The PP & Me: Why We All Need Planned Parenthood

I was 16 the first time I visited Planned Parenthood. I’d had sex, you see. Actual sex! Three whole times! My gay best friend Hayden and I had decided, despite his homosexuality, that we were so “emotionally close” that it was only natural for us to lose our “straight virginities” to each other. It happened at boarding school, though, so my Mom had no idea. Also, I didn’t want to tell her. But I knew that my newfound sexuality required a speculum and various tests and evaluations, pronto, and so I covertly made my first Planned Parenthood appointment while home for the summer, and I went.

Since that first visit to the Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I’ve been to Planned Parenthoods in Traverse City MI, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Downtown Manhattan and Oakland, California. My most recent visit to Planned Parenthood was about a month ago. I’ve been visiting Planned Parenthood for 13 years, which makes it my longest relationship with any health care provider. Or really, with anything.

Planned Parenthood serves more than three million women, men and teens nationwide every year and right now its ongoing existence is again in jeopardy. From XXFactor’s Going After Planned Parenthood, published yesterday:

There are 154 co-sponsors in the House for a bill denying government funding to any organization that provides abortion services. Congress already prohibits any government money being directed toward abortions except in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, and has since 1976. The $300 million-plus in government funding and contracts Planned Parenthood currently receives goes toward providing family planning and medical assistance to 1.85 million low-income women. As Gail Collins points out in “The Siege of Planned Parenthood,” there’s no comparable organization in this country offering those services. If Planned Parenthood closes its doors (the clear hope of Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and the 154 colleagues who’ve jumped on his bandwagon), then those women will go without—when for every dollar in public funding spend on family planning services, Medicaid saves $4.02 the next year.

Right-wing pro-life action groups have been attempting to discredit PP’s benefits for years, and they’ve lately been resorting to one of their favorite tactics — sending fake pimps and prostitutes to clinics with cameras in some kind of To Catch An Abortion Provider style propaganda campaign.

But Planned Parenthood isn’t just about providing abortions (which account for only 3% of the services PP provides) or services to at-risk populations, although that’s what it’s most revered for. It’s also a rare beacon of support and care for average everyday teenagers who, for a number of culturally reinforced reasons, are scared to talk to their family doctor or parents about birth control but are responsible/educated enough to know they need it. I’m extremely lucky — I was reared on Our Bodies Ourselves in a liberal college town with great sex ed. Although abortion was a forbidden topic (pro or against), we were thoroughly schooled about contraception. Most of my Ann Arbor friends were sexually active by the time we hit university, but nobody I knew ever got pregnant. (Although according to Facebook, those girls are poppin’ ‘em out these days!) We were all on the pill. Planned Parenthood saved us from ever needing to consider abortion in the first place. In fact, our county (Washtenaw) maintains the third-lowest teen pregnancy rate in the state.

Furthermore, as an adult I’ve noted that amongst queers and sex workers, Planned Parenthood can be the only place where these women feel comfortable speaking openly about their sex lives without fearing rejection or political attacks. (See also: Why Are Lesbians So Afraid of the Gynecologist?) It’s a vulnerable place to be — half-naked, legs splayed, cold metal wrenching your vadge open while someone pokes wooden sticks up there. In a country where 50.7 million people are uninsured, Planned Parenthood isn’t something extra we could do away with. It’s something we can’t live without.

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Where I grew up in Michigan, the closest Planned Parenthood was just off a major parkway that connected Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti, right by the Denny’s and Big Boys we’d haunt late at night in search of french fries, key lime pie and smoking sections. Planned Parenthood was set back off the road and shrouded by trees, obscuring any lifers standing outside with fetus posters. Services were free for people under 18 and then proceeded on a sliding scale. Boys slangily called it “The PP,” so when a boy said his girl was going to “The PP,” other boys got jealous that he was apparently heading for the dreamy destination of no-condom-ville, enabled by magical pills and a litany of STD tests.

I felt sort of grown-up after that first visit, when I left Planned Parenthood with a paper bag containing six months of Ortho-Tri-Cyclen, but I didn’t actually take the pills at first. It felt silly because due to, you know, my partner’s homosexuality, we weren’t exactly fucking like bunnies. I’d only see Hayden for ten days that summer, anyhow, and we’d maybe do it 2-3 times and I’d be wracked with insecurity 24/7. So did I really NEED to take Ortho-Tri-Cyclen? No, not really.

But two weeks into my senior year at boarding school, I had unPlanned sex with Brett Wyatt. I remember, acutely, sitting on the cold concrete steps of his dormitory as he dashed in for the condoms his roommate’s girlfriend had smuggled from the Traverse City Planned Parenthood. My limbs felt hot and dizzy, like I might faint or melt, and I halfway wanted to disappear but I couldn’t ’cause Brett was sexy and had dated all the prettiest girls last year. He was a drama major — compact, strong, fit, with serious dark eyes shot through with erotic violence. I remembered seeing him push a girlfriend against a soda machine and start kissing her last year and I’d wished Hayden would push me against a soda machine.

He emerged, we went into the woods, we found an empty cabin. I felt like a real person, desired for all the right reasons, no longer the scrawny girl with no chin and mosquito-bite-breasts that nobody wanted to kiss. It lasted about three minutes and afterward he jokingly asked me, “So, where are you from?” I already knew where he was from ’cause when they’d called out “Georgia” at our opening assembly, he’d stood up and hooted/hollered in a Southern twang. He was like that. He always stood up and yelled and made everyone laugh.

Now he was on top of me. It all happened so fast.

My best friend Kyra was convinced I was out of control and would shortly acquire AIDS or a baby. We’d seen the movies where Trojans split open like banana peels, uncovering sheaths of sperm and disease. I told her about the birth control I had in a paper bag.

“Okay then, you are going to start taking that right now. Okay?” she said. “RIGHT NOW.”

So I did. Taking the first pill felt like a commitment to something, but I didn’t know what yet.

I was 16. I was a “late bloomer,” so I’d only had my period for about a year and a half before submitting my cycle to modern medicine.

Brett and I dated all year. We never talked about sex, we just did it. Meanwhile the Ortho-Tri-Cyclen pushed me, at last, into something resembling puberty — I gained weight and a whole entire cup size! I loved it. Every night at 10pm I took my pill and it felt like I was wrapping a permanent condom around my dreams.

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Life moved gamely forward and from the age of 18 on, I stayed on the pill and had sporadic health insurance coverage but always found something innately reassuring about Planned Parenthood’s existence, wherever I was living at the time.

In retrospect, the Ann Arbor Planned Parenthood is a rare bastion of efficiency. Still, even there I’d wait for hours sometimes, sulking with jealousy towards the girls who’d somehow convinced their boyfriends to accompany them. These bored, lofty teenage boys flipped through old magazines and complained about Jerry Springer while I had thoughts like “I wish [x] cared about my sexual health as much as I care about my sexual health.” But always being alone did make it feel like my sexuality was about ME first, and about whatever partner I had second.

In 2002 I successfully cajoled my live-in boyfriend Zach into joining me at the clinic. By the time I finally got seen and got my pills and was ready to go, Zach had turned three chairs into a bed and was sleeping on my winter jacket. It meant a lot to me, though. Him coming. Like we were in this together.

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the downtown manhattan planned parenthood

In 2004, I moved to New York. I quit the pill ’cause the brand they’d switched me to made me bleed constantly, in contrast to the discontinued brand I’d started using to procure no more than 3 periods a year. Going off the pill felt like coming up from underwater and also signified, for me, the end of the era in which I constantly put myself at risk for pregnancy by using male sexual desire to validate my existence which required taking sole responsibility for their irresponsibility. Then, within a year or two I’d stopped dating men altogether.

But I continued patronizing Planned Parenthood, mostly because it was free or almost-free — I still have never had my very own gynecologist, that seems fancy and unnecessary. The Manhattan Planned Parenthood was a mini-nightmare. The waits were seemingly endless, the waiting room overstuffed, the doctors frazzled and overworked. The Brooklyn Planned Parenthood’s waiting room was also a total shitshow, though the staff was as friendly as always. I’d recommend The Bronx Planned Parenthood, where I went for my annual because it was easier than going through Medicaid. I only waited an hour and the nurse laughed at all my jokes.

But even in those crowded Planned Parenthoods I felt comfortable. Like they were on my side, and whatever I said wouldn’t be judged, because PP is Liberal, right? With a capital L. I guess it’s how people feel when they go into Subway or Starbucks in a new town — “I know this, I know what to do here.” The comfort of knowing that this has always been here, exactly the same every time in every place, and will never go away. Unless, I guess, it does.

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Last month in Oakland I put “homosexuality” as my preferred method of birth control and the nurse practitioner told me I needed to be in the market for birth control to be seen there, so she was just gonna write “condom.” It seemed odd but I didn’t panic. It was Planned Parenthood. Maybe she was new or hadn’t seen a homo before.

Sure enough, when the doctor came in 20 minutes to a year later, the first thing she told me was that the nurse was wrong about that birth control thing. The doctor was tall and broad-shouldered, with glasses and short alternatively lifestyled hair and I knew she was gay before she even told me so, or showed me photos of her daughter and made sure I knew they welcomed queers there.

It was free. I donated $20, like I’ve always done. I left. I thought about how my life has been so all over the place that I rarely have a chance to return to old spaces as a new person and reflect self-indulgently on how much I’ve changed, but I felt really grown-up this time.

I wasn’t the insecure 16-year-old clutching my paper bag and thinking how I’d never actually need it.

I wasn’t the 21-year-old too embarrassed to tell my asshole boyfriend that I thought I might have a yeast infection let alone tell him I was going to PP to check it out let alone ask him to come with me.

I wasn’t the 24-year-old accompanying a girl I was sleeping with to the Manhattan Planned Parenthood to get her annual and her pills because her boyfriend was an asshole, too, feeling a desperate shot of validation when she wrote “1” next to ‘female sexual partners’ on her intake form.

Now I was 29 and had a partner who texted to ask me how it went the minute I left the building. I hadn’t been irrationally scared that the doctor would out me to myself when she saw my bisexual stats.

I hadn’t even been performing my traditional role of the girl who habitually disregards her health due to a lack of health insurance! This thing, this sexual health thing — this is a thing I can do. This is one thing I can take care of.  Even in America.

The act of walking into a room and essentially asking somebody to look at your vagina is an inherently nervewracking experience, especially for queers AND especially for sex workers (who are being targeted by the Live Action group as somehow unworthy of any medical care). Even though it’s not personal, the idea that someone could walk in and say, “No, it is not necessary/legal/acceptable for me to look at your vagina, please close your legs and get out of here” is petrifying.

When discussing the necessity of Planned Parenthood’s existence, we rightly focus on the work its doing to bring sex education, contraceptive options and abortions to women who wouldn’t know how to access it otherwise.

But there’s also places where Planned Parenthood is already working, where they moved in uneventfully and succeeded immediately — like Ann Arbor. Furthermore, Planned Parenthood, which relies on government grants and contracts, individual contributors, and large donors like Bill Gates to fund its 820 health centers, is the only reliable source of no-hassle, agency-empowered, low-cost/free health care of any kind for uninsured women like me.

Without Planned Parenthood, I wouldn’t have gone on the pill in 1998 and, seeing as I haven’t slept with a dude since 2005, I probably wouldn’t ever visit a gynecologist now. It’s our best model for how socialized health care could function in this country – countless hours spent in waiting rooms and all! PP has certainly served me better than the nonexistent health coverage that the U.S.’s cultural and political “superiority” ought to guarantee.

Funding Planned Parenthood is the one and only thing the U.S. government has done to demonstrate even superficial interest in my health (or the health of its citizens) and I will fight like hell to keep this relationship going. And you should too.

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Donate to Planned Parenthood, sign this petition, or read about how you can get involved.


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Riese is the 33-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1784 articles for us.

52 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    This article is perfect.

    I hope that in the ongoing struggle to democratise healthcare in America, vital services like this don’t fall victim.

    How many family members of those 154 representatives have used planned parenthood, do you think?

  2. Thumb up 1

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    it is perfect. it was my preferred choice while i was on my parents’ insurance during college.

    for the past couple of years (on my own insurance) i have tried to see various gynos and could contribute to the article about why lesbians hate the gyno.

    i’ve had totally homophobic and rude remarks each time, including a young doctor telling me repeatedly ‘you’re going to get pregnant!’ (i used that homosexuality answer like riese)

    you know, egos are kinda fragile while strapped to a table with metal shoved inside of them.

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    Thank you for this. I am going to make so many people read it. I actually started going to a regular obgyn when I got pregnant, because I was lucky and had free fucking health care courtesy of the military. My doc is gay and she is awesome. I almost miss the days of going to the Health Dept. (what it’s called in my town) though. They took care of me like really grumpy, but caring teachers or family members or something. The nurses and receptionists at my OBGYN just sit around and talk about purses and clothes and $500 baby strollers and shit.

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    Ironic that they would love to kill off PP and stop all funding to them, when they easily have offered billions (of taxpayer money) to the Abstinence Only program. A program which teaches that condoms are harmful and useless against disease and pregnancy.

    It’s also a program which has largely failed, but which still gets tons of funding.

    This kind of thing, plus now they even want to redefine what rape is to stop abortions, is outrageous.

    PP will always be the bane of those judgmental conservatives’ existences because they are open, non judgmental about sexuality and or choice. Something those conservatives hate people (particularly women) having.

    I went to PP when I was younger and I loved it there. They were good people who I felt I could ask anything to or talk about anything without being judged. They are still needed on so many levels.

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      Abstinence only education is the devil. I was taught that birth control alters women’s bodies irreparably, that sex is shameful and wrong, but that once we’re married, natural family planning (the only form of ‘birth control’ endorsed) was 100% effective. I wanted to scream and cry.
      Everything useful I have ever learned about sex has come from Scarleteen. Planned Parenthood sounds, to me, like an invaluable program- that anyone could want to cut that blows my mind.

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    Riese, this is really beautiful and important, as are most things you write.

    I was taught growing up not to talk about sex or even think about having sex so of course when I started having sex in college, Planned Parenthood was the only thing I could afford on my own and they were absolutely the most caring solution I could have chose. They answered so many questions for me, put me on birth control, and when I started dating women and I had to check that box off on the Planned Parenthood form, I think it was one of the first times I came out and they were wonderful then too.

  6. Thumb up 2

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    Planned parenthood is such a good service I get unreasonably angry when they talk about taking away funding. Would they rather have unwanted babies on welfare?!
    I will always be grateful for the care they gave me. When I started making money on my own and didn’t actually qualify for free birth control any more they just gave me my paper back, said I made too much and just told me to change it!

  7. Pingback: Assault on Planned Parenthood Is an Assault Womens’ Health | Unfinished Business - A Civil and Human Rights Blog

  8. Thumb up 1

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    reise – Brilliant. Great mix of stats/facts and personal anecdote.

    The PP has been good to me over the years, too. I’m incredibly lucky to have insurance now, but there were many years when Planned Parenthood was my only option for keep tabs on my sexual health. Sometimes the waits were long, sometimes nonexistent, but the staff was always friendly and helpful and the services reliable and, most importantly, AFFORDABLE.

    The assault on Planned Parenthood by certain elements of the anti-choice movement is unconscionable. We all need to stand up and shout a collective NO. And then maybe kick ‘em in the groin.

  9. Thumb up 1

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    Excellent piece! My parents have donated $ to Planned Parenthood for as long as I can remember. I’ve never used their services, but now I’m thinking it’s time to start donating too!

  10. Thumb up 1

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    Gay, straight, whatever, anti-choice loonies are ruining it for all of us. How dare they meddle in the reproductive freedoms of millions of women?!

    I’m so angry about this current piece of legislation, and I commend you on your wonderfully written article! I just want to drop a bunch of f*bombs and move to Canada…

  11. Thumb up 2

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    I love this article. When I was 14 I did a program through Planned Parenthood to become a peer educator and I honestly think it was one of the most valuable experiences in my life. The kids in school always knew who to go to for condoms, I feared (and still fear) STDs like it’s my job, when I became sexually active with men the first thing I did was go get birth control and because of that program I knew exactly how to go about that. Still, 6 years later, I spend at least 32% of my time throwing facts I learned in that program at people who think pulling out works or who are incredibly ignorant about HIV. And, just 45 minutes ago, the training I received in mentoring kids on issues of depression and STDs through that program secured me a spot in the summer internship in Mexico that I’ve wanted for the last two years (despite my horrible interview skills). I owe everything to Planned Parenthood.

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    Thanks for this Riese. Beautifully written and illuminating. Services like Planned Parenthood are incredibly important, and so worth fighting for. I’m in Australia, and feel so incredibly lucky to not have to fight all the time for basic health services, especially those that relate to my sexual health.

  13. Thumb up 2

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    “Furthermore, as an adult I’ve noted that amongst queers and sex workers, Planned Parenthood can be the only place where these women feel comfortable speaking openly about their sex lives without fearing rejection or political attacks.”

    No shit, which is so stupid. To me, a good doc should be like a mechanic. You go in and describe the problem, and they take a course of action that actually helps with the problem in a tangible way. Imagine if you took your car in for repairs and they gave you a political lecture.

  14. Thumb up 1

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    PP is free? Is the PP in Van Nuys the only one that isn’t free?? Is it supposed to be free?!

    I was going to make an appointment a few years ago but then I saw all the prices, I was so confused, I thought it was free. I just figured it was because of Bush that the free services weren’t free anymore. It’s about five minutes away from me so I was really bummed I couldn’t go. I was trying to be all responsible and shit. The gay and lesbian center is about an hour away but I think I’d feel more comfortable there. I think it’s cheaper too.

    The only affordable thing our local PP offered us in high school were all the free condoms they gave out.

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        in oakland it was free
        in michigan i can’t remember, i think it was like $20 maybe?
        in new york it may have been a bit more, somewhere between $10 and $50? i can’t remember exactly.

    • Thumb up 2

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      In Wisconsin, it’s fairly easy to get on something from the state called the “Family Planning Waiver,” which pays for any services at Planned Parenthood. You don’t have to make as little to qualify as you do for Medicaid, nor jump through as many hoops as to get food stamps (although thankfully that’s not too difficult in Wisconsin either). When you call to schedule with PP here, they say you might qualify for free or reduced-rate care, ask how much you make hourly and how many hours you work a week, and tell you how to contact the state program. NOT judgmental at all either, of course. They even told me with no problem whether I was still current with the program, when I called the schedule and appointment and wasn’t sure of my status anymore.

      And they mail me my birth control every three months for free! That’s a thing! Along with about a million condoms that I feel bad about having without needing them, emergency contraception, a little lube. It’s quite a package.

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    I recently went to a Planned Parenthood in Idaho to get on the income based Birth Control. The people there were very nice and even respected my request for a female nurse so I was more comfortable. I hope the Planned Parenthood program stays around it really is a great thing for those of us who can’t afford insurance. I found your article very helpful.

  16. Thumb up 1

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    Like someone has already posted, you’ve basically written the thoughts in my head concerning PP.

    There’s so much more to PP than conservatives will ever fucking realize.

    Hopefully this article will spread over the net. Well done Riese.

  17. Thumb up 1

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    Do they have dental dams available at PP? I live in Hawaii (Oahu) and I can’t find them anywhere. I really don’t want to have to go to an adult store and I don’t have a card to purchase it online, so. My gf won’t be back for 5 months still so it’s not urgent but yeah.

  18. Thumb up 2

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    This article is perfect. I’ve only been to Planned Parenthood once to accompany a friend, but I remember it was really hard for her to get an appointment because they were so fucking busy. Like it was completely booked, every day, within five minutes of opening, so you had to call RIGHT when they opened and hope to get an appointment.

    Like. THAT IS A LOT OF PEOPLE. Who need the PP. That is a lot of people to deny services to.

  19. Thumb up 2

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    Amazing article. PP has been a lifesaver for me and so many other people I know; I don’t know where I’d be right now without it. I don’t think I can even put into words how much it means to me to know that they’ll help me if and when I need it.

  20. Thumb up 0

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    I’m really left-wing, but you know what? I think abortion is wrong. That feotus is alive. It’s on this planet so it should be treated as a citizen of it. It sucks if you got pregant without wanting to, even if you used protection and all, but there’s no need to punish the child. Give it up for adoption if you can’t deal with it or don’t want to, loads of people want to adopt.

    I’m an atheist, against abstainance and I disagree with many pro-life tactics cos lets not forget that many pregnant women are themselves vunerable, but some things just go against the fundemental right to life.

    A lot of you will probably disagree with what I’ve said here, but I’m not coming at this from an ignorant angle, just so you know. I’ve studied philosophy and ethics, with a big emphasis on bioethics, for 3 years now. Peace.

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      im pretty sure there is an abortion thread somewhere on the internet. this isnt it. sorry, i just dont want the arguments. this article is about the usefulness of planned parenthood, not the ethical nature of abortions.

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