I received a phone call a few days ago from a potential client, a young woman who had been referred by a friend. She told me she could feel something in her vagina and didn’t know what it was. She said it felt wrong. She used the words polyp and node and tumor, and told me she was afraid it was cancer.
I asked her if she had been to a doctor to check it out, and she said that she had, months before, and that she didn’t want to go back. The last MD she had seen, an older man, had said to her during the appointment: “Why would you ever touch yourself there?” and that had made her feel bad, and she was disinclined to be put in that position again.
Upon hearing this, I wanted to rip through the ceiling of that particular MD’s office, snatch him up into the sky in my fist and tell him, in no particular order:
#1 Go fuck yourself forever, you misogynist douchebag;
#2 How DARE you ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, question any human being’s right to touch their own body or shame them for doing so (see #1: go fuck yourself); and
#3 Could you be ANY MORE UNPROFESSIONAL? You are a fucking DOCTOR, right? One who has made a career, specifically, out of tending to women’s sexual and reproductive health, right?
And your most relevant question to a young, scared, uninformed female patient who has come in complaining of an abnormality in her vagina and who regards you (and, it must be said, is paying you) as the person who can help her is WHY WOULD YOU EVER TOUCH YOURSELF THERE? Even if you could be forgiven, as a provider of health care, for whatever shitty belief system gave rise to the kernel of that thought (and you can’t), HOW is the filter on your highly educated mouth so backwards that any part of that whatsoever came out of your face and imposed itself onto your PATIENT?
Needless to say. I was pretty pissed off.
I spend a lot of my working hours hearing about and helping women deal with the aftermath of ignorant, careless gynecological care of one sort or another, and I am frankly tired of hearing new examples of doctors abusing their power in obviously sexist ways.
And/but: I don’t know this woman and she doesn’t know me, so I mostly kept my torrent of expletives to myself. I referred her to an excellent women’s clinic nearby where she could see a female nurse practitioner and handle whatever lab work she might need to get a proper diagnosis. Once we know that she’s been cleared to receive pelvic contact, she will, I hope, come in for vaginal mapping and I will happily answer all of the questions, and any remaining bad feeling around whether she needs any fucking reason to touch her own vagina will, I hope, be immediately and thoroughly dispelled.
Sitting with that conversation, I remembered what was said to me when I went to my doctor in my mid-twenties to get fitted for a cervical cap.
I had come across the amazing revelation that is the book A New View of A Woman’s Body, read it cover to cover, and decided that I wanted to get a cap, which has a great many advantages for anyone having hetero sex with a reliably tested partner/partners: you can leave them in much longer than a diaphragm with no ill effects, they’re female-controlled, there are no side effects, they don’t interfere with the sensations of penetrative sex like condoms can, and, most importantly to me, they are not a hormonal method. I had been administered hormonal birth control in the form of a single shot of Depo-Provera by my doctor once before, at age 19, and it had screwed up my cycle for a solid year. I later learned that that a friend of mine had had to drop out of school that year because the same shot had made her incredibly ill. Both of our doctors had been very casual about giving us the shot. Neither of them had said anything about the long and already well-known list of side effects.
(Side note: at that time, cervical caps were made by a company called Prentif which is no longer in existence, and the cap they made, which was wonderful, hasn’t been manufactured in years. The only kind of cervical cap on the market at the time of this writing is called a FemCap. I haven’t tried it yet and so can’t comment on it firsthand, but have now ordered one out of sheer curiosity and will report back.)
So I asked my doctor - the man who had caught me at birth, who had a picture of me moments later on the wall of his office, who had been my provider since I’d hit puberty, and who I loved like family despite his having knowingly or unknowingly derailed my body some years before - to fit me for a cervical cap.
His response was to argue with me: “You really don’t want one of those. The statistics on them are terrible. But there’s this new plastic IUD that just puts out a tiny amount of hormone that stays local to the uterus, it doesn’t affect the rest of the body at all, and the numbers on it are great. Let me give you that.”
And back and forth we went. I told him I had done my research and the cap really was exactly what I wanted, and he tried to convince me otherwise. I told him I would never take hormones again and that I didn’t believe that hormones at any amount would stay local to anything, because that isn't how the endocrine system actually works. He asked me when I had become a doctor, saying things like that. Because other humans can’t read, obviously.
I finally raised my voice and asked him to just please fucking fit me for a cervical cap. He became huffy, fitted me quickly, watched as I put the cap in for the first time, checked the seal (cervical caps function by forming a vacuum seal all the way around the cervix), watched me take it out, and pronounced me good to go.
“Give my love to your mother,” he said, and left the room.
No wonder the numbers on these are terrible, I thought as I dressed - is anybody taught how to use them until they actually feel familiar with it? The country is full of people in junior high classrooms putting condoms on bananas year after year, but doctors don’t show patients how to use these more than once?
Before I left, I stopped in his office. “Why do you think the prevention numbers on caps are so low?”
“Because women don’t want to touch themselves.”
“I'm sorry - what? WOMEN DON’T WANT TO TOUCH THEMSELVES?”
“Nope. That's why everyone wants the pill. Ask anybody.”
I left the office feeling like I’d been struck by lightning. More the kind that splits you down the middle like a tree than the cartoon lightbulb epiphany.
My mind was on fire:
Is that true?
Do women not want to touch themselves? (If so: by what mercy did I dodge that bullet?)
Is the cervical cap, which requires that women put their fingers inside their own bodies and master the simple, always-accessible skill of becoming familiar with their cervix, such a genuine challenge to women’s resistance to touching their own genitals that it’s really not a viable form of contraception in this day and age?
And if that’s so: WHY IS THAT HAPPENING? What the fuck is that about?
Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls and Sex is breaking my heart. I am barely a hundred pages in. It is astounding. I have become obsessed and watched the TED talk twice in a row.
Both book and talk focus on her seventy or so interviews with young women between the ages of 15 and 20 about their sexual lives. Her perspective is that of a feminist with a deep, genuine curiosity about what the sexual frontier of adolescence is like these days, and her interest is both frankly personal, as the mom of a young and quickly growing daughter having a very different experience than she herself had, and also is the latest aspect of her professional arc as an incisive, insightful journalist and thinker exploring what it means to be a girl in modern America. She is clear and up front about her bias, and her questions are excellent.
She asks the girls about their experiences - how did that feel to you? - and notes that they respond, in large part, with their feelings about their partner’s experience rather than their own, consistently devaluing what is happening to and for them. She notes that girls feel entitled to their engagement in sexual behavior, but not to sexual pleasure.
In the TED talk, she discusses at some length that the reason girls don’t explore their own sexual responses, or invite or even allow the attention of their sexual partners, is that they are deeply ashamed of their bodies and don’t want to be seen or touched. They regard their own genitals as simultaneously disgusting and holy. And to drive that point home, she cites the statistical fact that labiaplasty - aesthetically motivated plastic surgery to alter the appearance of the vulva - is the fastest growing kind of surgery among young women. Girls are having their genitals surgically altered in significant numbers to resemble Barbie - and yes, this is real: the most popular “look” being requested in labiaplasty is one in which the outer labia appear fused together, and it is called the Barbie - which, Orenstein observes, is designed to make a living vulva of a human being resemble the plastic crotch of a doll which, famously, has no genitals.
And here we are again.
These are some facts. This is at least one clear reply, years later, to my doctor telling me: “Ask anybody.”
Which leads me to write this, here and now. May it act as a thunderclap of the Real.
There is nothing wrong with our bodies.
To be specific: there is nothing wrong with our genitals.
Not a goddamn thing is wrong with your pussy. Nary a thing. Zero things are wrong.
More specific: there is nothing the matter with your pubic hair, whatever you do or don’t do with it. There is nothing wrong with your labia, inner and outer. There is nothing wrong with the size of your clit, the color of your skin, the smell and the taste of you. Everyone’s is different. The range of normal is vast and marvelous in its variation.
These qualities are, like your face and your hands and the rest of you, singular to you. And therefore they are loveable. Because they are yours.
You never need any reason to touch yourself. Now now. Not ever. IT'S. YOUR. BODY.
And anybody who has opinions about what you should and should not be doing with your own body can rightly be asked:
Why WOULDN’T I touch myself there?
And why the fuck is that ANY of your business?
It is yours. No one else’s. Just yours, to share or not share, to do with as you wish.
If we imagine that we are both the products of culture (we are) and the creators of culture (we are), and if culture is unfolding in a way that is recognizably harming us, making us feel awful about ourselves, blinding us to the simple, immediate beauty and pleasure to which we are born, and into which we continuously grow;
If you, like me, have no use for the concept of original sin, and yet still find yourself feeling like something is forever inexplicably wrong with you, leaving you vulnerable to the thrall of advertising concepts designed to get women to spend money on ‘bettering ourselves” by endlessly shaving and douching and waxing and plucking and offering ourselves up to surgery;
If you have been shamed for how you look, or shamed for how you feel;
And if that, rationally, seems fucked up and unjustifiable to you -
I ask you:
What needs to happen for this to all go down differently?
What do you need to see and hear in order to have a friendlier relationship with your own body?
What would have made a difference to you as a child? As a young woman? As a younger adult?
What would make a difference to you right now?
I want to know. Please write to me if you want to.