to know when someone we are talking to or touching is feeling fear: a person trying to slide away, flinching when we touch them, or being completely silent during something in life that’s about expression and engagement is not how someone who wants to actively engage in sex with someone else behaves. As well, if and when we want someone to do something with us sexually, especially someone we don’t have an ongoing relationship with, we ask them and need to ask them. You were not asked, you did not respond enthusiastically to this person’s actions, and chances are that the person who assaulted you both knew that you were afraid, wanted you to be afraid, and knew they were abusing you. If and when someone says they just didn’t know, or that they misunderstood in a situation like this, they’re usually lying.

This is not your fault. If I get mugged, that’s not something that happens because I left my home, walked down the street, and was carrying money of my own that someone else wanted, things I should be able to do safely that are a normal, and often essential, part of daily life, just like it’s a normal and essential part of daily life for plenty of us to take the bus. If I get mugged, that’s something that only happens because someone decided to mug me. It’s the fault of that person who chose to mug me. In your case, the fault lies with the person who chose to sexually assault you. His age here isn’t relevant: someone being any given age does assault okay or make assault anything but assault.

So many survivors of sexual assault or abuse misassign fault, putting in on themselves. Fault, in this context, means responsibility for a bad situation or event. Responsibility means being answerable for an act performed or for its consequences. You didn’t perform the act of your assault: your attacker did. You’re responsible for taking the bus, sure, but I think we can agree that very few people, if any, would say that they consider sexual assault to be something that is a natural consequence of taking the bus or something we agree to when we get on a bus. Sexual assault is a crime, and including on the bus, so the rules of the bus are, in fact, expressly THAT no one on it should be assaulting anyone else. Anyone who assaults someone on it is a person breaking the the law.

We take the bus to get from one place to another, and agree to pay the bus company for that transport and to be courteous to others on the bus. We do not take the bus in order to get assaulted, invite assault just by doing so, or make any kind of agreement to sex by virtue of sitting on the bus. I’ve no doubt that if you knew in advance that getting on that bus that day meant you’d be assaulted, you’d very purposefully have stayed off the bus.

To give you another example, let’s say you came here asking me for help, just like you did. At this site, we clearly give the impression that this is somewhere where you would be helped in this way, so you had a valid expectation that this was somewhere safe to post what you did. But instead of helping you, treating you kindly and working within the kind of ethics I talk about this website upholding, let’s say I called you a bunch of awful names, shaming and blaming you just because I could and because I got off on it in some way, and you were further traumatized as a result. Whose fault would those actions and the consequences them be? Yours, because you came here and put yourself in a position where there was the potential of abuse (which there is everywhere, in nearly everything), or mine, in responding the way I did, using the opportunity of you having asked a question and the power I have in being able to answer them?

Those actions and their consequences would be my fault and my responsibility, because I would have been the person who had the opportunity and power to choose to attack you, and who abused both your vulnerability and my power with my actions. Sure, if you had never come here or said anything at all, that wouldn’t have happened, but that still wouldn’t make my actions or the way you felt because of them your fault. The fault would still absolutely be mine and mine alone.

I also want to make sure you know that so much of the self-blame sexual assault victims do has to do with a long and incredibly horrible history of people blaming victims in order for those who abuse or attack to both exploit victims further and to avoid responsibility.

When I was young, my sister and I were fighting one day in our room and she called me a bitch, loud enough for our mother to hear. Our Mom came racing in, furious. My sister said it was me who said it. She did that because she didn’t want to get in trouble herself, and in the moment, she cared more about herself than she did about me. Now, my sister was only six years old, and I’m sure she didn’t mean to hurt me or get me hurt, so we can cut her a break. However, what she did in that exchange was one part of what people who abuse and assault — who typically have a mental and emotional capacity far greater than my little sister did — do when they blame victims. They knowingly and intentionally blame someone they know isn’t responsible because they care about themselves, not the people they victimize, which is already clear given the fact that they’ve assaulted someone in the first place. It’s also a way for them to keep on exerting power over the person or people they victimized.

Sometimes people around abusers, including those who don’t even know them, do the same thing, either because they are, were or feel in some way complicit, because they’ve done or want to do something similar they don’t want to take responsibility for or because they so badly want to believe someone they thought they could trust still is, even though deep down, they usually know that person has shown themselves to be unsafe.

Sometimes, too, people who have not ever assaulted anyone, and probably will not ever assault anyone, blame victims because it’s hard for them to face the fact that none of us can ever be in complete control of whether or not we are or will be abused or assaulted. It’s a hard truth to face, so while blaming victims (including self-blaming) isn’t a sound way to deal with that, it’s certainly understandable that people want to badly to believe they have the control to keep something terrible from happening to them. Sometimes people who have been victims of abuse or assault themselves are so steeped in their own self-blame that they’ll blame other victims because they’re just so wounded, or got blamed so much by others, that they can’t see the forest from the trees. If a person makes themselves believe that abuse or assault is the responsibility of the victim, they can fool themselves into thinking that so long as they follow whatever “rules” they figure are required to avoid assault that they won’t get assaulted.

The trouble with that is twofold: not only does that kind of ideology hurt victims and enable sexual abuse and assault — in other words, helps continue dynamics and ideas that allow it to keep happening so much in the world — there also are no such rules.

People get assaulted outside and inside their homes. People get assaulted in long skirts and short skirts. People get assaulted who meet a given culture’s beauty ideals, people get assaulted who don’t. People get assaulted by strangers and by people they know, sometimes even by people they trusted the most. There are some things we can do that can do help us avoid assault or abuse, but those things are about basic self-defense and self-protection, and if and when we don’t know or exercise those things the fault still lies with anyone who exploits our vulnerability by attacking us.

How someone who is being victimized reacts to an attack also isn’t something that determines where fault lies. I already explained that silence is not consent, but additionally, a lot of people, if not most, react to sexual assaults or abuses by freezing up. Some of that has to do with shock, especially if we’re somewhere around other people who should be seeing what’s happening but either aren’t or are, but are choosing not to step in. Some of that is about fear, or even our gut instincts that not responding may keep us safer, which is true sometimes. Sometimes silence is about social messages a lot of us get and were raised with, especially around gender or sex. There are a lot of different reasons we can wind up literally scared silent with an assault, but no matter what they are, the person at fault will still always be the person doing the assaulting.

I’m sorry you’ve had to carry the burden of this for years without asking about it or talking about it until now. That’s exceptionally hard on any of us who have been abused or assaulted. If it’s shame or worry that this was your fault that kept you silent, I’m sorry you have had to feel that way for so long. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for survivors of harassment or assault to stay in silence because of shame, self-blame or a continued fear for their safety. I hope taking this big step to ask someone about your assault and my response will open two important doors for you: a door out of self-blame, shame and silence and a door into healing and putting blame where it belongs. I hope that our exchange can help you take more steps to talk about this as you need to with others, whether with friends or family, or with a supportive therapist or counselor who can help you heal from your assault.

I’ll inject something personal into this, which is that I, myself, spent years in silence about sexual assaults as a young teenager. I got good counseling and support a few years later that allowed me to break my silence, to start unpacking self-blame and start feeling a whole lot better. With every year that passed after, and with continued care for myself around this, I felt better and better, and knew more and more firmly that my assaults were not my fault and also had nothing to do with the way I reacted which, the first time I was assaulted, was exactly like what you did, by being frozen in silence, shock and fear.

Over the years, I accessed different things that helped me heal, like counseling, talking to other people in my life about my assaults, doing creative work that allowed me to express my feelings and working to help other survivors. I also did, and later taught, self-defense training. I’d strongly recommend everyone take a class at least once, especially survivors. So many of us were raised without any real instruction on how to adequately protect and defend ourselves, which can make us feel and be more vulnerable to violence of any kind. I don’t want to be dishonest about self-defense: it can’t always help prevent an assault. Sometimes assault does still happen. But feeling more capable of identifying potential attacks or assaults, and better knowing how to respond, not only does help prevent many assaults — often without even having to do any active self-defense at all — it can help us to feel more safe in our world and our own skin. I’d encourage you to check out any self-defense classes available to you in your area.

Since you’re in the United States, I want to make sure you know about RAINN’s services. RAINN is a national organization that supports survivors of sexual assault and abuse and to help educate the public about these crimes. They have phone and online hotlines you can use for free. You can use either service to talk more about your assault with someone trained to support you, and can also use them to get help locating a counselor local to you that you can see in person to get help healing from your assault. Pandora’s Place is also a fantastic online support forum for survivors you can read or use. You are also very welcome to come to our message boards and talk more with me, other staff and/or other survivors any time you want to.

We talked about responsibility, and about what was not your responsibility. Let’s talk about what is your responsibility: treating yourself with the care, humanity, respect and kindness that the person who assaulted you did not.

While we are never responsible for being assaulted, the fact that someone else is responsible doesn’t mean that even if that person takes full responsibility they can do our healing for us. That’s something we have to do ourselves and something we owe ourselves because we’re entitled to lives of quality. We don’t all have the same paths in what that self-care is, because we’re all different people who also all have different resources and opportunities. So, I can’t say what the best path for you will be, I can only encourage you to try and take more steps as you feel able to heal and to make a commitment to taking the best care of yourself possible, including working to put the responsibility for your assault on your attacker and to reclaim the life and the self that is and should be yours.

I’m going to leave you with a few links that might help some more and with all of my very best wishes and support.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

Commentary Abortion

It’s Time for an Abortion Renaissance

Charlotte Taft

We’ve been under attack and hanging by a thread for so long, it’s been almost impossible to create and carry out our highest vision of abortion care.

My life’s work has been to transform the conversation about abortion, so I am overcome with joy at the Supreme Court ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Abortion providers have been living under a very dark cloud since the 2010 elections, and this ruling represents a new day.

Abortion providers can finally begin to turn our attention from the idiocy and frustration of dealing with legislation whose only intention is to prevent all legal abortion. We can apply our energy and creativity fully to the work we love and the people we serve.

My work has been with independent providers who have always proudly delivered most of the abortion care in our country. It is thrilling that the Court recognized their unique contribution. In his opinion, after taking note of the $26 million facility that Planned Parenthood built in Houston, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote:

More fundamentally, in the face of no threat to women’s health, Texas seeks to force women to travel long distances to get abortions in crammed-to-capacity superfacilities. Patients seeking these services are less likely to get the kind of individualized attention, serious conversation, and emotional support that doctors at less taxed facilities may have offered.

This is a critical time to build on the burgeoning recognition that independent clinics are essential and, at their best, create a sanctuary for women. And it’s also a critical time for independent providers as a field to share, learn from, and adopt each other’s best practices while inventing bold new strategies to meet these new times. New generations expect and demand a more open and just society. Access to all kinds of health care for all people, including excellent, affordable, and state-of-the-art abortion care is an essential part of this.

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We’ve been under attack and hanging by a thread for so long—with our financial, emotional, and psychic energies drained by relentless, unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation—it’s been almost impossible to create and carry out our highest vision of abortion care.

Now that the Supreme Court has made it clear that abortion regulations must be supported by medical proof that they improve health, and that even with proof, the burdens can’t outweigh the benefits, it is time to say goodbye to the many politically motivated regulations that have been passed. These include waiting periods, medically inaccurate state-mandated counseling, bans on telemedicine, and mandated ultrasounds, along with the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements declared unconstitutional by the Court.

Clearly 20-week bans don’t pass the undue burden test, imposed by the Court under Planned Parenthood v. Casey, because they take place before viability and abortion at 20 weeks is safer than childbirth. The federal Hyde Amendment, a restriction on Medicaid coverage of abortion, obviously represents an undue burden because it places additional risk on poor women who can’t access care as early as women with resources. Whatever the benefit was to late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) it can’t possibly outweigh that burden.

Some of these have already been rejected by the Court and, in Alabama’s case, an attorney general, in the wake of the Whole Woman’s Health ruling. Others will require the kind of bold action already planned by the Center for Reproductive Rights and other organizations. The Renaissance involves raising an even more powerful voice against these regulations, and being firm in our unwillingness to spend taxpayer dollars harming women.

I’d like to entertain the idea that we simply ignore regulations like these that impose burdens and do not improve health and safety. Of course I know that this wouldn’t be possible in many places because abortion providers don’t have much political leverage. This may just be the part of me that wants reproductive rights to warrant the many risks of civil disobedience. In my mind is the man who stood in front of moving tanks in Tiananmen Square. I am yearning for all the ways to stand in front of those tanks, both legal and extralegal.

Early abortion is a community public health service, and a Renaissance goal could be to have early abortion care accessible within one hour of every woman in the country. There are more than 3,000 fake clinics in this country, many of them supported by tax dollars. Surely we can find a way to make actual services as widely available to people who need them. Of course many areas couldn’t support a clinic, but we can find ways to create satellite or even mobile clinics using telemedicine to serve women in rural areas. We can use technology to check in with patients during medication abortions, and we can provide ways to simplify after-care and empower women to be partners with us in their care. Later abortion would be available in larger cities, just as more complex medical procedures are.

In this brave new world, we can invent new ways to involve the families and partners of our patients in abortion care when it is appropriate. This is likely to improve health outcomes and also general satisfaction. And it can increase the number of people who are grateful for and support independent abortion care providers and who are able to talk openly about abortion.

We can tailor our services to learn which women may benefit from additional time or counseling and give them what they need. And we can provide abortion services for women who own their choices. When a woman tells us that she doesn’t believe in abortion, or that it is “murder” but she has to have one, we can see that as a need for deeper counseling. If the conflict is not resolved, we may decide that it doesn’t benefit the patient, the clinic, or our society to perform an abortion on a woman who is asking the clinic to do something she doesn’t believe in.

I am aware that this last idea may be controversial. But I have spent 40 years counseling with representatives of the very small, but real, percentage of women who are in emotional turmoil after their abortions. My experience with these women and reading online “testimonies” from women who say they regret their abortions and see themselves as victimized, including the ones cited by Justice Kennedy in the Casey decision, have reinforced my belief that when a woman doesn’t own her abortion decision she will suffer and find someone to blame for it.

We can transform the conversation about abortion. As an abortion counselor I know that love is at the base of women’s choices—love for the children they already have; love for their partners; love for the potential child; and even sometimes love for themselves. It is this that the anti-abortion movement will never understand because they believe women are essentially irresponsible whores. These are the accusations protesters scream at women day after day outside abortion clinics.

Of course there are obstacles to our brave new world.

The most obvious obstacles are political. As long as more than 20 states are run by Republican supermajorities, legislatures will continue to find new ways to undermine access to abortion. The Republican Party has become an arm of the militant anti-choice movement. As with any fundamentalist sect, they constantly attack women’s rights and dignity starting with the most intimate aspects of their lives. A society’s view of abortion is closely linked to and mirrors its regard for women, so it is time to boldly assert the full humanity of women.

Anti-choice contends that there have been approximately 58,586,256 abortions in this country since 1973. That means that 58,586,256 men have been personally involved in abortion, and the friends and family members of at least 58,586,256 people having abortions have been too. So more than 180 million Americans have had a personal experience with abortion. There is no way a small cadre of bitter men with gory signs could stand up to all of them. So they have, very successfully so far, imposed and reinforced shame and stigma to keep many of that 180 million silent. Yet in the time leading up to the Whole Woman’s Health case we have seen a new opening of conversation—with thousands of women telling their personal stories—and the recognition that safe abortion is an essential and normal part of health care. If we can build on that and continue to talk openly and honestly about the most uncomfortable aspects of pregnancy and abortion, we can heal the shame and stigma that have been the most successful weapons of anti-abortion zealots.

A second obstacle is money. There are many extraordinary organizations dedicated to raising funds to assist poor women who have been betrayed by the Hyde Amendment. They can never raise enough to make up for the abandonment of the government, and that has to be fixed. However most people don’t realize that many clinics are themselves in financial distress. Most abortion providers have kept their fees ridiculously and perilously low in order to be within reach of their patients.

Consider this: In 1975 when I had my first job as an abortion counselor, an abortion within the first 12 weeks cost $150. Today an average price for the same abortion is around $550. That is an increase of less than $10 a year! Even in the 15 states that provide funding for abortion, the reimbursement to clinics is so low that providers could go out of business serving those in most need of care.

Over the years a higher percent of the women seeking abortion care are poor women, women of color, and immigrant and undocumented women largely due to the gap in sexual health education and resources. That means that a clinic can’t subsidize care through larger fees for those with more resources. While Hyde must be repealed, perhaps it is also time to invent some new approaches to funding abortion so that the fees can be sustainable.

Women are often very much on their own to find the funds needed for an abortion, and as the time goes by both the costs and the risk to them increases. Since patients bear 100 percent of the medical risk and physical experience of pregnancy, and the lioness’ share of the emotional experience, it makes sense to me that the partner involved be responsible for 100 percent of the cost of an abortion. And why not codify this into law, just as paternal responsibilities have been? Perhaps such laws, coupled with new technology to make DNA testing as quick and inexpensive as pregnancy testing, would shift the balance of responsibility so that men would be responsible for paying abortion fees, and exercise care as to when and where they release their sperm!

In spite of the millions of women who have chosen abortion through the ages, many women still feel alone. I wonder if it could make a difference if women having abortions, including those who received assistance from abortion funds, were asked to “pay it forward”—to give something in the future if they can, to help another woman? What if they also wrote a letter—not a bread-and-butter “thank you” note—but a letter of love and support to a woman connected to them by the web of this individual, intimate, yet universal experience? This certainly wouldn’t solve the economic crisis, but it could help transform some women’s experience of isolation and shame.

One in three women will have an abortion, yet many are still afraid to talk about it. Now that there is safe medication for abortion, more and more women will be accessing abortion through the internet in some DIY fashion. What if we could teach everyone how to be excellent abortion counselors—give them accurate information; teach them to listen with nonjudgmental compassion, and to help women look deeper into their own feelings and beliefs so that they can come to a sense of confidence and resolution about their decision before they have an abortion?

There are so many brilliant, caring, and amazing people who provide abortion care—and room for many more to establish new clinics where they are needed. When we turn our sights to what can be, there is no limit to what we can create.

Being frustrated and helpless is exhausting and can burn us out. So here’s a glass of champagne to being able to dream again, and to dreaming big. From my own past clinic work:

At this clinic we do sacred work
That honors women
And the circle of life and death.