Let’s talk about abortion

Written by Camille Neale, Change Maker

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 2.42.52 pmEven in 2015, abortion remains a taboo subject. Until more recently it was not a topic covered much in the mainstream media. So it’s no surprise that a considerable stigma, and misinformation surrounding the topic remains. Many people continue to think of abortion as some kind of shady procedure, but in reality abortion is one of the safest surgical procedures for women and is actually safer than giving birth.

As a feminist, I am pro-choice, but this post is not about why women should have access to safe and legal abortions – it is about why we need to create an environment where women feel comfortable being able to talk openly about the topic, whether it is talking about their personal experience with abortion, or whether they are seeking a safe place to talk about getting one.  

Sex education and reproductive health

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 2.42.59 pmIn a lot of countries, including Singapore, young women don’t get much of a chance to learn about their reproductive health. Like the topic of birth control, abortion is not well-addressed in many schools’ sex education curriculums.

I remember when I was in school, we only talked about abortion in the context of pro-life vs pro-choice debates. But these classroom debates did little to teach us about the actual experience of getting an abortion, the medical process, options available to women and so on.

Because no one ever talks about it it’s easy to imagine that getting an abortion is a rare occurrence, but it’s actually a lot more common than you’d think. In the US, by age 45, one in three women will choose to have an abortion.

Social attitudes about abortion

The idea of abortion being taboo and shameful is an idea that controls women’s sexuality. We live in a world that teaches young women to feel ashamed of their bodies and their sexuality. By not talking openly about abortion we are participating in this narrative that labels sexually active women as “sluts.” It reduces women’s social role to their reproductive function, and is a huge source of stress for women who do choose to have an abortion. Not talking about it makes it seem like more of a taboo than it should be.

There are many different reasons why someone might choose to get an abortion. Sometimes planned pregnancies have to be terminated due to health reasons and even these women find that there is little support. Women who have had abortions in the past fear others finding out.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 2.43.11 pmWe need to address this culture of shame that prevents women from sharing their stories.  Abortion is all too frequently used as fodder for political debate by men who shouldn’t be the ones deciding what a woman does with her body. It’s no surprise that women are afraid to speak up about their experiences with abortion. When they do they have to face the possibility of being labeled a “murderer” by pro-life advocates. Women need to stop being threatened for wanting control over their reproductive rights.

A spectrum of experiences

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 2.43.21 pmThe absence of women’s realities in the public realm is something that we need to address, particularly when it comes to women’s health.

The medical paradigm is already based on a model that understands health through the experience of men. Women who have had abortions need greater access to mental health care and non-judgmental public forums for working through their experiences.

We can create a more empathetic dialogue where women can claim control over their bodies – this will help to humanise the narrative and move away from abortion stigma. Women should have the right to make an informed choice, and to be made aware of the kinds of options at their disposal if going through with a pregnancy is not their choice.  

I’m not saying to take abortion lightly. Like choosing to become pregnant, it is a serious decision. But women who choose to have abortions need to be given a space where they can share their experiences, whether they are positive or negative ones, without fear of their stories being co-opted by politicians to advance a pro-life agenda. While many women report feeling relieved after an abortion, some women do regret having abortions or experience sadness or guilt, and their stories should be heard too.

Access to abortion is an important part of women’s health care; by not talking about it we are strengthening the arguments of those who want to limit access to the procedure. Ultimately, the topic of abortion is about individual women’s choices.

About the author: Camille is a recent university graduate who is still figuring out what she wants to do with her life. She hopes that whatever that is, she will be able to wear a power suit and be really intimidating. 


#whatyounevertaught: Five Ways To Make Sex Ed Better For Boys

by Change Maker, Robert


The other day, on Twitter, I joined in a conversation on the hashtag #whatyounevertaught. Started by @siwanclark, the hashtag discussed experiences with sexual and reproductive health education (i.e. sex-ed), what people wished they had learned and what could’ve been done better. It reminded me of the first time I saw a naked woman.

I was in Primary Four, and it was a shock. Here, in my house, was a book with an actual, naked woman on the cover! I remember my parents were in the kitchen making dinner when I slipped it from its glass-fronted shelf and under my bed.

I can’t remember what the book was called, but it turned out to be a sex-ed book for women. I’d like to think my parents started preparing for my education before I was conceived, with the end result being them buying this book just in case they’d had a cis girl. Over the next few nights, I learnt about periods and pregnancy, the anatomy of a cis woman’s genitals, and a lot about contraception and safe sex.

I sometimes wonder what it would’ve been like if I’d encountered a book meant for boys and men instead though. Perhaps I’d have learned that getting an erection doesn’t necessarily mean ejaculating (something I was deathly afraid of during puberty). Perhaps I’d have learned that male virginity wasn’t something shameful and neither was male sexual desire. Perhaps I’d have learned to handle my first, extremely unhealthy relationship better.

You see, we don’t teach boys enough about sex. Nobody teaches boys to get consent (or that it’s okay not to give it). Nobody teaches boys that they don’t need to lose their virginity to be men. Nobody teaches boys that they are more than their bodies, that their attractiveness is not solely based on their physical appearance. Boys internalise sexism, coercion and body-shame as they grow up. Their relationships are modelled after unhealthy ideals they see frequently in the media. They often become Nice Guys™ or abusers. They suffer in silence when victimised by their partners.

I’ve had enough of this. Boys and men should not be learning about sex and relationships the hard way. So, here are five ways we could make sex ed better for boys:

1. Sex and body positive, consent-focused education. Sex-positivity means not treating sex as shameful or seeing it as an obligation, while body-positivity means accepting a range of body types. Consent-focused education, meanwhile, would look like teaching boys that only yes means yes (and that they have the ability and right to say no too).

2. The acknowledgement of gender identities and sexual orientations beyond cisgender and heterosexual people. In the context of sex-ed for boys, this would mean teaching boys and men that transgender and non-binary (neither/both male or female) people exist and that it’s okay, that it’s normal to be attracted to people of any gender, and that it is okay to be attracted to more than one gender at once.

3. Teaching safer sex. This would mean more than just shouting “abstinence!” at boys. This would also mean more than just teaching boys how to use condoms or about the birth control pill; it would include alternative forms of contraception and non-penetrative forms of sex.

choice4. Reproductive choice education. For boys, this would involve removing anti-choice messages from the curriculum (for example, “Tiny Tim”, an unrealistic portrayal of abortion as forced childbirth). This would involve teaching boys that everyone has a right to decide what they do with their body, and that a decision on abortion is ultimately up to the person who is pregnant.

5. Teaching boys about emotional health in relationships and breaking up. We need to teach them about their emotions (and that it’s okay to be emotional!) and what they could possibly feel before, during and after a relationship. We need to bust the myths that boys are supposed to be stoic and unemotional, that boys are or should only be looking for physical intimacy in a relationship, and that rejection or a failed relationship is unacceptable.

Unlike me, not every boy has the privilege of learning from a comprehensive, shame-free book on sex-ed (even if it’s written for cis women). Like me, most boys don’t have healthy sex-ed syllabi tailored specifically for them, and end up internalising problematic behaviours. I’m not an expert on sex-ed, but I’m a young man who’s lived through the system and came out in one piece. This list isn’t complete, but we need to help our less privileged brothers out.

This is how we start.

About the Author: Robert Bivouac is a 20-year-old writer and spoken word poet from Singapore. He enjoys Singaporean food, music and literature, and lives mostly on the internet where he pretends to be cool.


Sex ed: Not just about the mechanics, but relationships and consent

by Catharina Borchgrevink, Change Maker

Talking about sex can be uncomfortable and awkward. Some individuals find it perfectly normal to discuss sex at the dinner table, but many still think of the topic as sensitive, and are not confident talking about it with friends or families. While respecting that attitudes regarding sex differ greatly within religions, families, communities and societies, we have to recognize that children need education about sex, no matter what culture they are from.

Sexual education does not merely concern itself with anatomy and factual information about what happens during sexual acts. It can, and should, cover social issues such as healthy relationships, the importance of consent and respecting one’s partner. A pre-emptive introduction to these issues, preferably before they have their first sexual encounter, will probably make it easier for youths to make informed decisions later on.

Sooner or later, children grow up and discover sex. Children are curious, and ask questions like ‘Where do babies come from?’, or ‘Why are everyone else’s bodies changing, and not mine?’ It is unavoidable as a parent to talk about human nature with their kids, and you come across all kinds of questions related to growing up. If their curiosity is dismissed by their parents or other authority figures, they will seek answers elsewhere—from their friends, older students or online. In an age where kids get iPads before they can walk, it is inevitable that they begin exploring resources online. This is where the ease of obtaining information today can become a danger. Although plenty of good online resources about sex abound, there are countless others providing misleading, or just plain incorrect, information. It can be difficult even for adults to distinguish between reliable and untrustworthy content online—what more youths who may be far less discerning?

In addition to the wealth of (mis)information available, there appear to be many “grey areas” surrounding sex. One of these issues is the concept of consent. When someone is sleeping, intoxicated or not able to say yes or no, it is not sex but rape or sexual assault. If the person does not enthusiastically say yes, it always equates a no. Surveys conducted with Singaporeans, as well as worldwide rape statistics, tell us that there too many people who are inclined to ignore consent. If, from a young age, it is taught that sex needs to be consensual, all the time, every time, and with anyone, youths may be better prepared when it comes to either asking for or giving consent. If youths learn about consent before they start having sex, we can hopefully reduce the number of sexual assaults due to people not understanding that rape constitutes any sex where someone is unwilling to engage in the act.

Perhaps the most-often cited example of misleading sexual information is online pornography. If the majority of pornographic images and concepts are a teenager’s first encounter with sex, they are going to be both surprised and perhaps disappointed when they experience sex for themselves. A lot of pornography gives the impression that male pleasure comes first, often by imposing sexual actions on a woman who does not seem to be enjoying herself. This can lead to unrealistic, and unhealthy, sexual attitudes on both sides. Boys may expect sex to be oriented towards male pleasure, whilst girls may feel pressured to perform sexual acts they do not want. If we inform our youth about sex—not just about the physical mechanisms of sexual intercourse, but about their rights and how to respect others, then perhaps we can stop perpetuating unpleasant experiences and sexual myths.

Sexuality programmes should incorporate healthy attitudes, instead of just biological facts.

Sexual education should even overturn toxic attitudes and language used to refer to sex. Media and pop culture portrayals of men and women who have sex show them in very different lights. Whilst males gain respect from their peers for having sex, and are praised for ‘getting some’, a girl who participates in the same acts faces social backlash. These double standards and gender stereotypes are reproduced over and over again as youths continue to learn these attitudes from older individuals and the media. Sex is frequently discussed as something that is given or taken. ‘I took her virginity’, or ‘I popped her cherry’, are well known phrases that give the impression that girls give sex and boys take sex. When we talk to children about these misconceptions, we provide them with a better understanding of what sex should be like—something that everyone involved in is interested in doing and that there is nothing shameful about it—regardless of gender.

It’s one thing to know about ‘the birds and the bees’; it’s quite another to understand how to say yes or no to a sexual request, or discuss what you want out of a relationship. Adults have difficulty enough maintaining healthy and communicative relationships—children shouldn’t have to navigate these pitfalls with the added complication of inadequate sexual education. Early sex education, hopefully before sex happens, will hopefully better equip our youth to be discerning, respectful, and well-informed in matters concerning sex and relationships.