This is my personal story. I wasn’t going to share this here, because when you’ve had as colorful a life as I have, you have to choose what elements will define you. I chose the environment not just because I am a nature lover, but because I believe that strengthening the environmental movement is the best way to pack a ton of dynamite into the core of the neo-conservatism that also seeks to undermine human rights (here’s a great article on this). I’ve been watching Rick Santorum very closely for awhile now because of his radical stance on contraception, but some conservatives this past week took the war on women to a whole new level. Rush Limbaugh likened taking birth control covered by insurance to prostitution, and both Rick Santorum and Wisconsin senator Glenn Grothmanstepped up attacks on single mothers. As someone who was denied contraception and had to live as a single mother, I am appalled that restricting women’s access to health programs is even up for debate.
Married in 1996, I gave birth in 1997, 1998, and 1999. I had been born into a fundamentalist “Traditional Catholic” sect, trained from the cradle to accept that subservience to a husband would be the ultimate measure of my worth as a woman.
Fundamentalist Catholic teaching is obsessed with sex, and while there are volumes of things you can’t do, what you can do is easily explained in one sentence: sexual release is only permissible within the sanctity of marriage and without deliberate interference with the possibility of conception. Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh’s pontificating on conservative values and the sexual license afforded by contraception are all too familiar.
Testosterone-driven, sexually-repressed men get really pushy with women who sincerely believe their only value is in submitting to husbands. Hence, marriages between sexual fundamentalists aren’t always based on love. In the every-sperm-is-sacred culture, even married men have no outlets for their sexual desires other than unprotected vaginal sex that can lead to pregnancy. As the priest told us at the couples’ education classes required before weddings, ejaculate “has to go in the right place every time”. Additionally, as of the day of the marriage, sex becomes a man’s right—called “the marital right”—which a woman must never deny. Anyone who lives in a sane and normal world today understands the horrifying implications of that teaching.
Far too young and woefully unprepared for life, I fell prey to the advances of a man who believed I was the right one to subjugate ‘til death do us part. I became pregnant immediately. After the first two children were born, I began feeling the desperate hopelessness that comes with having no control over one’s life. Not only was I exhausted from caring for a one-year old and a newborn, my husband was making a mere $7 per hour as an unskilled laborer in the rural Midwest. I wasn’t allowed to work, and there was little hope that his earning ability would improve. I was awakening to the fact that having another child would be a very, very bad idea, despite the oft-repeated mantra in our fundamentalist Catholic circles that “if you can afford to feed yourself, you can still afford another child.”
When I saw the positive pregnancy test, I sobbed until I vomited, then ran to angrily shove the white plastic stick in my husband’s face. I had no choice but to bring a third child into my sleep-deprived, poverty-stricken, hopeless life. I swore that this would never happen to me again.
I spent the next nine months frantically trying to figure out if there was some kind of deal I could strike with God. Perhaps if He would deign to take a away my fertility, I would give up meat for the rest of my life. Or give up chocolate. Or say an additional rosary every day. What could I give that would be good enough for God to make this insanity stop? My quality of life was already non-existent, and there really wasn’t much more sacrifice I could make.
I tried to be an active part of a community of no-contraception married women like myself, but listening to their stories felt surreal to me. I was like someone on the outside looking in at an unspeakable horror, choking back tears at a vision of my own future. Some mothers had produced a child per year for the past 7 or 8 years; many with 13, 17, or more children didn’t have time for the community, but we heard about them.
One woman described caring for sick children for nearly a month while being sick herself, then finding that she was pregnant. She joked that she didn’t know how it had happened; she had been so busy that the only contact she’d had with her husband that month was passing him in the hallway. The women shared stories of trying to prevent another pregnancy by breastfeeding; but this method only worked, I learned, if you nursed the baby almost constantly, which having several other small children made impossible. Unable to cope, many of them had turned to psychiatric medications. To preserve my own sanity as long as possible, I had to withdraw from the company of other fundamentalist Catholic women and spent most of my time alone with my children.
There was little to make me sexually attractive to my husband—that is, if his only sexual outlet hadn’t been between my legs. I was exhausted, desperately unhappy, and had been pregnant and nursing for the better part of three years. My skin was a mess, and my weight had been steadily climbing. Given the strain both my body and mind were under, there was nothing I could do about any of it. Can you imagine the quality of that romp between the sheets?
I decided that after my third baby was born, I was going to try the rhythm method. This was also not allowed, because it meant knowing when conception was unlikely and having sex anyway. It would also mean denying my husband his “marital right” on fertile days; but, I rationalized, this would not be to “frustrate the purpose of marriage” permanently. It would be just to give myself a break. If I knew my fertility well enough, I could make sure he had sexual release on infertile days so that he’d leave me alone on the fertile ones.
This rationalization opened Pandora’s box. It was the beginning of the end of my slavery, as a lifetime of strict fundamentalist Catholic indoctrination began to erode.
I made a sincere effort to learn natural family planning, but I found it a terrible burden. I was painfully aware of just how easily the exhaustion of raising three children under the age of three could lead to a mistake and a fourth pregnancy. I wasn’t willing to take that risk. I don’t remember ever having sex within that marriage again once my third child was born.
I had learned to despise my husband and his “needs”. I couldn’t sympathize, as the only I “needs” I had were for sleep, and ideally some relief from the crushing poverty we lived in. In church, I found myself secretively scanning the pews, studying the kneeling couples and trying to make sense of it all. “He has sexual rights over her….and he has sexual rights over her…and he has sexual rights over her,” I whispered to myself, struggling to figure out what was wrong with this statement.
My husband was controlling and abusive, but what he was willing to do for sex with me stopped short of true spousal rape. Instead, he turned to alcohol and hours of drunken phone conversations with women he met in internet chat rooms. I knew it had gone beyond chat rooms–and that he hadn’t really taken a second job in a neighboring town–when I found condoms in his wallet.
And one day, when my third baby was only eight months old, I snapped. This fundamentalist Catholic organization tried to hold women hostage by making it too risky to leave, but all their scheming was no match for my desperation. I could not see the whole picture yet, and desperation was all I had. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t bring my children to adulthood in abject poverty, or that I wasn’t going to hell for leaving my husband and ruining my children’s futures with the dreaded “broken home”; but I was convinced that a broken home was better than a fundamentalist Catholic one.
My husband repented the evil of his ways as soon as he realized I wasn’t coming back. He apologized profusely, always with the qualifier, “…but it was only because you denied me my marital rights!” I wasn’t that enlightened yet, but I wasn’t buying it.
I learned, slowly, that I had been living on the fringes of society all my life. Determined to save my children and give them the quality of life they deserved, I achieved balance and success in the real world. I saved myself, and I saved my children. I would not have been able to do this without access to the social programs Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, Glenn Grothman and those like them are so keen to do away with.
News stories about the rantings of political figures like Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh have brought up issues of choice and contraception in the light of women’s rights, but women aren’t the only victims here. When a woman can’t use contraception, the family unit our society builds around her suffers too. How would you like to be one of fifteen children born only because your mother had no choice? How would you like to be a man who has to choose between having no sexual outlet at all and forcing himself on an exhausted, physically destroyed woman? I’d say I’m uniquely qualified to point out that the “aspirin between the knees” thing fails, even as a sick, misogynistic joke. Of course, there are always prostitutes and random internet hook-ups the husband can to turn to–if he can get away with it. For some reason, in no-contraception world, getting a hooker is a more logical choice than just proposing to use contraception with your own wife.
So much for family values.
The no-contraception culture will never work as the ideal society of perfect family units that Rick Santorum pretends it is. Its assumptions about human nature are fundamentally wrong: that if raised correctly, girls will never know that they are more than receptacles for a husband’s seed, and that men will always happily continue exercising their marital right to dominate their wives. Conservatives continue to fall for it, because once you’ve established a certain baseline, the ideology appears to work well enough in theory. Young couples, unable to express their love in sexual ways until marriage, are forced into the sacrament to avoid mortal sin. Every one of them believes that their situation will be different, but disillusionment soon follows. Most of them will just go on maintaining appearances and preaching, like Rick Santorum, that the fundamentalist family model works if you’re committed to it.
I broke free of oppressive fundamentalist Catholic teachings because my body was being exploited, and I could foresee my daughter being exploited in the same way if I didn’t do something. More than a decade later, my former husband, remains a victim of the conservative carrot-on-a-stick scam of true male superiority. He easily convinced himself that his ideal family failed not because the belief system is fundamentally flawed, but because he had the misfortune to choose a woman who wasn’t submissive enough. There was still hope that if he could try again, he’d still have a chance at the god-like dominion he’d been promised. He shopped around until he found a sect that would give him an annulment of our marriage on grounds that I didn’t really mean it when I said, “I do”. He resumed producing a child per year with someone he hoped would be much more docile than me, never losing sight of his dream of ruling over a Catholic household Utopia.