Planned Parenthood. It’s almost a dirty word in some parts of the United States. The highly contested national organization has been under some form of attack continuously for some years now. Their mission, as is stated on their website:
Planned Parenthood delivers vital reproductive health care, sex education, and information to millions of women, men, and young people worldwide. For more than 90 years, Planned Parenthood has promoted a commonsense approach to women’s health and well-being, based on respect for each individual’s right to make informed, independent decisions about health, sex, and family planning.
Every member of the Kindle Project team is a fierce advocate of women’s rights, reproductive justice and education in our own way. While women’s health and their rights to health and education somehow remain a deeply contentious issue in the States, it is important, now more than ever, to support the solid efforts of groups like these, whose mission as stated above we see nothing contentious about.
At Kindle Project we’ve traditionally funded smaller organizations and projects that are less likely to receive foundation grants. However, this year, an election year in the United States, we could not ignore the grave status of women’s health. We knew that funding our local chapter of Planned Parenthood New Mexico (PPNM) was our priority.
PPNM programming covers a very broad range of issues that effect men, women and children. They deliver programs that offer medically accurate sexual health information to youth in Santa Fe. They hold Girls’ Groups that provide services for at-risk youth and workshops to help navigate communication between children and adults about the challenges of adolescence. They also offer a peer education program that trains teenagers to be equipped with the resources to educate their peers about sexual health. This is just some of what they do, and already, it’s a lot. A quick visit to their website will show you the rest of their programming and services, and like other Planned Parenthood chapters internationally they are a highly credible and trusted resource for so many people, and so many young women.
As a Canadian woman having worked with the women’s movement in Quebec with YWCA Montreal, I know the very real challenges of running Girls’ Groups and working with young women who are in extremely difficult situations. I know about the struggle to continue to apply for grants from government bodies and foundations, trying always to prove the validity and utter necessity of the work. I know how hard that was in my Canadian context and I know that these challenges are doubly harder for my colleagues working in the United States. The kind of perseverance it takes, both at an institutional level and on a personal one, is tremendous. You hear the most horrifying stories, and you also have the chance to witness some of the most incredible healing in young women who have benefitted and found solace, guidance and education in your programs.
When I asked Samia van Hattum of PPNM to contribute a piece for our blog about her work I knew there were many avenues she could take. Driving home the continued necessity to support such programs, she shares with us a very personal account of her experience through small anecdotes with big impact.
Stories from a Sex Educator
by Samia van Hattum
People ask me why I do this kind of work.
8pm. Phone beeps. Text message: “Hi Samia. Do you have a moment?” It is one of my girls. I tell her I am available to talk or text, whichever she prefers. She says she needs to talk to someone she can trust. I make sure to include an ‘I am required by law to report any abuse’ reminder in my “of course, I am here for you to talk to anytime” response. “My counselor says I should start telling people I trust a lot so I thought of you…” My student has been discussing her questioning of her sexuality with her counselor and has decided that I am the first person, after her counselor, to whom she feels comfortable coming out. I try to find the right words to make sure I honor what she has just disclosed to me. I tell her that her counselor is giving her good advice about the importance of having people she can trust to talk to as she explores, discovers, and figures out her sexuality. The conversation lasts for all of 26 minutes and is completely via text message. “Thank you for everything this year Samia, it was life changing…”.
A month later. 9:30pm. Phone beeps. Text message. Same student. “Samia, I need help…” I let her know I am free to talk. She responds: “What’s the difference between bisexual and pansexual?” I define the terms. We discuss sexuality. Mostly she asks questions and I answer. She has come out to some of her friends, a group of 13 and 14-year-old girls. Not too surprisingly, the spectrum of sexuality appears to be completely lost on them. They want a label, a definition, a box in which they can put their friend. She herself is not sure; she also is a 14-year-old girl looking for a label to help her understand herself and explain herself to those around her. “SAMIA! I’M ALL MIXED UP! Imma explode while exploring!” I explain that what other people think is not important. I explain that sexuality is not something that can be simplified in a black and white manner with the slapping on of a name label. I explain that her sexuality is not necessarily anyone else’s business unless she wants it to be. I explain that labels do not matter or really mean much but explain that human beings like labels in order to be able to box and categorize each other in our minds. I empathize with her frustration. I tell her about the term “questioning,” and suggest that maybe if she really wants a label to use, this might be a helpful term with which to familiarize herself. This conversation lasts 39 minutes and is completely via text message.
Two days later. 8pm. Phone beeps. Text message. “So, i promised i would tell u about the girl i met…” 57 minutes.
People ask me why I do this kind of work. I think they expect a political response or statistics on sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy rates. It is not sufficient for teenagers to be told about the risks and consequences of sex. What is important is that they are shown that it is possible to have healthy conversations with people they trust about sexuality. Safe spaces need to be created for young people where trusting relationships are facilitated and fostered so that trust based communication and healthy conversations on the topics of sex and sexuality can take place. Everyone deserves to have a safe person to talk to and access to accurate, factual information about sexuality.
Why do I do this kind of work? I do this kind of work so this young woman has a safe and trusted adult in her life to talk to as she endeavors to understand her own sexuality.
Please share this piece as the months towards the Whitehouse election draw closer. Look up your local Planned Parenthood chapter. Inform yourself and your community of their essential services and try to remember Samia’s stories and all the women and men like Samia that provide these important services and relationships to young people.
Samia van Hattum, LMSW is the Planned Parenthood of New Mexico Bilingual Community Health Educator serving Santa Fe and the Northern New Mexico region. Samia is responsible for coordinating and facilitating the Santa Fe Peer Education Program, organizing and facilitating Middle School Girls’ Groups, as well as teaching comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education both in the Santa Fe Middle and High Schools as well as in community settings.
Image Source: “It’s about heath and safety” via Planned Parenthood North Carolina