OPINION: The fight for bodily autonomy is bigger than abortion

Providing young people the sex education they need to understand that their rights are under attack is more important than ever after the overturning of Roe v. Wade

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade over a year ago has sparked many concerns about women’s diminishing rights in this country. While legitimate and important, these conversations miss the bigger picture by solely focusing on abortion. Young people across the country know alarmingly little about their own sexual health, let alone how politics impacts their bodily autonomy. We need to arm young people with the knowledge necessary about their sexual health so they can fight to protect and expand their rights. 

I know from personal experience how empowering it can be for young people to learn about their sexual health. Even though I grew up in a time where cell phones and WiFi were largely available, my friends and I knew very little about our own sexual health needs. The health classes at schools I attended in East New York, Brooklyn, briefly touched on the importance of sex education, and then promptly moved onto other things. When I stumbled upon an internship at Protecting The East, I applied with the understanding that I would have the opportunity to learn about sex education in depth. It was only then that I realized how little I knew about my own sexual health – from proper condom usage to the full range of contraceptive methods –  there was so much to learn. I wasn’t alone, my peers were grateful for the knowledge I was sharing.

I started facilitating sex education workshops in Brooklyn and then at my college in Buffalo and Rochester. When transitioning from my neighborhood in Brooklyn to upstate New York where the demographics were different, I was no longer surprised to find that my classmates from all over the state still had a very limited understanding of what sexual health meant. My college workshops focused on BIPOC health, healthy relationships, proper condom usage, STI and HIV prevention.

This is not just a New York state problem. Young people across the country are being denied basic information about their sexual health. Students are less likely to receive sex education today than they were in 1995. And when school time is devoted to sexual health or sexuality, the classes are severely lacking. On average, there are four hours or less spent in a student’s pre-college education on pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted infections. A majority of states require their sex education classes to stress abstinence only and limit information about healthy sexual behaviors. Even in more progressive states, discussions of queer sexuality in these classes barely exist. 

It is both frustrating and harmful to be left in the dark about our own health. It is not a coincidence that the majority of teenage pregnancies are unplanned, more than 25% of new HIV diagnoses are young people, and that teenagers make up half of the 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections each year. By denying young people an adequate sexual education, our society is failing to give them the information they need to practice safe sexual behavior. 

I have seen firsthand and experienced firsthand what happens when you give a young person the tools to learn about their sexual health. As director of advocacy at the New York Birth Control Project, a big part of my job is providing our college-aged members with the basics of sexual education. Since our society has made the topic so taboo, our sessions can sometimes start off a bit awkward but then really open up once we get into the topic. The students have so many questions about how to take care of their sexual health. This is often an entry into advocacy for many of our members because the information gained in sexual education helps them understand that their rights are under attack and they have the power to fight back.  Furthermore, many of our members also take this knowledge back to their peers by working at their campus health center or holding sexual health workshops for their peers.

Republicans are attacking abortion, birth control access, LGBTIA+ people and sexual education because they realize it is part of the full spectrum of our rights to bodily autonomy. We have to arm our young people with the information needed to fight for our futures. We are told to use our voice, but never given the space or permission to ask questions about things as basic as our sexual healthcare needs. Let’s use the anniversary of the outrageous decision to overturn Roe to make the fight for reproductive justice to include sexual education and all the frontiers on which it is being attacked. 

Rochelle Rodney is director of advocacy at New York Birth Control Access Project.

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