November 2019

Featuring Lana Rhoades

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Roe v. Wade in Trump’s America


It’s nearly 11 p.m. on January 21, 2018, when my phone’s screen illuminates with a new iMessage notification. Out of the blue, the first photographer I ever posed nude for, Kyle Depew, has sent me two images. Based in New York City, Kyle has access to tons of cultural events in real time—events like the multimedia installations for Shout Your Abortion (SYA), the reproductive justice collective I collaborate with. This particular time around, portraits of me shot by my mother a few months earlier have been converted to monotone and projected alongside the proclamation, “Abortion Is Normal.” In the images, I am stoic and wearing the signature SYA T-shirt reading, “EVERYONE KNOWS I HAD AN ABORTION.” And it’s true; by this time my abortion story has been shared in the form of a brief video anecdote across social media thousands of times as part of Shout Your Abortion’s website and YouTube channel. The video was the first of many campaigns since #ShoutYourAbortion began in 2015 by Amelia Bonow in her efforts to shift the dialogue about abortion from stigmatized to normalized by sharing accounts of abortion experiences from womxn all over the country and the world. Now, in 2018, it’s the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade—the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized American abortions—and my portraits, as shown by Kyle’s quick snaps, have been displayed front and center in Union Square in New York City. I zoomed in to confirm: My image—a Black bisexual sex worker—was being displayed as an advocate of reproductive justice in one of the busiest intersections in one of the biggest cities in the world. I needed a moment to pick my jaw off the ground.  

Flashback five years earlier: I was barely 21. My modeling and performance career was finally gaining traction, although I was only devoting a quarter of my time to photoshoots and promotion. I was knee-deep in the third of five years at Drexel University, studying for my undergraduate English literature degree and commanding my college’s literary and arts magazine as editor in chief. I was a five-foot-four Black femme Clark Kent-Superman dynamo—quickly capable of shedding a sweet, nerdy exterior for the sassy, confident and sexually liberated core I could shamelessly exude online. Non-school days and nights were little more than blurs and speed bumps, lost in a mesmerizing collage of go-go dancing in Philly dive bars, burlesque performances, work as a masturbation booth girl at a derelict strip club and sex toy shop in Southern New Jersey and nude photoshoots—some erotic, some fetish-based, but mostly artistic. Whatever holes existed in my 21-year-old life could be paved by one of two things: glitter or tequila. My Bambi eyes were always set on the next project, the next party, the next move—I didn’t know what it meant to be present, to be tethered to anyone or anything. Save for my ex-dormmate turned best friend Kaycee, my mom and a few mutual acquaintances, I trusted no one with my innermost self and was ready to kick in the teeth of anyone who displayed cause for a good beatdown. There was far too much punk music and budding activist rage in my blood.

That’s what made the morning after fucking Alex* so strange. I couldn’t explain why I felt so weird about it. He hadn’t coerced or forced me into anything. But it had felt too personal, too intimate—and he’d also taken the condom off without mentioning it in the middle of us having sex. I didn’t think twice about it once his brown tattooed form bicycled out of view on his little silver fixed-gear that balmy Sunday afternoon. The next day I got Plan B and blocked his number.

Not long thereafter, the stress of juggling my ridiculously busy social and scholastic lives pushed me off the tightrope I’d been tiptoeing, so at 21 I experienced my first panic attack. Shocks of tension rocked my chest. I could barely breathe. My heart rate was erratic and thunderous for hours as I sat through a revolving door of school-imposed internship interviews in between studying for that quarter’s finals. So this is what death feels like, I thought melodramatically as I sat in my assigned examination room hours after my last interview that particular day.

The staff at Thomas Jefferson Hospital was kind to me and ran every test they could think of, including a CAT scan—which required a pregnancy test. Had I not dragged my ass to the hospital for the embarrassing diagnosis of, “Well, it’s not a heart attack,” it would’ve been weeks before I discovered I was pregnant. I was barely four weeks to the day along at the hospital. Other than the crushing disappointment at my new status as a statistic, I felt relieved that there wasn’t anything seriously wrong with me. But I cried like I’d just been told some obscure and vicious cancer was dissolving my brain stem. My business casual attire felt at once like a cage and a shield. I vividly recall my doctor, an Indian woman not much older than me, hugging me tightly and saying it was going to be all right. Her perfume smelled like fresh lavender, and I wondered if she wore it because of the soothing nature of the flower and its scent. I remember the shock of calling my mother and the numbness I felt as I prepared for her to berate me, disown me even. Thankfully she did neither and consoled me as best she could given our distance. “Come home,” she cooed. “You’ll be all right once you know what you want to do.”

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