I believe in the power of words to affect emotions, shape perspective and change lives. I’ve always loved words but never fully realized their impact until the early 1980’s when I was teaching sex education and working for Planned Parenthood, an organization whose name consists of two lovely words, but when combined and capitalized often prompt verbal fireworks.
In my sex education classes, I always used medically accurate words including “penis” and “vagina.” But things were happening in our society that abruptly awakened me to the politicizing of words.
Entering a classroom of teenage strangers, I knew my topic would capture their attention within minutes. Irregardless of their backgrounds, economic status or academic achievements, all the students were hungry for factual information about their sexuality, a subject foremost on their adolescent minds and often ignored in family discussions.
I was oblivious to the mounting strength of a vocal faction of people who were touting the virtue of “family values.” Of course, the “family values” they espoused were their own, which despite the written permission I had been given to do so, did not include me giving their kids age appropriate information about their bodies and encouraging additional learning about human sexuality, because informed people make the best decisions.
When some of the “family values” folks stormed a high school principal’s office aghast at the “obscenities” I had used in the classroom — the aforementioned “penis” and vagina,” — I realized I had encountered formidable opponents. Perhaps they would have preferred I revert to euphemisms. For example, I could have called “ovum” “human germ cells,” — they were called that in an 1896 “Complete Medical Guide for Women.” *
According to the “family values” folks, the only choice unmarried people have regarding sexual activity is: Don’t do it and Don’t do it. To support this view, other attractive words have been united to form “abstinence-only education.” Despite millions of federal dollars invested in these programs, no significant changes have occurred in teen sexual activity or its consequences since their inception.* But since everyone thinks sexual “abstinence” is desirable for school aged youth and “education” is a given, “abstinence-only education” sounds good, and funding for it has replaced any comprehensive programs which include prevention methods.
“Prevention.” There’s another wonderful word. We want to prevent crime, prevent accidents, prevent illness, but when prevention of unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases means learning about contraception, red flags are again hoisted.
Perhaps the most inflammatory of all the terms coined around issues of sexuality is “pro-life” which infers that those who take an opposing position are “anti-life.” Words alone have simple meanings. Words coupled with political agendas often become swords.
How innocent is the old schoolyard jingle, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I believe words go beyond their basic definitions to become vehicles that can sway our emotions and change our lives.
*The Glory Woman or Love, Marriage and Maternity, Allen and McGregor
** Mathematica, 2006
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