16 years ago, on this day, I was a virgin and 16 years ago on this same day, I was raped.
I'm the daughter of two very conservative and religious Chinese immigrants. My grandpa is a well-known pastor and I grew up with a religious father who spoke at church almost every week.
In high school, I was known as the "girl who played the violin." In "real life", I was a girl who was trying desperately hard to fit in. I'd fake inhale cigarettes and would pretend I knew what all my friends were talking about when discussing all the bases. I wore JNCO jeans - otherwise known as "skater" jeans - without ever having learned how to skate.
My parents were in the middle of a divorce, so I never wanted to be home. My mother would stay at the house I grew up at every other week to take care of my brother and I, so I knew that this particular week, the house she moved into was going to be empty. It was finally my break; it was my time to have a high-school party. When my mother wasn't looking, I went ahead and stole the keys to her house and said I was going out for the night. Little to her knowledge, I was planning on throwing a party at her house. I told a bunch of my friends earlier that day. A lot of the cool kids were going to come, even some of the most popular high-school senior football players.
I lost my virginity under the roof of my mother's house to one of those senior football players. He kept pulling me into different rooms of the house and each time this occurred, I'd find an excuse to get away from him.
It's funny what you remember during these times, like the little cracks in the off-white ceiling. It was so difficult to go back there for years without vivid memories flooding back. These ceilings symbolized my disgust, shame, guilt, and my failure as a daughter and as a female young adult. My mother didn't know what happened. I was scared. Would people believe me? Did I give the wrong signs? Would my Christian family disown me?
No one believed me at school. They would say things like, "Why wouldn't Melissa want to lose her virginity to the most popular guy on the football team?". I snuck out of school by myself to go to the closest Planned Parenthood I could find, which was in Hempstead, which was known to be an unsafe neighborhood at the time. I wore a skirt because I wasn't very comfortable with my body and I didn't want to take off my clothes.
I still remember what the lady at Planned Parenthood said to me, "Well it doesn't surprise me that this happened to you when you're walking around wearing skirts like this."
I hitched a ride back from a complete stranger, who I approached as she was throwing chicken wing bones out of her window. I've never felt so lonely and ashamed in my life.
I remember the next morning like it was yesterday. I couldn't get out of my bed. I didn't want to look into the eyes of anyone I knew, especially my mom. I had no motivation, no hope, and lost my sense of self. I remember thinking to myself, this feeling is going to last forever. I'm not worthy. No one is going to love me now. My mom found out about the party from her neighbors and grounded me. I had no one.
A couple of months later, I was no longer the #1 subject of town gossip, things started to feel normal again. I hung out with friends and I even started to laugh again. My experience no longer owned my mind and better yet, it no longer defined me. What I didn't know at the time was that I gained something very valuable from this experience: a strong sense of empathy and a strengthened ability to connect with others in rapid speed.
Two years later, I went to college, and ironically was the target of sexist, racist, verbal harassment. This time was different. I fought back.
I've learned a lot in the past 16 years and this is what I would have told my16-year old self.
Dear 16-year old Melissa,
- What happened was not your fault. Something happened to you that you didn't want to happen—and that's not okay. But it was not your fault.
- The loneliness you feel is going to show you what fulfillment feels like later in life. Some people won't believe you – they don't matter. Those people that you tell who don't believe you, didn't deserve to be in your life in the first place. When you get caught for having that party, you will go quickly from a social butterfly to feeling very lonely. Only two friends will still reach out to you during that time. These two friends will still be your friends in your adult life. You will learn that this was a blessing. It's a natural life sift that helps you determine who should be and who shouldn't be in your life. 16-year old Melissa, you will be OK. You will know very early what real friends are made of and end up with an overabundance of love by family, friends, and colleagues.
- Forgiveness is a gift. To yourself. You will be given a supernatural power of radical forgiveness. Ironically, forgiving is not "succumbing" at all. It's about "overcoming". Overcoming is a choice. To forgive means to be free. You will learn that you have the power to unleash that freedom. And you will have this freedom for the rest of your life.
- Trust is the foundation of any relationship. It is up to you to not give your power away to the perpetrators. Do not allow this experience to prevent you from being in the loving, trusting, healthy relationship you always deserved. But just so you know, you will learn to trust men again. This man will understand your past because you've told him about it. You'll trust him. Because without trust, there is no relationship. He will support you and stand behind your desire to help women for the rest of your career. You will end up marrying this man.
- There is strength in your voice – Brought up in an Asian family, you were taught that girls should be quiet, succumb and respect elders, to not answer unless spoken to, and to serve and provide for others. You're not going to tell your mom what happened for another 4 years and she's not going to respond in the way you desire. She will be in denial. She's not going to know what to do with the information or how to process it. You won't understand why. Then years later you will find out that she and her 3 little sisters were molested by the same elder at church. When they told grandma, grandma also didn't listen and hid these family secrets under a carpet. You will be the one that finds out that your grandma was molested by the same elder that her daughters were. From all these experiences, you will learn that denial is a strong thing. And that even if they don't show it, people are impacted and react to situations in different ways. You were learn the power of empathy. It took 3 generations for a woman in your family to finally speak out. Now, they continue to speak out. But you will be the first woman to speak. By owning your voice, you will help them find theirs.
- It is possible to transform the pain of the past into power and strength. You will end up volunteering to become a rape counselor to help others that went through your similar situation in college for 3 years. You will grow an empathy and wisdom beyond your years. And though you didn't end up reporting this incident, you will draw on the strength and experience you learned from this incident to report future sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace. These incidents will give you the fuel behind why you will sit as a chair for various women leadership networks and committees and create programs to help women feel embraced, safe, and empowered.
- You will help survivors transform pain. Into empathy, into understanding, into forgiving, and into as bold as one can say - love. Everyone has experienced pain regardless of different circumstances… but by understanding and embracing it, you will become someone who has the ability to connect with ANYBODY and in lightning speed. You are going to dedicate your life to this: connecting and empowering.
Since February 15th, 2000, you will have counseled numerous rape and sexual assault victims in addition to anyone who has been hurt, scared, confused, and empowered them to figure out how to release the burden of regret, and hatred and watch them transform... into an Army of Pain Transformers. Overcomers. Believers.
16-year old Melissa. You will be thankful for this gift. Enjoy the ride.
Melissa (i.e. your future, happy, bad-ass, fearless self)
If you or anyone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673). You'll be connected to a trained staff member from a local sexual assault service provider in your area. They will direct you to the appropriate local health facility that can care for survivors of sexual assault. Some service providers may be able to send a trained advocate to accompany you.
"This piece originally appeared on DJ Kitty Cash' The I AM WOMAN Project"
Okay, so the headline says it all.
There's been a movement building steam over the last ten years or so, that actively promotes the idea that women don't have to have periods, that they are unnecessary, burdensome – and if you're not going to have a baby, why not just "turn off your period?"
Well, for one, it's called "menopause," and two, Mother Nature built it into the magnificence of women's bodies. And thirdly, they do stop, naturally, when the time is right.
Are you kidding me? If you could see me, you'd see that I look like one of Daenerys Targaryen's "children." This topic enrages me, and I hope by the end of this article, you'll be angry, too. We need to use our anger as a force for change around women's reproductive rights.
Let's tackle this idea from the standpoint of women's reproductive health and our right to live in a world that actually makes space for, and honors, our biology and the rights inherent in being women.
With all due respect to those who espouse this concept, I strongly disagree with the idea. Medical science (and primarily the pharmaceutical industry) makes women's bodies an experimental playground for new drugs, and it's always around our hormones, which are a rich and complex landscape within our bodies. I also want to clarify that when I say medical science, I am not maligning doctors in particular. They are part of a system of miseducation that is at the root of why women's reproductive health is at risk. But there are many western doctors turning to integrative medicine and working to help women heal from this system.
From the time we are young girls, before our first period, we are taught to fear it, to be ashamed of our blood, and to see it as a nuisance. When we are lead down that path, it becomes what we accept as truth. We are not taught another perspective, one which teaches young women that our menstrual cycle is connected to our psyches and that it's one of the best tools for self-understanding and awareness we will ever know. This is one aspect of my own teachings that I am very passionate about, and those teachings have changed many women's lives in my 20 years of doing this important work.
Instead, we are taught to bond over the pain, the discomfort, the mess, the moodiness.
But what if we had been taught to see our periods as a monthly opportunity to commune with ourselves and to turn within, to see it as a monthly opportunity to evaluate our lives and to clean up the messes that aren't aligned with who we are, and who we want to be?
Many, many years ago I read a book called, "The Woman in the Body," which was eye-opening about how our society and its systems have built into its structures, via language and industry, the exclusion of women's biological processes as a positive attribute in our lives. We go to extreme lengths to uphold Patriarchal ideas that don't make room for women's biological processes, instead of creating a new system that is inclusive of our biology. It's only been fairly recent that women are being accommodated to breastfeed at work. I believe that we need to make similar accommodations for women's needs during our menstrual cycles, and it's not from a place of being handicapped because of our biology. It's our right. What's been done to women to make us feel bad about our natural processes is as institutionalized as racism, and because of that, we cannot see it, but it affects our lives daily.
Turning off your period is a dangerous idea. When the medical community tells women it's safe to do so; I urge you not to listen. It's designed to sell pharmaceuticals and make money. Women's bodies are the cash cows of that industry. I implore you to dig deep and do your own research. Question everything you hear.
Let's talk a little bit about why it's dangerous. Using hormonal birth control (BC) in one form or another is the medium for stopping your period. These hormones have been labeled safe, but use your judgment if you've been on BC or know women who have had massive issues while taking it. Have you ever read the package insert literature about all of the potential side effects? If you haven't, you should educate yourself by doing so. This is one of my foundational tenets, that information is power, and most women are not educated enough about their bodies – so we turn that power over to "experts."
In my overall life, health and sexuality coaching with women, I've worked with many over the years who have been on various kinds of BC; patches, DepoProvera (one of the worst), IUD's with additional hormones, and across the board have heard all of them say how badly they feel using these methods. Once they have transitioned off of them, they have said how much better they've felt.
Menstrual cycles are a 100% natural part of our reproductive biology. And instead of endorsing an idea that we should stop our periods, we should focus instead on changing society's treatment of women and fostering acceptance of our cycles. Our cycles and our psyches are interconnected. We should be taught to respect this part of our lives as women and how to use it as a life-enhancing tool.
Women have periods for a reason. Via societal messages and the medical community's promotion of our periods as a problem, we make the period the villain instead of the systems built around women that make our lives stressful, which has an impact on how we experience our periods and whether they are painful or empowering.
What do you think would happen if the pharmaceutical industry came out with a new medication that stopped men from making sperm? That would end unwanted pregnancies and the abortion controversy in large part. How well do you think that would go over?
So why is it okay to mess with women's biology and our hormone balance?
After a year or more of using hormonal BC consistently, here's what stopping your period amounts to: chemically induced menopause. Menopause is a year without periods because ovulation stops. Suppressing ovulation is the mechanism behind stopping pregnancy but also your period. No ovulation, no period. Unless you have other medical conditions, this is generally a true statement. When a woman goes through menopause, it's a natural condition. The body goes through a process that is as natural as your period is. But when you use BC to suppress ovulation and to suppress your period, you are doing something else that is not healthy for your body. You are suppressing your body's natural production of progesterone, which is made primarily in ovulation. A small amount is made by the adrenal glands, but the largest production is via ovulation. When you suppress ovulation, you create health risks by suppressing progesterone production. Progesterone is known to be beneficial for breast health, cardiovascular health, nervous system health, brain function, mood, and many other things.
Do not confuse progestins, which are synthetic and not molecularly identical, with natural progesterone. Many women I've worked with will say, "But my BC has progesterone in it," and I have to explain that they are not the same, nor do they affect the body the same. Whereas progesterone is beneficial, progestins are not. They were created by the pharmaceutical industry to mimic progesterone, but they do not react in the body the same way.
Instead of wishing your period away, I suggest you step into another world, one where your cycle is a source of female power and wisdom, and where your premenstrual phase is not mainstream PMS, but what I call Powerful Monthly Sight. It's a window into what's not serving you in your life, and when you take the time to slow down, turn inward, and connect with you, that inner wisdom offers you life solutions. When you align with your cycle this way, it becomes a source of power.
I'm a self-taught passionate advocate for women's health, reproductive rights, and sexuality. I see our menstrual cycle as something to celebrate, rather than do away with. What I would love to do is to go into every business that would invite me in to evaluate and offer suggestions on how to change the work climate to accommodate the needs of women in ways that honor our biology.
I hope this article made you angry enough to dig deeper. Please educate yourself and listen to your own inner wisdom, which includes your body wisdom. It's time for women to rise up and say enough already and to reclaim the beauty, wisdom, and power that is built into our biology.