I am packing my toiletries for a trip to Latin America in a fuchsia hanging zip-up contraption from L.L. Bean that my mother bought for me. It has mesh pockets and elastic loops for each item: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, facial wash, shampoo, conditioner, tampons and pads, medicine including Advil, anti-diarrhea pink pills, Dramamine, a prescription of antibiotics my mother squirreled away. I like making lists even though the same basic items go into this bag for every trip. My mother comes by to check on my progress and hands me a pale blue, 2 inch by 2 inch folded carboard package with the label Plan B. When I first started traveling on my own, Plan B was newly available by prescription only; now it is 2006 and it can be purchased over-the-counter for a sum of $60.
I look up, “oh thanks mom, but I mean, I’m not really planning on having like a ton of sex.” And as she says, “take it with you, just in case” I realize that this is not for any sex that I may plan, it is for regrettable sex or forced sex.
My mother first discussed rape with me around the age of fourteen when she signed me up for a self-defense course. She didn’t go into details but did talk about how strong and overpowering men can be. Understanding the realities of rape felt like more of a rite of passage than when my menstruation started. And perhaps on account of this transparent dialogue or the sense of agency I gained through that self-defense class I have thus far avoided rape. Rape is a word that we still don’t have sufficient lexiconic variety for: I was raped, rape was done to me, she was raped, he raped him, he is raping her, the film had graphic scenes of rape. None of this language connotes the violence and violation of one person using coercion and violence to force another person to partake in a sexual act.
But I digress. I want to discuss something less spoken of but much easier to talk about – regrettable sex. I think most everyone has or will regret a sexual act at one point in their lives. Maybe as you are naked together you realize that their warm breath smells repugnant; or you look up and their dog is staring a little too intently; or it is your ex and you remember that if you are still under him you are not getting over him; or the next day you wake up on wet sheets because they urinated and were too drunk to notice. There is a wide swath of regrettable sex that is not related to feelings of guilt, shame, powerlessness, or coercion – those get to more serious issues.
Regrettable sex is something that should be celebrated because it teaches us what kinds of sex we do really like and what kinds of sex leave us feeling nothing much.
People who want to control other peoples’ bodies often use sexual acts as their playground. Currently those people who proclaim to be “Pro-Life” (another semantic minefield I will ignore) are scheming every possible way to limit the right to have an abortion. Thus far it seems that Plan B cannot be taken off the market but it must be used some 120 hours after having sex. And if you don’t have a mom like me, you may not know it is easily accessible, you may not have an extra $60, you may not realize you need it within the time limit, you may be traveling in a country that doesn’t have it and an infinite set of other circumstances.
Regrettable sex is a privilege. It can only occur in an environment where both people are empowered sexual agents who can consent and then be reflective of that decision. It can only occur when medicine is easily available to make that one mistake not a more dire consequence. In some ways regrettable sex could be considered the pinnacle of sexual agency.