Advice Sexuality

Get Real! Why Can’t I Stop Being So Scared of Pregnancy?

Heather Corinna

Working with young people and sexuality daily, we frequently see users who have pervasive fears about becoming pregnant, even when they aren't taking risks to begin with.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen

lucyinthesky asks:

I have a problem, and I’m ready to crack with the stress of it. I’ve been on birth control (Yaz) for a year, to help with my acne, though I don’t always take it at the same time every day. Sometimes I’ve missed pills or taken them over 12 hours late. That shouldn’t really matter, though, because I’m not sexually active. My boyfriend and I have decided to wait until we get married to have sex. We only ever make out. Still, I find myself worrying about pregnancy risks even though there are no apparent ways to get pregnant from what we do. Some small part of my mind will whisper things like, “What if he has pre-ejaculate that seeps through his clothes onto you? What if he had a nocturnal emission that night he stayed over?” Nobody else I know seems to have this constant paranoia. I don’t understand why I spend half my time worrying about a pregnancy that most people understand is impossible. I’m not sure what I’m asking here, other than, have you ever seen this before—a girl terrified of something happening when it isn’t even likely? Is there any way I can help myself and get peace of mind? Thanks.

Heather Corinna replies:

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Not only have we seen this before, it’s something we see often. At our message boards, at least once or twice a week a user comes to us feeling exactly like you are. I promise, it’s not just you. Over the years, I’ve looked and looked for some kind of study on pervasive pregnancy worries when there’s not a likely risk, or when it’s been made clear someone is not pregnant, and when someone also really knows they’re not pregnant, but I’ve yet to find anything, beyond information on false or “hysterical pregnancy,” which isn’t what this is. So, I’m afraid I can’t offer you much of anything clinical, but I can certainly offer you my observations from seeing this over the years.

Some people do have a phobia specifically about pregnancy, birth, or parenting: tocophobia (sometimes spelled tokophobia or parturiphobia). In other words, just like some people have pervasive or seemingly illogical fears about heights or small spaces, some phobias are pregnancy-based, about becoming pregnant, being pregnant, and/or giving birth. This is more common than people think, especially in people who can actually become pregnant. Given what a huge deal and big life-changers pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting are, that’s not that surprising. This phobia, like any, is best addressed with a qualified therapist who treats phobias. If you feel this may be the case with you, it is something you’ll want to seek treatment for to feel better. That’s going to be particularly important if you ever do want to become pregnant, because even wanted pregnancy can be very emotionally difficult for someone with a pregnancy phobia.

Sometimes people may also have anxieties like this because they have an underlying general anxiety disorder that presents with sex, other intimacy, and/or pregnancy. The teens and 20s already tend to be full of big worries and heavy pressures, and sex and/or pregnancy certainly gives us some reasonable things to have big concerns about, but your generation is also often reported as having higher rates of anxiety than previous generations, particularly for young people who have come of age in the suburbs and/or in higher income brackets. I certainly feel we see more young people reporting anxiety of all types over the last few years than we have in years previous. As well, many people of your generation have been exposed to a lot of intentional fear-factoring about sex and pregnancy in your sex education, in the media, and through other cultural messaging, which can really play on a person’s existing anxieties.

My best advice for someone who thinks or knows they may have an anxiety disorder or phobia is to start at a general or psychological health-care provider‘s office. It never hurts to go, have a chat, and just see what a doctor says. In the case this is about anxiety as a whole, or a specific phobia, you probably won’t feel better without treatment, whether that’s talk therapy, a support group, medication, or another way of managing anxiety as well as qualified care to help you learn how to manage anxiety triggers and stress. For someone with anxiety or phobias, just taking away a given thing triggering them can help some, but often they’ll just wind up being triggered by other things that replace that one.

For those who don’t have anxiety in any area but this one, and who aren’t thought to have a phobia that is situational, there can be a few different things that may be going on, and a few different routes to feel better.

Do you feel well-informed about how pregnancy realistically happens? Paranoia is about illogical fear, but if a person doesn’t know what is and isn’t real, they may not be paranoid, but validly afraid of something they just don’t know they don’t need to be afraid of.

The idea that a pregnancy could happen by pre-ejaculate seeping through clothing is not sound. For a pregnancy to happen, a lot of factors need to be in play. You need to have an available ovum (egg) to fertilize, for one, which very rarely happens when someone is using a combined birth control pill properly. (However, you would probably feel at least a little better if you started taking your pills properly.) There also needs to be enough sperm and semen to create a pregnancy. While the typical idea is that it only takes one sperm, that’s not actually true. It only takes one to fertilize an ovum, but it takes a few hundred “helper” sperm for that one to do so. Seminal fluid is also important: it balances out the acidic nature of the vagina, keeps sperm viable and aids in their motility. Just like you’d have a hard time taking a long swim in a tiny rain puddle, sperm have a hard time swimming without enough fluid, too. Additionally, pre-ejaculate often does not contain any sperm at all, and when it does pull trace sperm from the urethra, it’s not usually enough to create a pregnancy.

But for all of that to even matter, there would have to be direct contact between your vulva or vagina and semen. If you two are wearing clothes, that can’t happen. Even with minimal clothing, it’s still unlikely with a full ejaculation, and I feel comfortable saying it’s not possible when we’re only talking about pre-ejaculate. Pre-ejaculate is a very small amount of fluid, certainly not enough to seep through two sets of clothing and then still get into your vagina. The same goes with wet dreams. Someone sleeping over who has one in the same bed won’t create a risk of pregnancy unless they happened to have that emission while their penis was inside your vagina.

Not knowing what your sex education has been, I can’t know what you do and don’t know about pregnancy, so let’s be sure you have those bases covered. Even if it doesn’t help with how you’re feeling, it is something you’ll want to know. Here are a couple links to get started with:

Did you already know all of that already, but find that you still feel really scared about becoming pregnant? Do you also feel like you’re pretty sure you don’t have any kind of anxiety disorder or phobia, something you’ve verified with a qualified healthcare provider?

One common denominator I often discover with feelings like yours, when I can really talk to someone about them deeply, is that they can often be traced back to sexual guilt or shame. I once counseled a young woman who was absolutely convinced, despite many negative pregnancy tests, menstrual periods, and even an ultrasound that confirmed she wasn’t pregnant that she was pregnant. At a certain point, she knew it wasn’t reasonable, but she also just could not seem to let those feelings go. In talking with her, she eventually voiced that because her family and culture was so strongly unaccepting of someone unmarried having sex, she felt she deserved to be punished, to pay some kind of price for choosing to have sex. So she had convinced herself she must be pregnant because that’s the kind of “punishment” women who have sex that isn’t socially sanctioned get, and she wasn’t worthy of being spared. This is one common thread I’ve seen in women having these kinds of pervasive and unfounded fears, especially for women who have grown up with very socially or religiously conservative communities or views or with sexual shaming.

I don’t know what your background has been like or how you feel about whatever kinds of sex you are engaging in. But if you feel that in some way it’s very much not okay for you to be having whatever kinds of sex you are having, or moving towards other kinds of sex, or people you care about or are strongly influenced by feel that way, this could be part of the issue.

You voice that you and your boyfriend are saving sex for marriage and that you are not sexually active, but if you are having some kinds of sex—like the dry humping or oral sex—some of these feelings may be coming up because those things are kinds of sex. That’s a lot more obvious once people have had intercourse and know it’s only so different, but it’s still something people can intuitively feel because you know when you or a partner are having sexual feelings and desires and know when you’re putting them into action. If your personal values are such that you feel sex needs to be saved for marriage, it’d be understandable that having some kinds of sex may not be making you feel good because it may be outside your values and only be something you’re rationalizing as being within them. Sometimes when we rationalize things in a way that isn’t sound, while our brains may accept those rationalizations, our deeper feelings don’t fall for it.

I don’t personally share those kinds of ideas about sex and marriage, so please be sure that I’m not making judgments here or suggesting you’ve done something wrong or bad. But if you have different values than I do in this regard, which you clearly may given what you’ve said, you may need to check in with yourself to be sure what you’re doing does fit with what your own values and sexual ideals are. This might also be something to talk with your boyfriend about, because even if you’re feeling OK about this, if he isn’t, his conflict might be something you’re reacting to. If you feel like those values aren’t really yours, but the values of others, then you may want to spend some time trying to clarify what your own values are and some time letting go of values you may have grown up with but don’t share as you’re coming into your own.

Something else that often comes up in discussions with other women feeling like you have been are problems with the interpersonal context it’s happening in. In other words, these feelings can be emotional cues that a relationship isn’t a good one, or isn’t the right one for a given person at a given time in his or her life. How supportive and responsive is your boyfriend being to these fears you’re having? Has he suggested you two spend time talking them through, maybe step back with any kind of sex, and made clear that there’s no pressure on you to do anything sexual, even just making out, if you don’t feel OK about it yet? If he hasn’t, some of your feelings may be about feeling pressured or unsupported or worrying that soon enough, you will have valid reasons to be afraid of an unwanted pregnancy.

The very best advice I feel I can ever give someone feeling like you are if this isn’t about overall anxiety or a phobia is to suggest you think deeply about if any kind of sex or intimate contact is truly right for you right now. It may not be, and your feelings here may be intuitive cues about that. If one isn’t trying to create a pregnancy, the primary reason for having any kind of sex tends to be about feeling good, physically and emotionally, for yourself and also in relationship to the person you’re having sex of any kind with. If how you wind up feeling before, during, and/or after is mostly not good, but instead worried, terrified and freaked out, and/or isolated in your concerns, then it really doesn’t make much sense to have any kind of sex or making out that’s eliciting those feelings because you’re getting very little, if any, of the good parts.

It might help to sit down and make a list of pros and cons—of the ways physical intimacy makes you feel good and the ways it doesn’t, with positive feelings on one side and negative feelings on the other. I’d also include what you have experienced as good outcomes and as bad ones, or what could be good ones and could be bad ones. Then you can look at all of those things on paper and perhaps better assess if this is right for you right now or not. There’s so often a lot swimming around in our heads about sex and relationships that being able to see it on paper, in black and white, can be very helpful.

A lot of young people have the idea that when it comes to any kind of sex, once a person starts having that kind of sex, in general or in a specific relationship, he or she is tacitly agreeing to have that kind of sex ever after. But in the reality of many people’s lives, and certainly in healthy relationships and self-care, that’s not how it goes. Instead, there will be times in our lives, in certain relationships, even just from day-to-day, where we’ll want to be sexual and feel good about it, and times when we won’t. We’ll have times we choose to be sexual and times we choose not to. Those choices tend to be made not just around what our own sexual or interpersonal desires are and those of someone else, but also around what we think we and others can handle based on the whole context of our lives. For instance, sometimes we can’t afford birth control or just don’t want to deal with it, sometimes we’re so tired from other demanding areas of our lives we just don’t feel we can be fully present with sex, and sometimes we’re grappling with challenging feelings from something else going on that the various risks, positive and negative, sex of any kind can pose just feel like too much for us.

There’s never anything wrong with determining that any given time in our lives isn’t a right one for physical intimacy with others. It doesn’t mean we’re immature, that we don’t really love someone, or that we’re somehow deficient; it just means we’re recognizing—usually because of maturity, wisdom, and love—that sex or intimacy isn’t something that’s always right at every time, but which instead tends to require a unique set of circumstances that we’re just not always in, or which isn’t always available to us.

Often when we give the suggestion that taking any kind of sex off the table for a bit might be best, one common reaction we hear is that someone feels they just can’t do that because they may lose or jeopardize a relationship in which some kind of sex either feels like it’s required or is tacitly required.

If you feel that way, this fear may be really useful in learning something about healthy relationships. Having any kind of sex or physical contact—even just something like making out—because you feel you have to to keep someone around isn’t a recipe for a healthy, happy relationship or a healthy sexuality and sense of self, for either person. It certainly isn’t for the person engaging in any kind of physical contact he or she either doesn’t really want or doesn’t feel ready to handle, but it also isn’t for the other person either. Healthy people who want sex with other people to actually be about both people are not going to tend to want a sexual partner who doesn’t fully want to be doing what they are with them, or who is only doing so out of feelings of obligation or fear.

I can’t know what you want in a romantic or sexual relationship. But I’m willing to bet that you’d probably like those relationships to have a dynamic where you and any partner are only doing things that matter and can have deep impact—that you and they really want to do and that you and they feel good about—since that’s what most of us want.

By all means, everyone doesn’t have the same level of maturity or the same level of really seeing past their own wants, and not everyone is emotionally healthy or really ready for intimacy with other people. Some people we might pair up with may not be respectful and fair if we voice we don’t want to do something sexual or physical. What I’d advise in that case is that you do yourself a good turn and only choose partners who don’t behave like that. If you feel like those are the only partners available to you, something I’ve also heard some young women voice, then I’d say your best bet is to wait until you have better choices, because you will. However hungry I may be, if all that’s available to me is food that’s rotten or poisoned, it’d be better for me to just go without eating, and I’d say the same is true here.

As well, we all get to decide what kind of relationships we want, so even if someone really wants a sexual relationship, you may still voice that one isn’t what you want and need at a given time. They get to do that, but if and when they do, the answer isn’t to make yourself do things you don’t want or feel you can handle. Rather, it’s to acknowledge your different needs or readiness, part ways amicably, and both seek out relationships that are a better fit for each of you.

Pema Chodron wrote about stress and anxiety that “everything that occurs is not only usable and workable but it is actually the path itself. We can use everything that happens to us as the means for waking up.” What she means by that is that often, pervasive worries like this are valuable cues for us to potentially recognize ways we need to grow or change how we’re living our lives we might not have recognized otherwise. Maybe in your case this just is not the right time of life, relationship, or overall situation for you to be sexual. Maybe this specific relationship has something in it that isn’t quite right, needs to be talked out, or just doesn’t suit you. Maybe it’s about taking a look at feelings of guilt and either clarifying or adjusting your values so they fit you better or, if you feel your values now are authentic to you, living in greater alignment with those values. Maybe it’s a cue that you’re carrying too much stress in your whole life in general and need to find some ways to manage it better or a cue that you have an anxiety disorder or phobia you need qualified help to manage.

I’m sorry I can’t give you an easy answer here, because I hate for anyone to suffer this way. But I just can’t know which of any of the possibilities here is the case for you or if this is about something I haven’t identified here at all. Sometimes getting to the root of fears is really challenging and takes some time and introspection. I’d encourage you to invest time and energy in thinking about all of this, ideally giving yourself that time without doing anything that triggers those fears at the same time. Ask for any help and perspective you need—again, maybe that’s asking a counselor, maybe talking to your boyfriend or friends, or maybe talking to a parent, doctor, religious leader, or community member. You’re going to be the expert in finding your best sources of counsel and support. I’d also encourage you to try and consult your own instincts and to put trust in them: they really can tell us an awful lot, and so often we’re taught to give those feelings less weight than they deserve.

I’m going to leave you a few extra links that might help, along with my very best wishes. If you want to talk more about this, you’re more than welcome to come over to our message boards, and I’d be glad to talk more with you.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

Culture & Conversation Media

A Q&A With ‘Never Too Real’ Author Carmen Rita Wong on Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Ilana Masad

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Carmen Rita Wong says the characters in her new novel, Never Too Real, are largely invisible in media, which is why she chose to tell their stories. The fictional work is about Latina women who are both struggling and successful in their various fields. Wong says she’s treating this writing project as a mission, a way to tell the story of women like her: Latina women and other women of color who exist in ways other than the stereotypes so often portrayed on television and in films.

Wong herself is a master of media: She’s written for countless outlets, been the host of her own TV show, written books on finance, and now, she’s turned to fiction.

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Rewire: How did this novel come about?

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Carmen Rita Wong: My a-ha! moment came with my daughter; we were walking together and passed a bus stop with [a poster for] a show and she said, “Mom, that poster, all those women look like you. But why are they maids?”

My daughter’s frame of reference is very different from mine: She’s growing up more privileged and with a Black president, surrounded by family where she happens to be a blonde Latina while her cousins are Black Latinas. I waited tables alongside my mom to put myself through college, so I have a deep respect for every form of work. But it was definitely one of those things where you only see yourself reflected in one way—and that’s how I grew up, seeing Latinas being shown in one way; but this is not how I live, and not how my daughter lives, now.

That same month I was having a party, celebrating my wonderful, successful girlfriends. We all came up together, we’ve all supported each other, and we’re all women of color, mostly Latina. I looked around and wondered, how come nobody knows we exist?

So I thought, all right, you know what? Now’s the time. This has just got to get done. I’m in a position to do this, I need to do it. It was very much a mission; I didn’t approach it as a side project.

Rewire: Kirkus Reviews, a book review site, called Never Too Real a “multicultural edition of Sex and the City.” How would you characterize the book? Would you call it that?

CRW: I think that superficially that’s a nice, easy elevator pitch because there are four of these women, they’re glamorous, and they’re in New York City. I think that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The book goes a lot deeper than that. If you had to categorize it TV-wise, it’s a “dramedy”: There’s some lightheartedness, there’s some playfulness, some glamor, but it is really about real issues in your life as you try to do well, if you try to be the first generation to do better than the previous. I think that’s one of the uniting factors of these four women—they’re all … first [in their families] to be born in the United States, and grow up and finish college. And that’s an important bonding issue that makes it very different [from] Sex in the City.

Rewire: Diversity in literature is a widely-discussed issue in the literary community these days, with hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Was it hard for you to find a place for your book, to publish it?

CRW: I don’t know—hard for some people is not hard for others. Let’s just say—my agent’s probably going to kill me—but my favorite rejection from a major publisher, which actually confirmed to me that I was on the right track, was (and I have it memorized): “We are not looking for aspirational in this market at this time.”

Rewire: They called it aspirational?

CRW: Exactly. So it was mildly crushing, and then I realized—I’m on it, I am so on it. Because these publishers, who are they, and what have they published? Books by white men. Yes, those publishers are powerful, and yes, they’re rich, but they don’t get it. They don’t see it. They don’t know we exist. What is “this market,” and what is “aspirational?”

When I was coming up in media, in publishing and magazines, I would hear from people, “Carmen, we know you want to get ahead, but we just don’t know what to do with you.” And that’s code. What it really means is, “Carmen, you’re a brown girl, and we can promote this white guy or girl, but we can’t promote you. We just don’t know what to do with you.” But they would never say that to a white male. They would never say, “You know what, Bob? We just don’t know what to do with you.” So to me that rejection letter was just like that.

I remember back in the ’90s, there was a really great push of [books] like Waiting to Exhale or Joy Luck Club. There was just a lot more in fiction about successful, multigenerational, multicultural families. It just was normal and it was not considered crazy. I think there was a trend, and it just became a different trend. And then there was a push for powerful stories, but stories of only one note, for a long time in Latino fiction. I can’t read that stuff, because I lived it already. I want to read stories that make me escape or make me inspired or make me feel heard.

Rewire: In the book, you introduce women who come from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, but they’re all upper-middle-class at the time of the narrative. Going back to your daughter seeing the poster of Latina women portrayed as maids, do you find that economic diversity is what’s often missing in popular and literary culture?

CRW: My book wasn’t as calculated as that, because this is my life, and these are my friends and the people I surround myself with. I think what I saw missing in these cultures was that niche [of successful Latina women].

Latinos in popular culture … I’ve watched it be a very hard process. For example, when I was in magazines, they tried to push me to the Spanish-language property, and I’d say that I don’t primarily speak in Spanish. Why can’t I be used in the English-dominant space? Why? Give me a reason why! And they’d have to say, “Well, because you’re Latina.” So? Latinos speak English! We’re Americans! If you were Black or Latina you’d have to be in that particular space and you weren’t allowed to exist in the general market. And as we’ve seen, and as we see now, that has changed a lot.

Rewire: How so?

CRW: We have huge growth in numbers, but also too, if you look at, for example, ShondaLand, [the production company] on ABC—it’s an example of an openness to seeing and consuming media from all cultures, whether it’s music or TV. I definitely feel that things have changed, there’s a big shift and a huge push now toward inclusion.

I think with social media too, you see the pressure of people saying, for example, #OscarsSoWhite. I grew up in a time when media was controlled by a small group of people and I’ve watched it change, morph, and transform. Fifteen years ago, when I was co-chair of the Hispanic Affinity Group at Time Inc., I was saying we’re here, we consume stuff in English, and you need to pay attention to us. When the census came out [proving what I had been saying], I said, the census, look at the census!

And still the dollars didn’t come in; but when social media happened, that’s when the money started coming in. And finally people started saying, “Oh, they’re, they’re quite vocal, they exist.” [Laughs.] But our ethnicity or color shouldn’t be our only draw. We’re here and have been here. What they’re seeing shouldn’t come as such a shock.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.