Notes on MTV’s True Life: I Can’t Have Sex

12/07/2010 at 9:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Last night, December 6, 2010, at 10pm EST, MTV aired the season premiere of the television show, True Life. The episode was titled, “I Can’t Have Sex.” To produce this program, the show crew followed three women around over the course of several months and presented the impact of chronic pelvic pain conditions on their sex lives.

I watched the episode on television and I took notes. There’s a lot of things going on with and around this episode!

First, in case you missed it, MTV.com has the full episode available for viewing, now! This is what you’re looking for! I do not know if it will remain online indefinitely or if it will be removed in the future, but if you missed the episode here is a chance to catch up to it. It’s 42 minutes long. No subtitles available on the online version. Here is a brief summary with a link to the video. MTV has posted this follow up feature: True Life Check-ins. The follow-up article contains links to helpful resources.

Full disclosure: I sort of “Know” two of the women who were featured in this episode, because Tamra and Tali both maintain blogs. I do not know if Tess maintains a blog. Tamra’s blog is Living with Vulvar Vestibulitis. Tali’s blog is The Rambling’s of an IC Patient. I have not met anyone in person (that I know of) who was involved in filming this episode. But still, I feel a little weird posting about the episode at all, since I can apply a name, a face and a blog archive to two of the women who were on TV. It’s also weird because I have some of the conditions which were examined on the show.

Here is some of my notes taken during this episode, fleshed out a bit:

This is the first episode of MTV True Life that I have ever seen, so I went in not knowing what to expect. I rarely watch MTV and I tried to ignore the commercials that aired between segments. I was anxious about how the show would be edited and whether there would be any commentary provided by a third party. I’m still anxious about how the episode was received by a general audience. The sound to my TV was cutting out for a second at a time here & there so I was having a hard time hearing at some points.

The episode features three 20-something year old white women over the course of several months – Tess (self-diagnosed with vaginismus,) Tali (the episode focused on pelvic floor dysfunction but she has overlapping conditions which were not all given screen time,) and Tamra (diagnosed with vulvar vestibulitis and, later, orthopedic issues.) Chronic pelvic pain is an invisible condition. You would probably never guess from a first impression that these three women were dealing with chronic health problems unless they chose to disclose such information to you. Tamra, Tess and Tali are currently in, have previously been involved in, or are interested in heterosexual relationships. They are all unmarried and do not have children. We saw Tess and Tali’s boyfriends (at the time of filming) on this episode and MTV followed Tamra around on a date and to a social event. All three live in the USA. Except for the introduction to the episode, there was no narrator. That means that everything you heard, was spoken by the women or those close to them. Of course I’m sure MTV did some creative cutting and editing of the material collected. Filming wrapped up awhile ago, so there have been updates and changes in the womens’s lives in the interim between filming and the airdate.

Actual, proper terminology was used throughout the show. Chronic pelvic pain conditions were named, but some conditions that overlap were not mentioned at all (interstitial cystitis, for example, was not explored in this episode. This is a shame – interstitial cystitis is another misunderstood condition which would benefit from careful media coverage.) This episode focused on the impact of chronic pelvic pain on the women’s sex lives. And that means that while you could learn a little about life with chronic pelvic pain from this episode, for a clinical discussion and details on specific conditions and available treatments, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

We see some of the treatments that Tess, Tali and Tamra tried. A dilator kit on television, a TENS unit, a visit to a sex toy shop (Babeland) to pick out a comfortable lubricant. Psychological therapy, and pelvic floor and intra-vaginal physical therapy. (Several scenes where Tali received physical therapy with Isa Herrera looked familiar to me and Herrera talked about muscle tightness which was and remains a problem for me. It was just weird seeing someone else in the same position I had to spend so much time in.) Injections of anesthetic to the pelvic area and oral painkillers. Ice packs as needed. But I didn’t see anything about diet modification or alternative therapies like acupuncture.

Although sex and sexuality were the focus of this episode, MTV did show how chronic pain and anxiety can bleed out into other, non-sexual areas of life. Sometimes, like in Tamra’s case, pelvic and vulvovaginal pain is not limited to sexual activity. This was downplayed compared to the sexual aspects of pelvic pain, however. Because this is a blog about sexual dysfunction, I was okay with the sexual aspects of life with chronic pain for the episode – especially since I’ve been on this kick lately where I want to hear women talk about their own experiences with sexual problems. But keep in mind that if you do have chronic pelvic pain, there may be a lot of issues going on at the same time besides sexual problems. Or it may all be connected.

For example, there was one point in the episode where Tamra was speaking with a therapist. It was an emotional scene. But I thought that the therapist was misinterpreting Tamra’s concerns. Maybe it was just the way the editing was put together but during this scene, I thought that Tamra’s concerns included sex, yes… but they also went beyond relationships and sexual pleasure. However that that is what the therapist seemed more interested in. In this scene, I thought the therapist’s priorities did not match Tamra’s.

Tess was in a 5-month relationship with her boyfriend at the time filming began. She had not been able to have intercourse with him and was upfront with him. She picked out a dilator kit that came with an educational booklet and talked to a therapist to help address her anxiety.

Tali experienced the onset of her symptoms at age 17 and has seen 24 doctors. She was in a relationship with a young black man, Boom, at the time of filming (they have since broken up.) Remember, Tali’s blog is titled, “The Rambling’s of an IC patient” – yet this episode did not talk about IC at all.

Tamra was a student and the episode featured her giving a speech about vulvar vestibulitis in front of a whole bunch of people, as part of a women’s & gender studies class. Hmmm. Tamra had been in a sexually active relationship before developing what would be diagnosed as vulvar vestibulitis (her condition has since been re-examined.) She talked openly about how pain was making it hard for her to date and enter relationships – and pain made hard to enjoy other activities, like dance.

Viewers saw some of the relationship tension that Tali and Tess had, at least as far as their sexual problems went. If there were other problems in their relationships beyond sexual problems and anxiety, that was downplayed for this episode. Tess mentioned to her therapist though, that a previous boyfriend had said abusive comments to her. I thought it was interesting how Tess and her therapist involved Tess’s partner, Antonio, in her treatment for anxiety. Tali’s physical therapist also demonstrated some therapeutic techniques to Boom. (I wish I had had this opportunity to do the same with my partner; however we were in a LDR at the time of my physical therapy.)

Tess and Tali showe improvement with their favored treatments. For Tess and Tali the episode ended on an optimistic note. By the end of the episode, the two couples, Tess and her boyfriend, and Tali and Boom, were having sexual intercourse following the therapies they chose. But for Tamra, she was still dealing with a lot of pain in the end, and with a new diagnosis and the possibility of surgery. She had a labral hip tear and this may account for a lot of her pain. (She has been writing about this on her blog for some time now.)

Overall, I liked the episode. I thought it was good and I am shocked with the amount of time that these topics received. A whole hour-long television show, which works out to over 40 minutes?! Here I was scrabbling around for 2 to 7 minute clips! But there’s always room for improvement. This episode could have given much more airtime to Tali’s related conditions. Any airtime, really, for IC and lichens sclerosus. Just name them, even. In the future, a television program or other media outlet could do a whole episode or article about life with chronic pelvic pain and focus on areas besides sexual activity, because there is so much to life with pelvic pain. But there is that sexual aspect too… Was sexual pain sensationalized in this episode? Hmm… No, I don’t think so, I thought it was pretty frank. It was focused on sex, yes, but realistic to me. The editors certainly took the show in a certain direction. But it definitely wasn’t sensationalized like a recent segment on vulvodynia that aired on a local news channel. And pelvic and vulvovaginal pain was not treated like a huge joke (although Tess and her friends did laugh nervously when discussing vaginsimus.) There was no narrator for this episode and it did not feature an interview with say, a gynecologist, so no one was able to go into great detail about what causes pelvic pain and what treatments there are.
Future programs like this could also take steps to be less hetero-centric, and could actively reach out to more nonwhite women. (For example, years ago producers of the television show Oprah reached out to women of color for an episode about pelvic pain – an episode which has never aired.) And I’m surprised that the episode didn’t list some resources or URLs to information about chronic pelvic pain during the follow up with each of the interviewees. Resources such as the National Vulvodynia Association, The Interstitial Cystitis Association, and The Interstitial Cystitis Network.

So so far, in 2010, there have been a few depictions of vulvovaginal, sexual and pelvic pain, and each of these depictions have been different. There have been strengths and weaknesses with almost all of them. And I’d like to see more topics like this covered going into 2011 and beyond.

Reminder: MTV’s True Life: I Can’t Have Sex airs tonight

12/06/2010 at 7:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Reminder: Tonight, December 6, 2010, MTV’s True Life series will air the episode titled, I Can’t Have Sex. This episode is meant to address chronic pelvic pain conditions, such as vulvodynia and interstitial cystitis. This will also mark the season premiere of the show. As you can see from the title, it’s expected that the episode will look at how these painful conditions impact patients’ sexuality.

Check your local listings for exact details. I expect it to air at 10pm EST.

TV listings to check for what time it airs: MTV’s schedule
Zap2It.com
(TV listing website) (type in your zip code to select the service you’re using)

Don’t know yet if MTV.com or Hulu will be simultaneously streaming the episode online. I’m hoping it’s available online in full after the television premiere because I don’t have my VCR here to record & rewind the episode when I take notes tonight.

If you will be in the Manhattan area, consider stopping by The Back Fence for a premiere party and fundraiser. Funds raised at the party will benefit pelvic pain organizations including The National Vulvodynia Association, The Interstitial Cystitis Association, and The Interstitial Cystitis Network.

We don’t know what it’s going to look like in the final product. Not even Tali Keteri herself knows what the full episode will look like in the end. A video word of caution from Tali Keteri.

MTV, we’re counting on you to do this right. Crossing my fingers…

Interesting posts, weekend of 12/5/10

12/05/2010 at 2:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Dear internet, 2010 is the year that everything changes for me. Been busy with addressing the second phase of my life crisis, which will not settle down until January 2011. Sometimes I can multi-task – while working on this life crisis stuff, sometimes I’ll pop a DVD in or watch some videos on YouTube. So I watched some recent films, like Where the Wild Things Are and Drag Me to Hell. They’re both absolutely terrible movies. I’ve been enjoying watching some Let’s Play videos on YouTube much more. That’s where somebody records and comments on their progress through a video game. Really great since I definitely don’t have time to play these games on my own now! I’m also doing a good job of learning how to cook and am quite proud of some of my recent dinners, simple as they may be.

Friendly reminder: I am looking for Guest Posters. I want to hear more perspectives on the themes dealt with here at Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction. Because I am dealing with such a sensitive topic, I don’t think I can actively recruit new posters, since if I went onto someone else’s blog and said something like, “Hey u wanna write a post about your sexual health and/or feminism on a public forum?!” that would probably be very invasive. For this reason, Guest Posters requesting to remain anonymous will also be taken seriously.
At this time, criteria for inclusion is, “If you think you would fit in here, you probably would.” This may be subject to change but for now we’ll try that & see how it goes.
In an attempt to preemptively fight spam and rude comments, this blog’s email is private. Please leave a comment on this post if you want to write something. I’ll screen comments so you can remain anonymous if you want. That way I’ll have your email and we can collaborate.
Have something you’ve been working on? Send it my way.
Comments made by new e-mail addresses here are auto-screened before going live, so if you want to stay anon use an e-mail address that you haven’t used here before.

Can’t get enough of feminism and sexual dysfunction on the internet? You may want to think about following the Twitter feed, which is more accurately described as my Twitter feed since no one else manages it. Some of my daily mundane and/or angry thoughts sneak in there but I try to include trendy topics as well as a healthy dose of sexual dysfunction related news when I find it.

Now then, on with the blog link roundup that’s starting to become an irregular feature around here. Posts I found interesting over the few weeks. Share links if’n you got’em.

Reminder: MTV’s True Life: I Can’t Have Sex is set to air on Monday, December 6, 2010, at 10pm EST/9pm Central. This is turning into a big fucking deal more so than I first anticipated – even Babeland is involved! Babeland, people! I can’t attend the Black Fence Manhattan premiere party and fundraiser so I’m anxious about the reception this episode will get – a lot of people think dyspaerunia and sexual dysfunction are a laugh riot. We don’t know what the episode will look like until it goes on TV. And I mean think about it, this isn’t going to be a 7-minute video clip or a 2-minute plot point like we usually see in media depictions of dyspareunia and pelvic pain conditions. It’s supposed to be the entire episode. Oh man I still need to work on that video transcript from like 2 weeks ago too. Now unfortunately for me, I don’t even have my trusty VCR or a DVR where I am right now so I’m hoping that MTV will stream the video online. Oh I’ll definitely be watching tomorrow night, no doubt, but I need to be able to rewind in order to jot down good notes.

But wait, there’s more! Urgent – Tamra has word on the streets that this may not be the last time we’ll see dyspareunia on television! Tamra says to get in contact with her personally to see if making arrangements for an interview is feasible.

Oh man I’m so anxious now about all this vagina and pelvic pain stuff on television oh man I need something to break the tension. What th- look, it is a Vagaceratops! – Yeah that’ll work.

The Problem with Sex Addiction – Dr. Carol Queen goes over some of the controversies involved with this highly controversial diagnosis. (I don’t know man, I’m like, some folks, not all of them experts, insist that you can become addicted to video games, so I don’t see how if you can get addicted to one kind of behavior you can’t do the same with another. But then again as far as I know there’s no specialized field for video game therapy, either, like there with sex therapy. Hmm…)

I saw two posts about this concept called, “Sexual compliance.” That’s where you willingly go through with sexual activity – but you don’t actively desire it. So this raises questions about where compliance falls on the consent spectrum. Questions I find myself asking where this sexual compliance fits in with sexual dysfunction and where it fits in with sex therapy; for example I’ve seen a few sex therapists recommend scheduling time for sexual activity (but not necessarily specifying which sexual activity.) Here’s the two posts I saw based on sexual compliance. Consent, Compliance, and the Challenges of Negotiating Sex from Charlie Glickman and Not a dichotomy, a spectrum: on rape, consent, and desire from Hugo Schwyzer.

No Pleasure in the Ghetto – How racism and classism impacts the nature of sexual education you receive.

Accessing Sexual Health Part One: Barriers To Getting There – Hopefully part 1 in what I hope will become a continuing series of posts about challenges people with disabilities face when looking for sexual health care.

Sex and Mental Health – In this post, Midori goes beyond the relationship between antidepressant and sexual dysfunction, and asks questions about the day-to-day life with mental illness & how it can impact sexual relationships. Unfortunately she has not yet found resources she is satisfied with that address these intersections.

Then, Kitty Stryker responded with Love, Lust and the Black Dog, which did address some of these above questions and has a few recommendations for folks who do have disabilities and sexual problems.

Your Daily Dose of Rage - Jezebel is a feminist-leaning media portal, though it is careful to not explicitly identify as feminist. And so when a feminist-leaning website – which still has a long history of problematic posts, language and comment moderation – published a garbage piece [Trigger warning,] it received a lot of backlash – rightly so. The editor eventually offered a weak apology but it doesn’t address everything that needs to be addressed.

Your Morning TSA Security Round-Up[Trigger warning] Are you someone like me who, for whatever reason, does not use vaginally insertible menstrual products? If so, you may need to skip using cloth pads with snappy buttons if you’ll be flying out of a US airport while menstruating. (I understand that the scanners can also see your menstrual pads – but most people use disposable ones so hopefully the TSA folks will recognize ones with sticky backs better than the cloth ones, and so let you pass through unharassed…) Folks with disabilities are likewise at increased risk [Trigger warning] of invasive “Screening.” Trans folk, too, are at increased safety risks because of transphobia + the scanners. Here is a summary of the new TSA screenings and some tips put together with transgender people in mind: Heading for the Airport? How the TSA policies impact transgender travelers

Giving Thanks for Sex…With a Bit of Melancholy – Good news & Bad news on the history of sexuality in the USA.

A Thanksgiving Coming Out: My Traditional Holiday Poem – I hate something like 90%-95% of all poetry. This is one of the 10%-5% I don’t hate. (Which is how I say “I liked it.”)

An Open Letter to US College Students – Please hold all questions until the end of the blog post. Thx.

Thoughts on Record of the Dead – On the FWD blog, a monthly recap of known deaths of PWD was posted just three times. It’s overwhelming, seeing all the names, and some common elements to their deaths.

WikiLeaks founder & consent (by Suzie) - WikiLeaks and its contents have been all over mainstream media. What’s not always mentioned or made clear is one of the reasons WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, is a wanted man. He has been accused of rape by two women.

Introducing :: Project “What Are You Into?” - Clarisse Thorn is looking for submissions if’n you got’em.

Waking up from The Pill – What is this? It’s something written down. On the one  hand it’s just raising the ever-present specter of “OMG WOMEN WILL FORGET TO HAVE BABIEZ AND WILL REGRET IT LATER! Better stop using contraception, ladies!” so we can obviously point out the problems with that all. But on the other hand the first page talks about like, this fake birthday party held in honor of The Pill, for turning 50 and I’m like… waaaaaait a minute, back the truck up: Why was The Pill given a birthday party? Is this a regular thing that pharmaceutical companies do? Hey wait a minute… aren’t we supposed to like, make a critical, feminist analysis of giving a prescription which targets women, giving that a birthday party? Aren’t we like, supposed to say “Hmmm?” I am very much uncomfortable with The Pill getting its own symbolic birthday party… Isn’t that birthday party in and of itself another form of marketing? How do I examine problematic elements of The Pill, its history and its marketing without simultaneously harder to obtain birth control? I don’t want to do it the way this article did it — this article is condescending. There has got to be a better way.

Blog Carnival of Mental Health: Diagnosis – Astrid posted the first carnival with this theme! Next theme will be “Night.” Here is also Disability Blog Carnival #71.

Last blog link roundup, I mentioned the birth and death of Privilege Denying Dude. Now witness his rebirth: Fuck Yeah, Privilege Denying Dude: illustrating many of the derailing tactics used when trying to discuss social justice issues. When the first Privilege Denying Dude picture had to be removed from Tumblr for copyright violation, one volunteer, Edman, offered to let his image be used for the purposes of this meme. Now last roundup, you may recall, I had made an image with the meme generator that I was unable to post here due to the copyright violation thing. So here is the new version, with Edman’s picture. Remember though, this image may be upsetting if you are unfamiliar with the greater context of the Privilege Denying Dude. The purpose is satire. Please drop by the last weekend roundup to catch up on some news relating to PDD if you are unfamiliar with this meme, or check out some feminist blogs that have been covering it.

[Picture: Background: 8 piece pie style color split with red and teal alternating. Foreground: White, cisgender guy with glasses and light shadow wearing a sweat shirt over a button down and short black hair. Has a smug, arrogant facial expression and crossed arms. Top text: “Female sexual dysfunction?” Bottom text: “You've just never been with me, baby!”]

Uugh I still feel real dirty after posting that uuugh I think I lost my appetite I gotta go take a shower or something wash my eyeballs. Cuz this is still the guy, right there, the one who goes around saying that sort of thing in comment sections to articles about female sexual dysfunction. Not edman himself. But symbolically. PDD.

No seriously I really need to shower now but in the mean time, I’m sure there’s more…

Compare and contrast

12/02/2010 at 9:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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My last post presented a review and critique of the feminist sexology text, A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems. It’s a different kind of review. The book was inspired by the efforts of the Working Group on the New View of Women’s Sexual Problems, a group of about a dozen North American women who came together to present an alternative view of sexual problems and dysfunctions, just in time for a  medical conference held about 10 years ago. A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems, the book, builds upon the original New View manifesto.

Today I’d like to present to you a different kind of feminist response to sexual dysfunction – a response from another woman who is intimately familiar with gender studies, feminism… and vaginismus.

As I noted in the New View book review post, I felt like some elements were missing from the essays – notably, it remains unclear to me whether any of the contributors to the original manifesto or the book actually know what it’s like to live with sexual dysfunction – to be torn between what you “Know” is the “right and proper” feminist response to sexual dysfunction vs. the daily grind of living with and responding to it, sometimes just managing. It’s possible that one or more of the contributors did have some kind of sexual dysfunction, and just didn’t disclose such status for whatever reason. But since I can’t know for sure, I still feel like I’m left on the outside of a circle of folks who are not me, yet who nonetheless decide my fate for me.

Alas, my time available for blogging is shrinking, and will continue to do so until some time in January! So instead of presenting another dissertation-length blog post, I’m just going show you an essay today and give some reasons as to why I liked it.

The essay is, A certain remoteness telling vaginismus, by Fulvia Dunham. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay. If you usually like what you see here on this blog, then I would strongly recommend that you read it. It’s one essay in the anthology Illness in the Academy, published by Purdue University (whom I would like to thank, along with Google Books, for making A certain remoteness in its entirety available to me as of today. I did have difficulty viewing it on my mobile device, however, and I am not certain if Google Books format can be picked up by all screen readers. Keep in mind, allocate your page previews carefully if you want to read the essay in full online.) According to Amazon, Illness in the Academy:

investigates the deep-seated, widespread belief among academics and medical professionals that lived experiences outside the workplace should not be sacrificed to the ideal of objectivity those academic and medical professions so highly value. The 47 selections in this collection illuminate how academics bring their intellectual and creative tools, skills, and perspectives to bear on experiences of illness. The selections cross genres as well as bridge disciplines and cultures.

Other essays in the book talk about life with chronic illnesses, conditions, and disabilities – to mention a few, some contributors have or are close to someone with diabetes, endometriosis, depression, autism, cancer.

And yet vaginismus – a sexual problem, a sexual dysfunction, a variation of normal, a medical condition, a gynecological disorder, a disability, a symptom of a relationship problem – what is it really? – is included right alongside these more readily-recognized health conditions – though certainly the conditions included have varying degrees of public awareness and social acceptance. The editor of the anthology, Dr. Kimberly R. Myers, did not excise the essay on vaginismus as too titillating due to its sexual nature or as irrelevant due to being a relationship problem. Here, it is unquestioningly given the same treatment as any other medical problem. Seeing vaginismus included in the same place as more readily recognized chronic conditions was a shock to me. And this book was published in 2007, so it’s ahead of the curve! I find myself asking if, because vaginismus was part of this collection, if that means there’s openness to the idea of looking at sexual dysfunction as disability even offline…

Clearly, there is a need to understand vaginismus as a matter of health:

Exchanges with family members were uncomfortable; people were usually tentative and shy, occasionally asking if I’d fixed “my little problem,” implying that it was a bad habit of aversion I had to correct rather than a problem or illness with which I needed help… I think the unspoken assumption in many of their minds was that if you can’t perform normally in sexual terms, you’re unfortunate – but not in need of a hand, as you would be if you had a recognizable illness (151).

All the emphases in the quotes are in the original.

The author of the essay in question talks about how she sought assistance from professionals trained in treating vaginismus, though she herself does not appear to be an expert herself – there’s no pH.D or M.D. or M.S.W. or other certification given next to her name. She’s a regular person, like me. Much of what Dunham writes about appears to have taken place while she herself was a student (which makes sense, given that the anthology is titled Illness in the Academy!)

What I like best about Dunham’s essay is that there’s no filter in A certain remoteness. Dunham was given the opportunity to speak in her own words. No one is presenting snippets of what she said in the greater context of some other theory. She’s just saying: What she did, what she went through, what she saw and heard, and what was on her mind when it happened.
I suppose right now, I’m creating a lens, an artificial filter, just by framing this post the way that I have chosen. But that’s what the link to the essay is for – you can see for yourself.
In contrast, in the New View book, short statements from women with sexual dysfunction were presented by professional women, as case studies in support of the New View manifesto. When someone says or does this, she really means that.

Because there’s no filter, there is a stream-of-consciousness, indicated by italics and bolds in the text, which weaves throughout A certain remoteness; usually flitting under a sea of text, always near the surface,… then *Boom!* it pops out for just an instant, and is gone… only to leap out again a few paragraphs later, a brief flash of uncensored turmoil over a carefully constructed treatsie.

But here and there we can catch a glimpse of it, Fulvia’s free stream-of-consciousness,  jumping out of the formal, the factual, and the philosophical:

and if your body is closed, if you can’t let anyone in, if you can’t talk about it easily because no one knows what you’re talking about, if you’re obligated to remain closeted because people often forget what you’ve told them, then you’re simply repressed – closed – out of the loop – out of circulation – unable to come out because you can’t let anyone in, because there’s no language with which to come out, and because nobody cares (149)

(As a side note, some of my unedited draft posts look like this before going live!)

Another interesting feature of Fulvia’s essay is the way she addresses language. In an eerie coincidence, frequent commenter Flora and sometimes contributor left a note here last night addressing how Dr. Tiefer in particular treats language – it’s a very important tool. It has power. Words mean things. But not everyone thinks that way, and to emphasize language over other modes of communication can create new, unique hurdles.
And sometimes, words have limits. Sometimes, language isn’t as powerful as it should be – because there are no words to express what you are really feeling:

Then they ask me about the man with whom I have parted ways two months before, after having been with him for two years. I say that things are fine; everything’s amicable enough, and he usually calls me every couple of weeks from Los Angeles. when he told me, it was new year’s eve, and then waking up in the middle of the night just after, him near me, trying to tell him that he was all over for me, that i’d never have intimacy with anyone now, because no one would have the patience, that this was the last dance, impossible, that he was relegating me to life among those who remain alone – trying to explain – the words were broken – that although i wasn’t sure i wanted children, i wanted the possibility I say that we’re exchanging emails and phone calls fairly often. and it would never be possible again and doomed and no access cut off a certain remoteness – his looking at his watch to see if it was midnight yet They have to catch me as I begin to fall backward off the chair. (153)

Dunham explicitly says, “The words were broken.” Fulvia was trying so hard to articulate everything she was feeling at the time of her breakup. But she just didn’t have the words available. How do you talk about vaginismus when you’re not even supposed to talk about vaginas, about pain, about sex? So you grope around looking for words, looking for something that comes close to expressing what’s on your mind in a way that another person can understand but the language that’s available doesn’t match what you want to say, so you wind up saying something that maybe has a totally different meaning. Maybe what really conveys the emotion is a scream, or a work of art, or a song, or something that does not yet exist.

Dunham herself may even be familiar with the New View’s work:

Given my later training in gender studies, it became tempting to try to believe that this wasn’t a “problem” or “dysfunction:” it was simply a “difference.” But given the imperative we receive in our culture to express ourselves as sexual beings, the messages we’re sent that suggest we’re incomplete, uptight, wound-up, or repressed if we can’t or don’t, it doesn’t feel like merely a difference; it feels like a defecit. It also doesn’t feel like just a difference when the desire is there, but the means of expression are not. It feels like an insurmountable obstacle. (151)

Being familiar with gender studies and possibly with the New View’s work in combating the medicalization of sex, Dunham struggles with questions about what that means for her, as someone living with vaginismus; as someone who needed and sought medical assistance to address it:

am I succumbing to compulsory heterosexuality, the heterosexual imperative, the pressure to become more valid through an ability to participate legibly in the sexual economy? Their sign says “No passing zone.” Rather than seeking to overcome this, perhaps I should use this with which I have been fated to disrupt the usual equation between “intimacy” and “penetration.” Should I question the usual assumptions about what constitutes sexual success and fulfillment? – challenge the commonplace equation between sexual fulfillment and fulfillment? (154)

She knows. She knows she knows. You know? Dunham is familiar with gender studies and feminism. She’s heard it all before. The critiques of sexual dysfunction from a social construction perspective are there. But she also knows that there’s something more going on… something that even feminist-informed social construction sometimes cannot breach:

Is it wrong to want my vagina to open? (154).

This simple question. This one, simple question… is the same one I find myself asking after reading through books like Sex is Not a Natural Act and A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems. Am I doing something wrong? Am I now obligated to expand my sexual horizons rather than having that available as an option? Is it okay for me to get medical help for vulvodynia & vaginismus, and whatever else I may encounter in the future? In so doing, am I medicalizing sex and making it harder for TAB women to enjoy sex as they are? Or do I have the one and only free pass to sexual medicine, because dyspaerunia is the only valid and important sexual dysfunction? But if that’s the only valid sexual dysfunction, then what about my friends? Dunham seems to understand what it feels like, to be stuck in the middle.

And open her vagina did. Dunham continued to seek help addressing her vaginismus, and eventually, after 15 years, she did find satisfactory resolution through physical therapy in Montreal, Canada. She no longer needs to talk about vaginsmus – “Perhaps I am at the point where I can – and even should – put all this to rest” (154). But Dunham still remembers the whole experience, vividly – and much like Susanna Kaysen, it has left her sexual identity fundamentally changed… Dunham, in the end, came out of the experience, as Q for Questioning, or possibly even Q for Queer, inspired by a definition proposed by Eve Sedgwick. Dunham now has the option to engage in heterosexual PIV intercourse, if she so chooses… will she so choose? Even if she does not exercise this option, Dunham does not express resentment towards the doctors who helped her reach this point; she has nothing but gratitude towards them. I suppose the social system of medicine available in Canada helps – in the USA, she may have faced a different set of challenges with the cost treatment and insurance.

There’s a lot more to the essay I didn’t address here; I just picked a few parts that resonated with me. Reading A certain remoteness alongside A New View presented a refreshing contrast, and I would like to see more essays and creative works like it.

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