Friday, March 21, 2008

Honoring Pleasure

For the past ten years, I have been talking, writing, and thinking about almost every aspect of sexuality imaginable.  I’ve conducted homophobia/biphobia/sexphobia lectures routinely for a period of five years.  My master’s degree in Human Development focused exclusively on issues of sexuality such as homophobia, biphobia, and sexphobia.
All these years, I’ve been thinking about a wide range of sexual issues, such as gay/lesbian sexuality, bisexuality, S/M (sadomasochism), polyamory, teen sexuality, transgender issues, prostitution, sexual healing, masturbation, and sexual shame.  There are other topics I’ve been thinking about as well, but one topic that seemed to escape my attention was abortion.  In February 1999, I started working as a Reproductive Health Counselor at a clinic where abortions, as well as other reproductive health services, are provided.  The issue of abortion as it relates to sexuality has now taken center stage for me.
While I was not surprised by how difficult a decision abortion can be for women, I was surprised by the number of women I counseled who had expected to feel bad or guilty about having the abortion, when, in fact, they did not feel that way at all.  When this issue comes up in the counseling session, I acknowledge the many judgments against abortion by certain segments of society.  I often mention the protesters outside the clinic (if she doesn’t) to illustrate for her one of the obstacles she had to experience just walking into the clinic.  I tell her that half of my job, sometimes, is dealing with the negative atmosphere that can be created by those kinds of judgments.  Given all this judgment, I do not minimize the fact that the decision to have an abortion can be difficult.  Still, I question why these women, who basically are comfortable with their decision to have an abortion, are being pressured to feel bad about it.
Often there is no clear-cut answer to why there is an unintended pregnancy.  I’ve observed at the clinic that someone can use birth control perfectly and still become pregnant.  Everyone is different, so what works for one person does not necessarily work for someone else.  But what is clear is that the unplanned pregnancy came as a result of sex.  If it was not coerced sex, then often sex comes out of an attempt to feel closeness and pleasure.
Sex and sexuality do not always go as planned.  Sex and relationships are fluid, moving, changing phenomena.  Even if someone has only one partner in their lifetime, sex does not usually stay stagnant and unmoving even with that one person.  Intimacy may deepen, skill may change and, one hopes, become enhanced.  Interest in what to try may change for one or both persons.  Sometimes what the people involved choose to do sexually may be pleasurable, and sometimes not.  And, in some situations, an unintended pregnancy may occur.
The only way to completely avoid an unplanned pregnancy is not to have penis-in-vagina sex at all.  It is ironic to me that often the same people who don’t think abortion is acceptable are also the people who do not think masturbation or same-sex sexuality are acceptable either, both being sexual expressions where no unintended pregnancy could result, and therefore, no abortion.  Of course, there are other sexual practices that would also not result in a pregnancy, such as oral and anal sex.  These sexual practices seem to find judgment as well from the individuals who would advocate for abstinence, unless it meets their standards for what is morally right and acceptable.
What I would say to the abstinence advocates and what I do say to the women who come to the clinic for abortions, is that we each have a right to be sexual.  We have a right to be sexual with ourselves, with another person, with someone of the same gender, someone of the opposite gender, more than one person in a lifetime, and in all the unique ways that we might choose to be sexual in any given situation.  We have a right to determine what is desirable for ourselves and to pursue those sexual practices as long as they are consensual.  We have a right to be sexual even if it means that it results in an unintended pregnancy.  We have a right to be sexual even if it means that we need an abortion.
There is risk to opening up and being vulnerable sexually with someone else, and with ourselves.  And there is great potential for pleasure, intimacy, and closeness.  So regardless of what happens in the process of being sexual, and regardless of whether there is an abortion, I will always affirm for individuals who come to the clinic and elsewhere that having pleasure and seeking pleasure are very important and worthwhile aspects of life to pursue.  It is our right to make decisions all along the way that best meet our personal values for how to be.  Abortion may or may not be one of those decisions. 

Published originally in:  (2002).  Honoring pleasure.  In Jacob, K. (Ed.), Our choices, our lives: Unapologetic writings on abortion.  (pp. 147-149).  Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.

Copyright 2002 by Susan Miranda.  All rights reserved.  No part of this writing may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright holder. For reprint permission, email