Taboos are not productive in any way, shape, or form. Associating taboos and secrecy with a topic generates shame, therefore discouraging individuals to speak about it or ask questions about it. If history is any indication, lack of information leads to a fear of the unknown, fear leads to avoidance, and *boom* there you have it, the ever-so-cyclical nature of shame. The “shame cycle” let’s call it. When something is foreign, unknown, mysterious, or powerful it is often deemed as bad, and individuals with vaginas have suffered a great deal at the hands of this type of categorization.
Historically, a woman taking ownership of her body has not been well-received by the general public (did someone say witch trials?). A wonderful example of the shame associated with women taking ownership of their own bodies is the timeless classic: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Dear Hester Prynne was condemned to the punishment of shame by means of a scarlet “A” which she was forced to wear on account of adultery. Though one little “A” doesn’t seem like the worst thing an individual may endure, it brought to light just how monumental the power of shame really is.
“The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.”
-Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
The thing is, shame isn’t always public, purposeful, or even obvious, and this internalized shame can be one of the most destructive forms. How can we separate our intentions, desires, and identities from what is real and what we have been conditioned to believe, conditioned to feel, and conditioned to feel shameful about?
Perhaps, we are slowly coming to discover, the answer lies in owning our decisions, our stories, and our intentions mindfully, earnestly, and unapologetically.
“She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”
-Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
First and Foremost, Let’s Talk About Shame
Shame is a self-conscious human emotion which is acquired during the early stages of human development (for most). Shame is normal, healthy, and utterly human. This said, “there’s mounting evidence that problems occur when shame or humiliation becomes an integral part of a person’s self-image or sense of self-worth.” – Holly VanScoy, Ph.D
Psychologically, humans need to feel adequate, and feelings of shame directly negate any feelings of adequacy if they are experienced in surplus. Shame can be generated from within, but it can be generated with force from exterior factors such as other individuals, the media, societal pressures, and so much more.
As human beings, we are subject to a great deal of shame on a daily basis without intent from others, but the problem is that some of us are also experiencing purposeful shaming at the hands of our fellow human beings. Some are being shamed for their lifestyle choices, sexual orientations, religion, race, gender, and the list goes on. There is no shortage of shame in today’s society, and we think it’s time for some celebration and affirmation to take the place of a little of that shame.
We know, there’s a long way to go, and that shame is something that we can never fully do away with, but what we can do is celebrate and love ourselves and those around us to the best of our damn abilities.
Shame & Abortion
A pertinent example of individuals publicly and brutally shaming one another is the abortion debate. When it comes to our bodily functions (sadly), much of the conversations are had in a hush-hush manner. Though, society seems to share the notion that a uterus-having individual’s (female-identifying or otherwise) decision to have or not have an abortion is everyone’s business. We’re not here to tell anyone what to believe, but we are here to tell EVERYONE that we should not be addressing our feelings about a topic so personal using tools such as shame or aggression. We would love to see some safe spaces to discuss abortions and other such topics in a non-polarizing manner.
It appears our wishes have become a reality! We were lucky enough to come across Julia and her page “So, I Had an Abortion…” and oh boy, are we ever in love. SIHaA is a platform and safe space specifically dedicated to sharing stories about experiences with abortion.
“This silence only lends strength to the dominant narrative that is highly moralised and politicised, unfair, and does not reflect our truths and/or needs. Whatever your circumstance, however you identify, wherever you find yourself, your story is yours to claim… do so shamelessly!”
-So, I Had an Abortion…
Naturally, in true PsychNSex fashion, we needed to learn more. Julia was kind enough to answer some questions for us (and you!), we hope you enjoy as much as we did.
Interview With Julia, Founder of So, I Had an Abortion
Calling out for stories! This space is not exclusive to cis-gendered, heteronormative folk. Everybody welcome. . For further information and participation guidelines, please email firstname.lastname@example.org . . #onelove #intersectionalfeminism #reproductiverights #womensrights #socialjustice #prochoice #storytelling #abortion #pregnancytermination #feminism #womenschoice #prochoicegeneration #prowomen #empowerment #plannedparenthood #mybodymychoice #sharingiscaring
Can you tell us a bit about your story and what led you to where you are today, including the pivotal moment which led you to share your story, when and why it occurred?
“So, I had an abortion…” was launched at the start of 2017. It took about 4 months after my second abortion for me to grapple with my feelings and decide that it was necessary to pursue this project. My second abortion threw me into emotional turmoil: I felt foolish, shameful, compromised, tarnished, irresponsible, frustrated, disappointed… Simultaneously, I found myself in a space where I didn’t feel entitled to my own feelings because I have the privilege to live somewhere and have the support and stability to receive abortion care. I was erasing my own feelings and I was confused as to why I would do that. I was isolating myself, ruminating.
I began to unpack what was contributing to the shame and stigma that weighs on those of us who have made the decision to terminate our pregnancies. Silence is a major player. It both impacts and is impacted by stigma. We are shamed into silence while our silence contributes to maintaining the dominant discourse on abortion: one that is unfair and unforgiving; one that is over-politicized and uncompromising. Silence is insidious and toxic. Silence had me asking all kinds of questions: who determines what is OK/ not OK to talk about? Who benefits from keeping us quiet? Who is invested in keeping abortion stigma alive and why?
I started writing. I find it helpful to get things out of my head and on paper to name and reflect on them. “So, I had an abortion…” I wrote. “Actually, two”
How do you feel that sharing stories such as you are doing can help end stigma?
Storytelling is amazing for reasons that span disciplines. In short, humans, like all beings on this Earth, are all connected. We rely on one another to learn. Unfortunately, dominant Western culture has devalued storytelling and we have been conditioned to think of our differences are sources of competition, rather than opportunities to share, learn, and collaborate.
Storytelling is powerful because it is transformative for the teller and the audience. Each person and perspective adds a new “humanizing” component to the narrative, expanding it beyond the restrictive dominant narrative, and allowing space for solace, guidance, compassion, and empathy.
Our voices and the lessons they bring to conversations about reproductive justice have power. Each of us has different experiences and it is important to share so that we may have a truer sense of this issue.
1 in 4 cis-gendered women in Canada has had an abortion in their lifetime and 1 in 3 in the US.
Think to yourself: “how many more people do I know that have had abortions?” It’s very likely that you know much more than you are aware of. Why haven’t they told you? Why haven’t you told your story?
What advice would you give someone looking to (re)claim their voice like you have?
Be forgiving and patient with yourself. Sitting with our experiences is not easy. Revisiting these times and the accompanying feelings is not easy. Storytelling is a transformative practice that allows you to center yourself in the narrative, reclaiming your autonomy in the series of events, and bringing you to the fore not only as the protagonist but as the hero.
Don’t be reduced to “one of those”, and showcase who you are: a complex individual who happens to have experienced a pregnancy that could not be.
Stop being spoken for. Speak for yourself.
What has been the largest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Participation has been a real challenge, but an unsurprising one. It is not easy to ask people to sit with experiences they have silenced. It is not easy to reflect on our experiences without the fear of feeling negatively toward ourselves, or that others may use our experiences and/or words against us.
Most people don’t see their stories as worth telling. Many don’t see their stories as contributing to anything… but, all stories do. Maybe your story won’t resonate with everybody, but everybody approaches each story differently and find value in different places. Your story is yours to tell. You choose whether to or not, but know that whatever your circumstance, however, you identify, whether good or not, nobody has had your experience. It’s yours to claim, shamelessly.
What has been the most positive part of your entire experience?
The honor I feel when someone chooses “So, I had an abortion…” to share their story. The willingness of people to sit with the discomfort of remembering and the vulnerability they exercise in sharing their truths is beautiful.
The online community of social justice activists I have found has been inspiring. “So, I had an abortion…” is not the only project of its kind, far from it! I do my best to feature other projects such as Exhale, My Body My Choice, 1in3 Campaign, and Shout Your Abortion on the SIHaA Instagram account. We are all working toward a common goal and it is beyond any one of us. Progress is collective and I consider myself and the project part of the greater fight for reproductive justice. It’s reassuring and validating to have found community in the pursuit of it.
Do you feel that owning your choices, your body, and your situation have helped you transcend the stigma surrounding abortion?
I don’t know about “transcend”, but it sure moved me away from self-depreciation and being swallowed up by the shame. I was able to find myself again. Sure, I’m one of those girls who has had abortions, but they don’t define me. Sure, I’m the founder of an abortion storytelling platform, but I am also more. Sure, I’m an angry woman demanding social and reproductive justice for all, but I am not alone.
Stigma is built on, maintained, and experienced in many different ways. I haven’t transcended it because it is ever-present. I have, however, found my way of dealing with it: integrating it into my sense of self in a productive way, not a reductive one.
From your experience, does channeling pain or trauma into creativity and/or activism truly help?
Everybody expresses and interprets differently. When we approach a creative work, we know that what is portrayed is what the creator wanted to feature and/or conceal. It’s all very purposeful. Truly, they are the authors of their work and we are the visitors, there to appreciate and learn.
Communication does not need to be limited to one form or another. Creativity, through whichever medium, furthers the reach of communication making it more readily accessible and digestible. So, yes, in my opinion, creativity is invaluable to activism. People have been exercising this power for centuries, it’s only now that we are starting to claim the space for ourselves to express our truths, unapologetically.
You include all voices in your narrative about abortion, not just those of the female-identifying individuals. We think this is positively wonderful, and we would love to hear a bit more about it! How do you feel that the underrepresentation of non-female identifying individuals plays into the entire narrative and mindset surrounding abortion?
We live in a world where the cis-male body is the universal baseline of what is normal, acceptable, strive-worthy. Anybody who deviates is undervalued, dismissed, demeaned, to the point of dehumanization whereby we are subsequently laid claim to. This contributes to our needs being screened for appropriateness by those in power (historically, cis-het-white males). When those in power are not representative of the greater population, their privilege and siloed existence blind them to our needs… our humanity, even.
I work in health research on projects that involve sexual and gender minority youth. As soon as the early 1990s it was known that cis-gendered-identifying sexual minority women are 4 – 10 times more likely to experience a teen pregnancy [Saewyc, E.]. Trans-identifying men who have sex with penises experience pregnancies, too. Imagine needing an abortion and having to go through a system where the care and procedures are inherently heterocentric, homo/transphobic – invalidating your identity at every turn. Not only are you pregnant, but you are not the “average” patient. Nobody was “trained” to treat you competently because you exist out of the “norm”.
The “norm”/“normalcy” is bullshit; the entire concept is an oppressive tool to squash the expression of our identities (and asking for what we want, need). It is another proponent of shame and stigma. It contributes unequivocally to erasure and minimizing. It is a real and dangerous problem – it contributes to making assumptions about who gets abortions.
I invite EVERYbody to contribute their stories because otherwise, we are: participating in erasure and failing to hold space for everybody who is subject to the disservice that is the patriarchy. As long as pregnancy, abortion, and everything in between are represented as cis/het-exclusive, reproductive justice will fail. When we aren’t mindful of being inclusive, change is unsustainable. I consider intersectional feminism the “mothership” of the future. I think we should all hop on and establish a culture where we all approach one another with respect and humility, recognizing that we are each the experts on our own experiences.
When we share our experiences, we contribute to getting a fuller picture of reality. In reality, pregnancy is not exclusively cis/het. In reality, abortions are sought for personal, financial, medical, etc. reasons. In reality, abortions are a medical procedure and we deserve health care without punishment.
From a wellness and self-love perspective, what advice would you give an individual seeking to have an abortion in terms of combatting all of the negativity?
If you are someone who is pregnant and is considering an abortion, be kind to yourself. People make the decision to terminate a pregnancy based on a number of reasons and circumstances and I can’t assume to know yours. Know that you don’t need to rationalize your circumstances nor decision to anybody, but make sure to look outside of yourself for support. Think: “if a friend of mine/my partner were going through this, what would I do/say/offer?” Be that friend to yourself.
Self-care is crucial in the day-to-day and in moments where we are particularly distressed, we need to be especially good to ourselves. We need to set ourselves up for healing success, per se. Don’t let the stigma isolate you – reach out. It’ll be hard and scary, but reach out and ask for company, an ear, a shoulder, etc. when you need it. This is not a mark of weakness. On the contrary, you are brave and you are doing what is best for you. That is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s an act of self-love.
“I would like to thank PsychNSex for the support and opportunity to feature “So, I had an abortion…” (SIHaA) , its mission and its values. I’d like readers to know that SIHaA is a confidential storytelling platform where all stories are screened prior to posting to keep it a safe space, free of harmful messaging. Most stories received until now have been written because it is the medium we are educated to express ourselves through most readily, but I encourage stories be submitted in whichever medium you feel most comfortable expressing your truths through, be it written, visual, audio, or video form.
Built on the intersectional feminist framework, SIHaA recognizes that pregnancy and the termination of it is not exclusively a cis-gendered, heterosexual occurrence. Reproductive justice is EVERYbody’s fight.
-Julia -Founder, So, I Had an Abortion…
Reading Julia’s narrative and the narratives of the countless others whom she’s given a platform and an ear to had given us chills in the best kind of way. In a world filled with shame, it is important to remember that individuals and movements such as this exist.
Today, let’s choose to focus on the good, the fact that we all have voices and the power to own our situations. We must also remember that some of our voices are louder than others’, and there’s no limit to the amount of listening we can and should do on a daily basis. Let’s do it, friends, let’s talk, listen, share, and grow together.