Rowan Blanchard Talks With Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards About Sexual Health

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We’re all aware that sexual health is an important topic for everyone. Having access to medically accurate, healthy, and unbiased information is something every young person deserves to have as they discover more about their bodies. Sadly, there are many aspects of our society which seek to shut down any attempt at education young people about facts, which then becomes a breeding ground for shame, misogyny, and in some cases, abuse.

One of the reasons we are so passionate about sexual health is because of the way it is being treated as some sort of political weapon by many in US state legislatures and at a federal level, and also due to the heavy anti-choice agenda being pushed on many fronts. Of course the most famous anti-choice extremist example was the series of undercover videos leaked by an organization claiming to show Planned Parenthood doctors negotiating money for “baby parts”. The damaging consequences of these heavily edited videos were shown clearly when a crazed gunman claiming to be a “warrior for the babies” shot up a Colorado Planned Parenthood facility in November, killing 3 people including a policeman.

Since then, although there have been numerous state investigations into Planned Parenthood turning up no legal wrong doing, as well as a 5 hour congressional hearing involving CEO Cecile Richards which turned up no evidence of wrong doing (apart from a bunch of anti-choice Republican congressmen and women bullying Cecile in an attempt to make her falter – which she didn’t) some states have chosen to defund Planned Parenthood which is depriving millions of women of vital healthcare.

A Texas grand jury also just indicted the extremists behind the undercover videos in a twist that anti-choice activists never expected. Aside from the continual fight for access to healthcare facilities that provide services which don’t fit into some peoples’ ideological agendas, the downside is that the only people suffering are women.

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On another front, where the battle for sexual health and reproductive rights is most apparent is the way sex education is taught around the country. To put it simply, its abysmal. Only 22 states require public schools to teach comprehensive sex education, and only 18 of those require the information to be medically accurate. The states which push abstinence only education have the highest rates in teen pregnancy. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

President Obama recently released his proposed 2017 budget which strips all federal funding from abstinence programs for the first time because they clearly do not work. Our question is, why did it take this long? How is it that whenever it comes to matters concerning the sexual or reproductive health of women, women and girls are the LAST people consulted?

In a feature for Paper Mag’s “Girl Crush” series, Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards talked with next gen feminist hero and actress Rowan Blanchard about the importance of non-biased sexual health and how we need to keep talking about it in order to break down stigma.

Reading this conversation from the POV of a teen girl as well as a woman who understands the climate of women’s reproductive health being under attack all too well is something we need to see more of.

“I think especially for people my age or a little older than me, sexual health is always something that’s used against them, or in sex ed classes, it’s talked about from a male perspective, and it’s never something that’s in favor of a woman,” Rowan begins by telling Cecile, adding that she knows many young girls whose families are so conservative, and the only place they can get proper sexual health info (most times on the DL) is their local Planned Parenthood (if they are lucky enough to live in a place that isn’t shutting them down).

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“When we talk about sexual health in girls, especially girls that are teens, that are still figuring out their bodies and all of these new things, it’s so shameful. People seriously shame them for it. Girls are getting their first periods, and immediately it’s an embarrassing thing that you just want to hide, rather than being a normal thing that you talk about,” she continued.

Cecile mentioned that PP are beta testing a new app where girls and women can have access to information, ask questions, and track their periods in order to feel like they have a way of finding out if something is “normal” or not. In a sense it could be a way to fill the gap left by conservative parents who don’t want to give their children the right information about sexual health.

“I was raised in a household where I can ask my parents things and it’s not embarrassing, but I didn’t realize until recently that a lot of kids can’t do that, because it’s embarrassing for them. So I think your impact on the Internet has had a huge effect on people my age, because it’s anonymous and it’s safe,” said Rowan about the impact of Planned Parenthood being accessible digitally.

Both Rowan and Cecile were lucky enough to grow up with progressive parents who enabled them to ask questions. Cecile’s mom is former Texas governor Ann Richards, a fiery democrat who drastically took the state forward on a number of issues (not just women’s health). She was not only a woman, but a progressive, a divorcee and a passionate person dedicated to helping others in her state.

While not everyone has the opportunity to be raised in such an open-minded environment, both women believe social media and the internet has changed the way young women are speaking up and finding the information they are seeking.

“I feel like I made the connection between the political as personal, and knowing that those things actually affect me. When I started talking about them on social media, I noticed that with teenage girls [and insecurity], it comes from a deep place of shame about their bodies, and everything that they’re taught from a very young age. I think the new wave of women on social media who are allowing themselves to just be themselves is opening doors for a lot of young girls who wouldn’t otherwise have that kind of affirmation to be allowed to be themselves, which is cool,” said Rowan.

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Sadly with the digital revolution comes the many dangers and negative aspects of social media too.

“Social media is an awesome thing, particularly because women’s stories are told. But I recognize that it’s also a place where there’s a lot of shaming. How do we break through that? I think that if you guys can figure it out and if your generation isn’t willing to put up with the judging and, frankly, old-fashioned sexism, that’s going to be the biggest single culture change in this country,” Cecile asked Rowan.

The Disney Channel actress unfortunately has already experienced her share of sexism and feeling as if her voice is not as important in a room full of men.

“I find that I’ll be talking to a room of grown men and somebody will say something that I don’t agree with, but I almost shut down my opinion really quickly because I think “Oh, he’s a man, I just have to be really careful with that.” And I feel like there’s this male anger complex that women are almost submissive to, in order to allow that person more room,” she explained, in a way that is scary she can already identify that type of gender dynamics at such a young age.

Cecile candidly likens it to her experience during the 5 hour Congressional hearing which was reportedly held to discover whether Planned Parenthood was involved in any illegal activity. Millions of dollars later, they still have not found anything, but the committee remains as an exercise in wasting tax payers’ money and fighting an uphill ideological battle just to prove some political point.

To her credit, Cecile remained calm and collected throughout the hearing, as it became clear to her this was not about solving an issue.

“The only way they knew how to engage was to be mean and angry and dismissive, and cut you off. And so there’s a part of me that wants to engage, because it’s not like I want to get shut down. But on the other hand, I feel like they’re looking for a fight more than they’re looking for actually getting to a place of “OK, we can move forward,” and, though I hate to say it, I think we all have to pick our battles. You don’t want to let anyone just run over you, but you also don’t want to feed that kind of behavior that is really not helpful,” she said.

The conversation moves on to the issue of boys and sexuality, where Rowan says it is just as important for them to have the freedom to talk about their bodies in a way that doesn’t allow for shaming and judgement.

“I feel like we need to dissolve that whole hyper-masculine macho complex and just make it something that boys and girls can talk about to each other, and make it so young men can talk about it just as much as young women can, because it’s not something that only applies to women,” she said.

Both women identify how the shutting down of a young person’s inquiry into their own sexual agency can lead to confusion about consent, rape, assault and what their rights are on those issues.

“What all the studies show is that if young people, at an appropriate age, begin learning about their bodies and are able to have a normal, open conversation, they’re actually much less likely to get in trouble for themselves, or to get in a situation that they don’t want to be in. And I feel like we’re also long overdue for having the kinds of conversations young women are having around issues of sexual assault and consent. It seems to me if teenagers can start learning and talking about these issues before they get to college, we could be doing a better job of making this a normal conversation, with young men as well as young women,” said Cecile, pointing out the horrific campus rape epidemic that has been under the media spotlight in the US the past few years.

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Rowan says the less Planned Parenthood and sexual health are taboo subjects, the less unwanted pregnancies we would see because women would know exactly how to prevent them.

“But now when girls talk about these topics, they’re called ‘sluts’, or something like that. There’s just not a way out! It’s like, if you know about your body and you’re educated about how to take care of it, you’re ‘a slut’. And if you’re not, then you could accidentally get pregnant or something like that,” she said, before reiterating just why Planned Parenthood is not some baby-killing factory that should be used in a political battle. It is a place where women who are really struggling with a life-changing decision know they can go and not feel shamed for what they are going through.

“I hope that those girls and men that don’t feel like they have a safe space to talk about it with their parents, or maybe their sex ed teacher isn’t really covering things that need to be talked about, I hope that they’re using [Planned Parenthood’s] Internet space to answer questions that they would maybe feel embarrassed to talk about,” she adds.

We firmly believe every young woman reading this should understand it is their right to have access to non-biased medical information and health care services. Here’s hoping there will be more women’s voices breaking through the political and religious wall in order to bring some humanity back into the conversation about sexual health.

And if you are interested in a comprehensive sex ed curriculum that breaks down barriers where other programs fail we encourage you to read about the More Than Sex Ed program taught by Jill Herbertson and Emmalinda MacClean in churches as well as schools.

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