On the written word10/12/2008 at 9:52 pm | Posted in book review | 4 Comments
Tags: books, essays, experts, female sexual dysfunction, Feminism, FSD, health, language, medicine, pornography
There are a lot of topics I want to touch upon in this blog. There are so many areas for discussion – I want to talk about everything. Pain, fear, the physiological & psychological, expressing ones sexuality, porn, and of course feminism. I may even want to go down tangents sometimes, and I expect that as I maintain this blog I might even change my mind on some things.
Becuase there are so many areas of discussion, at times I feel overwhelmed. How can I do it alone? How do I find good resources to refer to? When I do find something to review, do I have to read through the entire thing or can I stop if something turns me off?
Actually, that’s not really a bad place to start with. So let’s talk about what’s written, what’s not, & where to find it.
In General Health Books
In my experience, I’ve had some difficulty finding books that deal with female sexual dysfunction in detail. General women’s health books, by nature, need to cover everything from conception (yours and that of your child’s, if you have one,) to death & bereavement. Everything inbetween gets covered – diet, anatomy, the menstrual cycle, birth control, common health problems, etc. When I look through books like that, sexuality & one’s sex life usually takes up one or perhaps a few chapters out of many – not including those dealing with birth control or sexually transmitted infections. The sexual problems that can and sometimes do arise might be covered in a few sentances or they might get their own chapter, with each little condition getting a brief overview. We can find examples of this in All About Eve, a book my mother owns, and even in Our Bodies, Ourselves. This is the one with a whole entire ~page or maybe a page & a half on vulvodynia specifically. Since this topic is relevant to my interests, and since this was one of the most easy to find & bang-for-buck books, I was somewaht disappointed.
In a way, it makes sense that sexual dysfunction gets little airtime in this type of book. There’s a LOT of ground go cover in these big text books. It might be better to leave detailed discussions to the experts in other books & articles. The book is just there to point you in the right direction.
But the cynical in me thinks to myself, “FSD is not exactly uncommon, but perhaps the authors of these books are merely operating under the assumption that it IS rare & so it doesn’t make sense to waste ink & pages talking about something few people will need.”
In my experience, I’ve had even more difficulty finding materials that deal with female sexual dysfunction from a feminist perspective… And even more difficulty finding materials that do it sensitively & with compassion.
Going back to Our Bodies, Ourselves, I’m pretty turned off that the book’s discussion on female sexual dysfunction focused mainly on levels of arousal. That bothers me. I take a broader perspective – I include pain disorders and the influence of hormones in with FSD. Personal experience tells me that these two things – pain & hormones – can themselves have a strong impact on the level of sexual desire a person feels. Listening to anecdotes by other people, personal experience & one’s upbringing can also play a pretty sizable role. One paragraph acknowledges these physiological issues in passing… I tried reading through the their companion website, looking for more information about these pain conditions. After all, it’s the internet, so nearly infinite space is avilable there. Alas, even on the website, the physiological was mentioned merely in passing, and no resources were provided on that particular page.
It also bothers me that it’s pretty clear, reading between the lines, that the authors do not support medical intervention when a low sexual desire, in and of itself, is a problem. I don’t think it’s fair to advise against medical intervention for women who are bothered by a low libido. I understand that that isn’t always necessary. I would never force it upon someone who feels comfortable and/or does not want outside influence.
Still. Maybe some of us do want. Please don’t take that away from us. Please don’t make it harder than it already is.
Some texts are surprisingly unhelpful – I glanced through a medical text book – 600 pages of gynecological conditions at my college’s bookstore once. It talked all about women’s reproductive organs, and yet even in this specific book, vulvodynia only got about a half-page of coverage. I forget the name book now, something with a deep purple, almost navy blue cover…
In Feminist Books
Books like that focus strongly on women’s health. When talking about books that deal with feminism specifically, Cunt is but one work that springs to mind. It springs to my mind immediately because, I own a copy. This is one of the popular feminist books I have – and attempted to read.
Key words here, “Attempted to.” I found this one to be so distressing & counter-productive, I had to put it down less than halfway through, right around when Inga started talking about how men only love women so long as we are, “consumer… bitch, concubine, accountant, orphan, punching bag,… threeholestopenetrate…” etc. etc. It went on.
I’m really not okay with having to look at men this way. I really don’t think I’m going to be able to enjoy a healthy sex life with my beloved male partner if I have to think about guys like that.
The cynic in me thinks to myself, “Welp. Inga says men only love me so long as I’m threeholestopenetrate, and one of my holes is broken, so… guess I’m fucked. …Or not… :(”
That’s just one of the problems I had with Cunt. On the very next page, Inga talks about how she doesn’t understand why anybody would want to see a male doctor or a male gynecologists and how she and all her buddies like holistic natural medicine.
Well, I receive both treatments. I do the holistic thing in the form of acupuncture & chiropractic, and I do the western way by having applied estrogen gel, getting surgery, and taking a combination anti-anxiety & muscle relaxer medication as needed.
I get both, becuase the holistic thing by itself, wasn’t helping. Before I had tried estrogen gel & surgery, I tried the whole acupuncture thing. I did not see satisfactory results.
The other issue is, not all of us have female practitioners readily available in our areas to see. I live in a pretty heavily populated area, yet female gyns & female alternative health practitioners are still kind of hard to find. Still hard to find if you have insurance, as some may not be on your particular plan. Or your health insurance, if you have any, may not cover the alternative stuff. Or if you don’t have insurance, then you have to pay for everything out-of-pocket, which may be very difficult.
It may be worth noting here, that the alternative health guy I do see, is male. So is my vulvovaginal specialist & surgeon.
So I really don’t like feeling like I’m being judged for seeing a male gynecologist & taking medication. Which is how I felt when I read Cunt.
The cynic in me thinks to myself, “Welp. Inga says the natural holistic medicines are inherently better than western, invasive techniques so… I guess I’m a poor excuse for a woman & a horrible traitor.”
I really don’t think Inga had my best interests in mind when she wrote this. She tried to write a book that would unify everybody with a cunt, but I refuse to stand in unison with her.
That said, I recongize that the book did, in fact, help many women learn more about their bodies & about women’s history, and other things. I know of at least two women in on of my support communities who did find support & comfort in Inga’s words. For this reason, I don’t want to take Cunt away from anyone or off the shelves. But based on my personal experience, I would strongly advise against reading it if you yourself have FSD. It just made me feel bad, for all the wrong reasons.
In Specific Gyno-related books
Okay, maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places for resources to use along my long, lonely journey of FSD. So I started looking for books that address the female reproductive system, specifically, and FSD where possible. Books like these are a bit harder to find. There’s a couple of really good ones out there. Some of the ones I like the most are out-of-print. I had to pay extra for those. And some of the really good ones are out-dated, so more research has been done since they were printed.
Two books in particular come to mind as being particularly useful for my situation. These are the ubiquitous V Book and The Vulvodynia Survival Guide. These two books are great for me. The V Book is useful for any female because it covers all kinds of gynecological conditions, in pretty decent detail. There’s a whole chapter for the basics, one for skin conditions, one for vaginal infections, one for cancer – and a whole chapter just for vulvodynia. The Survival Guide deals only with vulvodynia and it talks about possible causes, coping strategies, treatements, and provides resources at the end. Because it only needs to cover one topic, it can afford to spend time on little details.
I have one problem with these two books – they’re 6 years old now. There has been additional research into many of the topics covered in these pages. I’d like to see a second printing made which includes the new research findings & updated statistics. As they stand now, they make good starting points. They’re relatively cheap online, $10-$20 plus shipping – you may have a hard time finding them in a bookstore. I wasn’t able to find the Vulvodynia Survival Guide in my local Barnes & Nobles or Border’s, or mom & pop shops.
Several of the books on the NVA’s own Book recommendation list are out of print. Now these ones are even harder to find. One of the out-of-print books I own & really like is A Woman’s Guide to Overcoming Sexual Fear & Pain. This one is hard to find… and since it’s a work book, copies that are available online may have already been marked up in pencil or pen.
I would ask that if you do not have or treat FSD, please do not buy this book. There are a finite number of copies available.
I like that the book deals with FSD sensitively & lists detailed instructions on techniques you and/or your partner can do to make your sex life more comfortable. Keep in mind, it is a work book – you’re supposed to use it as a tool & mark it up. If you don’t feel comfortable writing in the pages I suppose you could always write in a seperate journal or on the computer.
My one complaint about this book is that, since it was written in 1998, the book doesn’t address vulvodynia specifically, and it doesn’t provide the NVA as a resource in the back. Some of the strategies it talks about might work if you have vulvodynia, since it deals with sexual pain. For me some of the things are quite useful because I mostly have mine under control. I can’t really blame the authors. The NVA was not yet well-known. The NVA existed but it looks like things really picked up around the start of the new millennium.
Yet these books do not address feminism specifically.
In Life Experiences
There are at least two vulvdyina memiors that have been printed in text – and an increasing number of more are being published online within the great big blogosphere even as I write this. The ones in text I am referring to, are The Camera My Mother Gave me and one essay in Jane Sexes it Up.
The first is Susanna Kaysen’s memior of vulvodynia. This is yes, the same Susanna Kaysen who experienced Girl, Interrupted.
I love The Camera my Mother Gave Me. I hate that anyone has to live through this, but I love that she talked about it so openly. FSD, vulvodynia, it’s hard to talk about. Who is going to understand & believe?
And that is exactly what happened. That is exactly what happens to so many patients with FSD in one form or another. She got bounced around from doctor to doctor, trying to get a diagnosis, trying to get treatment, trying to live her life, trying to talk to her friends & partner, trying to find relief.
And this really happens. I’ve heard enough horror stories to recognize this is real.
And I linked to the Amazon page in this case because if you’ll look at the reviews, you’ll find that so many readers didn’t understand that. The book’s ending is ambiguous because FSD IS ambiguous. The reader doesn’t know if everything ever worked out because that’s how it really is. The patient doesn’t know, either. The author is called “Whiny” by one reviewer, and frustrating by another. Why didn’t she do this, why did she do that, etc.
Because in real life, so often, that’s exactly what it’s like. Especially if you are limited by finances or location.
Welp. This isn’t exactly a book about eating ice cream on a sunny day or having a pirate adventure. What did you expect?
THE HOLY GRAIL
Finally we come to an essay that incorporates both feminism and vulvodynia.
In the book Jane Sexes it Up, Katinka Hooijer submitted an essay about her feelings on feminism & porn – and how she sees it through the lens of sexual dysfunction. Porn is always a hot topic among feminists. There are always at least two sides to it. It’s inherently anti-woman and always bad. It’s not anti-woman it’s just sexual expression. It’s unhealthy, it’s healthy, it hurts all women everywhere, women can usurp it & use it for their own purposes, it encourages other girls to objectify themselves, it encourages women to feel empowered by their sexuality, etc. etc. It goes on.
Hooijer is in a unique position to talk about pornography. It’s hard to enjoy your sexuality when some part of your sex isn’t working out. It’s hard when it doesn’t meet expectations. It’s hard when it is in physical pain. For her, porn improved her sex life even more than the surgical route. It offered her options she hadn’t yet thought of. She was presented with several choices of alternatively-penetrating or completely non-penetrative, painless sexual expression and made her feel more comfortable with masturbating. She didn’t need a partner and she did not require medical intervention to experience orgasm. She was able to become aroused and enjoy herself, using porn. It allowed her to reclaim & express her sexuality, even in the face of great pain.
How is this anti-woman?
I agree with Hooijer. For us, as she says, “Porn is literally medicinial” (273.) It is distressing when other feminists – Hooijer points out Catherine MacKinnon here – tell us that our thoughts are bad & wrong & hurtful to every woman everywhere & we don’t deserve our sexuality. How about that – feminism telling Hooijer that she isn’t entitled to a healthy sex life. This, on top of the virgin/whore dichotomy that women deal with that makes sexuality a tricky subject already.
How is that pro-woman?
Yet I realize… when I look around the corner, I realize that there are still going to be other women with FSD who lose thier partners to porn. Unable to express their sexualities the way they want to, or the way thier partners expect them to… in my head I realize that somewhere, one partner turned to sex to the exclusion of other intimate activity, and a relationship was lost. Hooijer doesn’t talk about that. We also have different ways of dealing with painful penetration – to her, she was still able to re-engage in it after awhile, but I prefer to refrain from painful penetration.
So although we have some differences, Hooijer’s essay is unique to me & represents the kind of thing I’m hoping to do here, by maintaining this blog. It was very comforting to see another person just like me who shared my own opinions.
I wonder how she’s doing now?
Whew. It looks like I’ve written more about the books I don’t like than I did about the books I do like. I don’t feel like I have a lot to complain about with the books I do like.
Now, I have a couple of other books in my queue right now which I have not yet evaluated. I may need to come back to these later. Stay tuned for my thoughts on … A Headache in the Pelvis, Sexual Healing, The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, Ressurecting Sex, and The Science/Fiction of Sex. Among other things I’m sure I’ll be adding to my library.
And I haven’t even touched all the scientific studies & journal articles!
If you can’t or don’t want to wait that long, then comments are turned on right now so you can talk about your resources.