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I used to teach high school sex education class.
When I tell people this, the reactions are often highly varied. They include anything from intense curiosity, “How did you get into that?” to conversation endings that are as abrupt as, “Whoa, weird!” Needless to say, people have lots of big feelings around how we talk to kids about sex.
One of my favorite topics to talk with teenagers about was always consent. Consent, amplified, is a fun metaconcept in that it explores how we verbally engage over physically engaging with another person. It’s a highly charged and deeply nuanced topic, with good reason. I loved it because of the space that it opened up in the room about how we, as humans, relate to our own bodies and to the bodies of others. When open, the topic can be profoundly moving and can shift our views on how we relate human to human, far beyond what is sexual or romantic. We get to explore together the most powerful part of being human—connection.
These days, I find myself struggling with how to feel full of heart when having these conversations about women’s bodies specifically, when so many national issues showcase the commodification of a woman’s body and mental well-being. I feel like a liar when I, now a licensed therapist who works exclusively with women’s mental health issues, empower women to take ownership of their bodies and sexuality in a country that is lukewarmly supportive of this concept at best.
With paid leave in the United States being too readily set for the chopping block, the Texas Abortion Ban, sexual abuse injustices toward Simone Biles and innumerable other female athletes, and the complicated conservatorship of Britney Spears, I wonder how I can confidently look into the eyes of my female clients and my own two daughters, and tell them that we live in a society that values their boundaries, their bodies, and their mental health. Though I appreciate the media coverage of all of these “stories,” in that they uncover both systemic and interpersonal wrongdoings, what I know from time in the therapy room with women who share similar “stories” is that these experiences are deeply personal and horrifying chapters of one’s life that shift the narrative they use to describe their relationship with themselves and their bodies. Therapeutically speaking, disembodiment is a profoundly traumatic experience when, as Bessel van der Kolk says, “the body keeps the score.”
A decade ago, America was fixated on the crimes perpetrated against minors at Penn State University. The concept of bodily autonomy, the basic human right that each person has to govern one’s physical being without external influence, force, or coercion gained major traction. Within a similar timeline, long histories of sexual violence were unearthed within the Catholic Church and among numerous prestigious boarding schools. This highlighted the vulnerability of minors as it relates to sexual predation, and resulted in national reform, education, and in mandated reporting responsibilities. Though these violations still exist, national attention has now been trained on recognizing and reporting any suspected violation of bodily autonomy for kids, and yet where is that same message to women?
Where is the message to women that their bodies matter at all times and in all complexities—and that only they should be able to designate when, where, how, and who gets to cross the boundary that is their physical and sacred being?
Many adult women are currently caught in the logistical life management nightmare that comes from another winter in what is the “was supposed to be over” COVID-19 pandemic, fraught with fear of illness, and impossible child and family caregiving expectations. And behind every single one of these headlines related to violence against women lies an army of real women made of flesh, bone, and often a lot of heart, whose lives are forever changed when we accept that a woman’s body is not indeed her own, and is meant for sharing by anyone who deems it their right.
Though women’s mental health issues have long been of grave concern, I’ve never been more worried for the current and future mental well-being of today’s girls and tomorrow’s women.
Until we show, on a national level, that bodily autonomy is a human right and not just another social media buzzword, therapist’s offices will stay unsustainably filled with women whose bodies are keeping the score in a game that America failed to air in prime time.