I was raised in a conservative Cuban Catholic household by parents who were 40 and 54 years old when they had me. From an early age, I was taught that staying a virgin until marriage was the only option, a gift you gave your future partner. I wrote an article in my college paper about it. I emphasized that casual sex, and the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), were symbols of not taking yourself seriously.
The piece was a hit at the Catholic Center at my university, but it did nothing for my dating life. The few men I did grab drinks or dinner with were quickly turned off, but I didn't care what they or anyone else thought. My value system dictated that if you were going to share your body, you should be married.
I also felt strongly about Planned Parenthood. To me, they were abortion providers. When I thought of women going to terminate their pregnancy, I thought it was selfish, and I prayed for the unborn children that didn't get a chance to live. I even felt moved enough to attend a couple of pro-life rallies during my college years. At one of the rallies, fewer than a dozen kids silently stood across the street from a pro-choice rally that drew a couple hundred. I always felt we were in the minority; more people argued that laws shouldn't legislate their bodies, a message that didn't resonate with me at the time.
What about the life inside of them? What about the consequences for what they did? I never thought I'd be at risk for an unwanted pregnancy or STI if I waited until marriage and found a man with similar values.
Flirting With Danger
At 26, I lost my virginity to my third serious boyfriend. I still wanted my sex life to be exclusive with the "right" person, the one I would end up marrying. Finding the right person was a process, though, and I had a few relationships that didn't work out. Of course, sex would always enter the equation eventually.
After a bitter, painful breakup in November 2010, I coped by traveling alone, trying adventures like sampling alligator nuggets in New Orleans, going on a cross-country drive, and going on a spiritual pilgrimage. I also met a few guys online. My friends told me I should be open, spontaneous. I felt experimental, so I just went with the flow.
After a couple of drinks with a date I met on a site, he wanted to take the subway downtown to hang out with Occupy Wall Street protesters. But instead of swinging by Zuccotti Park, we took a detour to his apartment in Morningside Heights. We were halfway through Annie Hall when he expertly unhooked my bra. We moved from the couch to his bed so quickly, I didn't have time to think about a condom. My skirt was still on for the uneventful sex, which lasted three minutes. Afterward, he walked me to my car. On the way, he said he couldn't believe I'd had sex so quickly. Then he said we wouldn't be going on a second date. I felt shame, then fear. I'd lost my way to myself, my values, and what I truly wanted. But it happened.
I quickly booked appointments with my primary care doctor and the gynecologist. My face flushed when I had to explain that I wanted to be screened for STIs. I broke down and cried when I spoke to my primary care doctor, a man I'd known since I was a child, when my mother was his patient.
The blood and urine samples proved I was negative for all STIs, and since I'd had my period the day after I had the unplanned sex, I assumed I wasn't pregnant. I realized sex felt humiliating for me unless it was with a steady boyfriend I loved. I vowed I would remain celibate until I met the man I would fall deeply in love with. That lasted just over a year. Then I met a sexy tattooed Maine transplant on OkCupid who lived a town over from me.
The View From Inside the Clinic
It was the end of the year, and I was feeling vulnerable, so I ignored about a thousand red flags. At the end of our third date, he didn't want to invite me over because he was "embarrassed" by his tiny and messy apartment. So instead we had sex in my Toyota Corolla. Paranoia struck as we were doing it, and I quickly stopped after a few minutes. Where did he get those tattoos? I thought, as we got dressed. Did he go to a reputable location? Could he have contracted something when he got inked? Then I said it out loud. "Would you be willing to get tested?" He said no, adding that he had been "fine" when he checked a year before. I knew I needed to get checked right away.
This time, my doctors were on vacation. So, clutching my late Aunt Carmen's rosary on a frigid January morning in 2014, I finally visited the inside of a Planned Parenthood, praying I hadn't contracted a lifelong illness.
In my mid-20s, a friend told me she had ended a pregnancy at a Planned Parenthood in college. She wasn't ready to be a mother, and her support for pro-choice organizations now made sense. Before then, I thought abortion was only appropriate in cases of rape, incest, and if the life of the mother was in danger. But I began to realize that it wasn't right or appropriate for male lawmakers to legislate women's bodies and our medical needs. I also realized abstinence-only education can lead to terrible choices later in life, like not using protection or thinking through a life choice, as it had with me. And, most important, I finally understood that it wasn't my job to judge another woman's decisions.
When I turned to Planned Parenthood for help, they didn't judge me. Before we could even enter the office, the two other patients and I had to go through a metal detector and had our belongings checked, as if we were headed into a small airport. I booked an 8:30 a.m. appointment, so I could head straight to my work afterward. I went alone, but I called my mother every few minutes so she could reassure me everything would be OK, half-watching the morning show that blared on the TV while I waited for my name to be called. Planned Parenthood provided nearly 4.5 million tests and treatments for STIs from 2013 to 2014, not counting breast exams and other life-saving tests. My tests ended up negative again, both when I checked that day and when I went back six months later to confirm. I walked away from casual sex for good after that, and since then, I've met a boyfriend who genuinely loves and supports me.
The staff not only treated me with compassion and respect, they taught me how to make better choices going forward, like using protection and only having sex when I'm emotionally ready.
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