A Romanian-Born, Texas-Raised Woman’s Pledge in Trump’s America: Keep Fighting for Better Sex Ed

by Larisa Manescu

Mean Girls

“We survived Ceausescu. We’ll survive this idiot, too.”

My mother’s words sink in over the phone the morning after Trump is announced as president-elect. I feel bitterness, hope, anger, and resilience all at once. I want to believe that no single person can have that much influence on day-to-day life, on freedom. But the political is always personal. 

As a first-generation Romanian American, I’ve seen the consequences of red politics, communist and conservative, on women’s health and well-being. When Trump is announced as president-elect, thoughts I’ve been having all year intersect in a dark “it’s all connected” realization.

Thoughts about how my grandmother and mother grew up under a Communist dictator who manifested the ultimate double-edged sword on women’s reproductive health: A simultaneous ban on contraception and abortion. His intention was population growth, forcing pregnancy on the nation’s women. You don’t need to be familiar with the history of Romania from 1966 to 1989 to guess the devastating legacy of the government mandates: Self-induced abortions, orphans, and death.

Thoughts about how I currently live in Texas, where the idea of no contraceptives and no abortion is a moral utopia to most GOP politicians.

Thoughts about how virginity was compared to a cookie not to be crumbled, a gift to be re-wrapped, and a sticky note in my abstinence-only sex education growing up in this state. Nobody wants a used sticky note, right?

Thoughts about how I’d felt such power over the course of 2016 as I read the Stanford rape survivor’s letter to Brock Turner, published my own essay about a sexual assault years ago, and watched a tide of people who’d long been silent about their sexual assaults speak out after Trump’s “Grab her by the pussy” comment went public.

Thoughts about how the defense of that one sound bite reflected everything wrong with how we still view women’s bodies in 2016. Thoughts about a story of a man, emboldened post-election, using that phrase as a rallying cry as he sexually assaulted a woman in the streets of DC.

Thoughts about “I don’t believe you” and “You’re lying” instead of “I’m here to listen or “I hear you.”

Truth: Rape culture is real.

Truth: No one is born a rapist.

So, what does the opposite of rape culture look like? I’ve spent all year searching for roots. Dissecting my own experiences, listening to others, turning the words “rape” and “culture” over my tongue bitterly. Spitting them out.

It’s been a year of incredible sadness.

It’s also been a year of incredible strength.

In these seemingly scrambled thoughts that weave together my personal history with the experiences of others, I find clarity. I don’t think I’ve found the “cure” to a societal ill. But I’ve found a seed.

12628550 10153830407815729 8584816690679067859 othe author and her mother in Romania

I think about my 15-year-old sister. I think of what young girls will be told about their bodies and their worth over the next four years from a system that refuses to acknowledge the need for honest, comprehensive sex education.

In the final budget of his administration released earlier this year, President Obama acknowledged the value in comprehensive sex education by cutting federal funding to abstinence-only programs. Trump hasn’t spoken directly on sex education in public high schools, but I know where he’ll fall on it, reflected in an excerpt from the 2016 Republican Platform:

“We renew our call for replacing ‘family planning’ programs for teens with sexual risk avoidance education that sets abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior. That approach — the only one always effective against premarital pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease — empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes.”

The only responsible and respected standard of behavior that empowers teens?

I remember 14-year-old me. Vulnerable, and not in the good way that I view vulnerability at 23. Vulnerable in the “I’m in a developmental stage with limited life experience and the messages you give me about myself will stick with me for years until I painfully unlearn them as I grow up” kind of way.

“You can always rewrap your gift,” the speaker reassures his audience of ninth-graders in a suburb of Houston, Texas.

We’re all giggles and side-eyes, glancing at one another.

I’m years away from having sex myself, even more years away from realizing how problematic his message is. The “gift” he keeps alluding to is our virginity, the precious pearl of women worldwide, often more valued than the woman herself. I glance over at the School Slut, the unspoken label that the student body has collectively placed on a girl who’s physically developed earlier and started having sex before most of us. I’m conflicted. We just became friends, and she’s so nice. I guess she could rewrap her gift?

But why?

Despite the abstinence speaker’s insistence on treasuring our gifts, I don’t understand why my friend is any less deserving of friendship because of who she’s slept with.

Now, that’s a feminist thought trying to bloom its way through the cement that is Texas sex education.

When you preach about the gift of virginity, you’re giving girls the nightmare of shame. Shame about sex, shame about sexual assault. Shame about a natural, beautiful thing they should be allowed to enjoy if they want to, and shame about a crime beyond their control or responsibility.

When your strategy of teaching about sexually transmitted infections is passing around photos of visibly “diseased” genitalia, you’re not scaring teens away from sex – you’re spreading misinformation and stigma. The truth about STIs is that most travel with invisible symptoms and that while testing positive for one isn’t something to celebrate, your life isn’t over if you do. You’re not a dirty, awful person, you won’t die, and yes, you can even continue to have a healthy sex life.

When your platform is built on a foundation of demonizing sex, the word “consent” will never be uttered.

Advocating for comprehensive sex education in Texas that includes discussions about gender, sexuality, and sexual assault seems radical when my sister – who attends the same high school that I did — tells me that by the tenth grade, the only “sex ed” she’s received is a mention of how long menstruation lasts.

In the mainstream media, we’re finally having the long overdue conversation about campus sexual assault. There’s good work being done by anti-violence organizations to address consent and healthy relationships at the college level. The legislative wheels of justice are in motion with the passing of the historic Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights.

But it’s too little, too late.

Why are we keeping teenagers in the dark?

Why are we setting them up to hurt?

I don’t want it to take a sexual assault in college for my sister to learn the meaning of “rape culture” like I did.

We’ll have to be brave. We’ll have to be creative. We’ll have to think outside of the system. We’ll have to trust teens and let them tell their stories. Slut: The Play – put on by The Arts Effect NYC and inspired by the lives of its teenage cast — is a testament to the power of finding the loophole in a society that refuses to shine light on important issues. Those in power won’t do it, and so the people must.

What do you pledge in Trump’s America?

I pledge to inspire the fight for better sex ed to protect the well-being of teenage girls nationwide, but especially in red states, one of many vulnerable demographics under Trump’s administration and with a Republican Congress.

The political is always personal.

But instead of feeling powerless, I feel purpose.

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