My mother reads Dear Abby religiously. She’s done it for as long as I can remember, always picking out the “Lifestyle” section of our local daily paper and turning to page B2. Some days growing up, my sister or father would abscond with the section before she got to it to do the crossword or read the comics, but she would keep her eye on it, calling dibs on the section next. As a kid, it didn’t occur to me to question her loyalty to the column, and in fact I blindly followed suit–reading Dear Abby, it seemed, was something one did if one was to be a Woman. I was never all that impressed by the advice “Abby” (
Jeanne Pauline Phillips was her real name, if I remember correctly) doled out, and eventually I got bored of her predictable responses and stopped reading. The act of stopping wasn’t all that memorable or all that conscious; it just sort of slipped away, superseded by more important things.
It wasn’t until I was in college, home from a break one year, that I thought to ask my mother why she liked Dear Abby so much. I was sitting at the breakfast table with her some late morning (summer? weekend?), watched her reach for Lifestyle and turn to B2, and was momentarily struck with mild curiosity. “Mom,” I said, “why do you read Dear Abby every day?” She looked up at me, stricken, and sighed. ”Well,” she said, “I guess there’s no reason not to tell you.”
When she was 11, she told me, she’d been assaulted by a friend of her parents. At that age in 1964, she didn’t have the language to identify what specifically had happened, she just knew she’d been violated. And she was scared. She knew, vaguely, that babies were made by men “doing things” to women, unspeakable things, and she knew that something unspeakable had been done to her, because the man had told her so, admonishing her that it was their “secret.” She felt isolated, ashamed, and was afraid that it meant she would have a baby. So, unable to talk to her parents and lacking knowledge or awareness of any other resources at her disposal, she wrote to Dear Abby. Asking if she was pregnant. And every day, 11 years old, she read Dear Abby, hoping for a response.
And she got one. Dear Abby printed her letter, and wrote a warm and kind response explaining exactly what would’ve had to have happened for her to be pregnant, affirming that no matter what he’d done, it was wrong and not her fault, and telling her about some books that she could check out at the library for girls about their bodies and their sexuality. In printing her letter, Abby made a connection with my mom that she didn’t have in anyone else, validated her when otherwise in her life there was silence, unflinchingly and lovingly spoke to the fears and ignorance of a little girl coming of age in an environment so sexually repressive that she couldn’t even ask what exactly it was that made babies. In printing her letter, Abby unwittingly secured for herself a lifelong follower. It is an emotional connection, my mother told me, that hasn’t wavered, even though (she admitted) the printed responses these days seem more canned.
I cried when she told me this. I cried for the lonely and scared little girl in 1964; I cried because suddenly my mother wasn’t just my mother but a complete person whose life began way before I was even imagined; and I cried because I’d silenced myself, too, at 15, perhaps not so ignorant as my mother at 11 but every bit as lost and alone, when I’d been raped. I cried because I hadn’t told my mom, just like she hadn’t told hers, generation after generation recommitting itself to isolation. Wait, no, strike that — we don’t commit ourselves to isolation — isolation is imposed on us by a dominant society that reprimands and shames sexuality expressed, that awkwardly and embarrassedly approaches very limited and basic lessons about sex and sexuality, that embraces tired discourses of women as sexual “gatekeepers,” men as sexual animals, and rigid heterosexuality within the confines of marriage as the only acceptable sexual option, that does not invite questions, conversation, or any sort of genuine human connection around the topics of sex and sexuality.
My mother’s and my own fear and isolation after experiencing sexual violence is only one effect of the smothering silence. My fear in high school of being gay and praying to a god I didn’t even believe in to send me a boyfriend was another effect. My complete ignorance of any kind of sex and sexuality other than heterosexual penis-in-vagina-in-and-out-cum-done sex, including ways that non-heterosexuals have sex and specifically have *safe(r)* sex, is another. My going to the public library after I was raped to search for ways to force a miscarriage in case I was pregnant, rather than asking my mom for help or my health teacher or anyone for crying out loud, is yet another. And these are just the ways that a dearth of information and conversation about healthy sex and sexuality affected me. My heart hurts for all the other kids and teens out there now who are suffering through the silence in their own unique ways.
Scarleteen is a website that is breaking through all of that, providing a robust, inviting, kind, and healthy space for teenagers to get answers, make connections, and feel supported in all aspects of their awakening sexualities. They need support to stay on the web, and kids need them. I needed them. My mom needed them. If you can, give a little bit. If you can’t, tell people in your life, especially teenagers, that the website exists. You know, just slip it casually into conversation… teenagers don’t respond well to directions ;)