There’s no word for it

11/30/2008 at 8:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Taking a break from researching journals & books, because there is a bone on my mind I have to pick. Every once in awhile, bloggers eventually rant. It will not be the last, I’m sure.

There’s no word for what’s on my mind. I can’t think of the word that would best fit. I’m having a hard time making up a word that flows.

It starts with a case of “She said, she said.”
Introducing or explaining feminism to partners comes up every once in awhile within feminist communities. On one of the boards I partake of, a female asked the inevitable question about feminism and her boyfriend. Something about how to explain it to him without scaring him away or how to arm herself for if he refused to listen. Pretty standard, predictable stuff. It sounded like he wasn’t such a bad guy overall, and that this couple got along well enough in other areas. But when it came to feminism, he was enjoying his privilege so much that he wasn’t wanting to examine it, and he had absorbed some rather negative ideas about women. Not necessarily about his girlfriend, but stereotypes & such.

This kind of conversation can happen in almost any group. Some kind of argument a couple has about one thing or another, or one set of ideas vs. another. This time, it just happened to take place within a feminist community, and to be about feminism.

This time, I just happened to see the following response, in a feminist community, a place in which I’m more used to seeing members be forced to acknowledge that not everyone has the same abilities, rights & privileges as the majority.

One of the responses to this conversation was something along the lines of, “If he’s not going to be a feminist, then maybe she should stop fucking him.

Okay, dating someone who does not actively identify as a feminist can be a deal-breaker for some. That’s understandable. But it’s the last three words that rubbed me the wrong way. That’s where I turned off & she lost me.

I was probably the only person in this group who was thinking to myself, “What makes you assume that she’s fucking anything??”

This sort of limitation on sexual activity doesn’t come up just within feminist communites; it’ll come up in regular conversations about relationships. “If she really loved you, she’d do x,” or “If he won’t do x thing, then she should DTMFA already,” and in this particular case, “If you really respected yourself, you wouldn’t be having sexual intercourse with him.”

Had it been me in that situation, I might’ve replied, “I don’t fuck, thank you very much,” or, “Hey guess what, I’m already one step ahead of you. I don’t fuck anything. Now that we have that out of the way, what’s the next thing you want me to do?”

My own boyfriend, despite my best efforts, still isn’t quite up to speed on all things feminist. I think I’m slowly chipping away at that, but it’s gona be awhile longer yet. I’m not naive enough to believe that I can change who he is as a person. Nonetheless, he’s obviously good enough to be my boyfriend, and hey, check it out- he’s even sticking it out with me through this journey into FSD. Hey look at this now, he’s actually respecting my boundaries & accepting of what I can & cannot do & wanting to help me get to new places I would like to be.

It works in the other direction too. This criticism applies when people dispense advise that includes “Relax and have some sex!” Well, what, exactly do you mean by “Sex?” Usually it seems that such folks mean “Intercourse” but use “sex” interchangeably. They didn’t say “Have some sexual activity!” or “Go down on your wife!” They said “Have sex,” or some other slang synonymous for heterosexual penis-in-vagina activity.
My own elder sister has done this with me! “Oh K, stop worrying about it so much and fuck your boyfriend already!” Don’t you think I’ve tried?
They mean well, I’m sure, they don’t mean to step on our toes… but well there you are then.

There is no single word for this kind of statement, this, assumption that someone is having “Normal” sex in a relationship. This assumption that “Fucking,” meaning “Normal sex,” meaning, “Intercourse,” is normal.
It’s too widespread to have a word. It’s everywhere, except in a handful of support communities & support books.
Some words that do exist and might sound like good descriptors on the surface, aren’t appropriate in this case.

I’ve heard this default referred to as the, “Cult of intercourse,” by Drs. Klein & Robbins in Let Me Count the Ways, but I can’t call this “Cultist,” because it’s not specific enough. I usually think of cults in reference to social or religious groups, or maybe fandom for movies. It just doesn’t feel like the right label for this type of phenomenon.

It’s not ablest. My body is mostly able. Saying it’s ablest is going to be diluting the meaning of that word – although of course I recognize that you can have a disability AND have sexual dysfunction at the same time.

It’s not sexist. In this case it would be nice to say “That is sexist meaning, you’re assuming something about a person’s choice of sexual activity,” but that’s not right because sexist has a completely different meaning.

Heteronormative or heterosexist, perhaps? Except that in this case, “Stop fucking” was in reference to a male/female relationship. There was enough context to be sure that it was heterosexual. That wasn’t an assumption. Still not the right meaning since that’s about orientation rather than activity.

The only thing I can think of is to make up a new word – maybe “Intercourseist.” Intercoure-ist. That word appearantly doesn’t exist – but for good reason. That doesn’t flow off the tongue. It’s like 4 syllables long. Perhaps we can shorten it to “‘Coureist?” Drop off the “Inter” part to make it shorter? “Sexual normist” has a problem for the same reason – it’s pretty long. Maybe “PIV-ist?” As in, “Penis-in-vag-ist?”

Any ideas? Suggestions, anyone? Bueller?

Maybe I’m overthinking things again. Maybe we don’t need a word to use when we need to point out the fact that someone is making an assumption about the sexual activities that are considered normal. Maybe we don’t need a word to call out those who ignore those of us who have Sexual Dysfunction, and dispense advice as though we don’t exist.

But it really cheeses me off when I see & hear people do just that. I want a single word I can use to call such bad advice out and point out that not everyone’s genitals work as good as yours. It doesn’t come that easily for some of us.

Guys, I’m standing right here. Man do you really have to say things like that in front of me?

Don’t forget about that.

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In the media

11/16/2008 at 11:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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There’s really not a lot about female dysfunction in traditional media. At least, not relative to other sexual topics which are often covered. I find it easier to find information about general sexual health, techniques to spice up your sex life, and censorship of sexuality in the media.

We’re all aware of sexuality in the media. We’ve probably all seen tv shows, movies, and heard songs about sex. Sometimes sexual innuendo even sneaks its way into kid-oriented cartoons – I guess the writers are trying to get a chuckle from the spillover teenagers who watch, or the writers are trying to make the show more bearable for the monitoring parent. Blatant sexual jokes & scenes are depicted on more adult-oriented animations. You may’ve had to sit through “Very special” episodes of, your favorite teenage comedy/drama show as part of your Sexual Education class. Or maybe you just liked that show and wanted to see your favorite characters finally experience “Their first time.”

There is sexuality in mainstream and niche media. Sometimes there are programs about sexual health, which may touch upon some of the more common sex problems women & men encounter. How to choose the right birth control, how to minimize the risk of spreading or catching infections, what to ask the doctor when you go in for an annual exam, how to tell an ordinary bump or series of bumps from a lesion. Sometimes the sexual health programs talk about how to enhance an already halfway decent sex life, or get out of a rut. Dr. Ruth comes to mind.

But when it comes to FSD, in-depth, detailed discussions are harder to find. I touched upon this when talking about what a hard time I’m having finding in-print material to work with. As of right now, it’s rare to find good information about FSD on TV. I don’t listen to the radio, but somehow between the generic music, shock jock & squawk box radio I don’t quite believe that I’m missing much. I did, however, hear enough loud, obnoxious radio commercials marketing pills & topicals designed to improve libido or make climax better.

I’m not surprised that FSD doesn’t come up much on these channels. Sexuality itself in the media is a hotly contested issue. There is plenty to talk about. Is there too much sex on tv? How can we protect our children’s innocence? How much influence does sexuality in the media have on teen pregnancy? Does this commercial or tv show objecity women? If so, is the media reflecting a picture of sexist US culture, or perpetuating a cycle? What to do about censorship? There’s enough areas ripe for debate about sex in the media even without adding dysfunction to the mix.

And let’s face it, FSD isn’t exactly a very happy topic. It’s hard to talk about. Women with FSD are constantly questioned on all sides, so it may be difficult for interviewers to find women willing to bring it up in the open. Then, how many people would tune into a tv or radio episode about sexual dysfunction? How scandalous. How many sponsors would be willing to advertise during such a show? FSD still isn’t easily treated with a magic-bullet pill, and the treatments that are available, don’t always have obvious results. In contrast, if a male is a good candidate for an erectile dysfunction medication, the results will be plainly visible. Perhaps partly for this very reason, it’s easier to find commercials for ED medication on TV programs.

It’s easier to find good info about FSD online. There are some really good support groups, medical journals, & websites available. You just have to know where to look.

So there’s not a lot about FSD on traditional media channels.
But “Not a lot” is not the same as “None.”
Every once in awhile, FSD does make a brief appearance.
Some of these appearances are more successful than others.

Once again, fair warning, I’m biased towards pain syndromes since that’s what I’m most familiar with personally.

Since 2000, Vulvodynia has occasionally popped up in the media. Possibly the first instance of vulvodynia ever being mentioned on television was on an episode of Oprah. I was still in high school then, and as I had not yet had sexual activity, I was fully unaware of the road that would lie ahead. I did not watch this episode, and it has appearantly eluded YouTube.com.

A few years later, in early 2008, a bulletin posted by a member of the NVA brought Oprah back to the foreground, at least temporarily. It said,

Dear NVA Friend,

Producers at The Oprah Winfrey Show are working on a possible upcoming show on vulvodynia.

If you are a single woman in your 20s or 30s who is worried that you may not be able to get married or have children in the future because of your vulvodynia and/or a non-Caucasian women of any age who is willing to be on the show, as soon as possible, send an email to [e-mail removed] with the following information:
– Name
– Age
– Ethnicity
– Summary of your history with vulvodynia, i.e., When were you diagnosed? How many doctors did you visit before receiving a correct diagnosis? Have any treatments helped you? Is your vulvodynia better, worse or the same?
– How has vulvodynia affected your ability to pursue a career and/or engage in social activities? How has vulvodynia affected your sex life, marriage or relationships?
– Contact information – phone number and email address
– Current photo (attachment)
– Statement that you give NVA permission to forward your contact information to producers at The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Please try to limit your summary to 1-2 paragraphs.

Thanks very much,

Chris

This simple bulletin led to some discussion among support groups – and rightly so. There’s a lot of potentially problematic areas we can address here. The Oprah show was screening patients on a couple of levels.

According to the bulletin, the show wasn’t interested in married white women. This is interesting. What could be the motivation for this? Perhaps talking to single women will pull on the public’s heartstrings more. “Oh I feel so bad for that poor girl, she might never get married just because of this one thing.”
Not that it’s easy to be single and have vulvodynia. Then you are faced with the debate of staying in or leaving the dating pool. The insecurity, the fear, the “Who would have me?”
…As it turned out, one patient e-mailed this query to the NVA and the Oprah show had simply already picked out a married woman for this episode. So that area was simply already taken care of.
Which is good – by screening married women, Oprah would have missed an opportunity to explore FSD in marriage. Just because you’re married, doesn’t mean you’re “Safe.” If FSD manifests later on in life, it can throw a relationship a curveball. Imagine waiting until your wedding night to have sex and then not being able to do it. And then not being able to do it again, and again… leading to much frustration for both parties. Or imagine having had a healthy sex life for years and years and suddenly not being able to enjoy that part of your relationship anymore. In the worst cases, I have heard tales where vulvodynia in and of itself was enough to destroy marriages.

The show requested a picture, which signals to me that the producers were going to look for someone pretty go be on air.

That non-whites were not strictly screened actually makes some sense. We know that about 90% – a significant amount! – of vulvodynia patients are white. Very few are other ethnicities, and appearantly only about 1% of patients is black (Glazer, 33.) (I have not yet seen these statistics challenged, although I expect to eventually. That the numbers are so high suggests to me that there is some biological component predisposing whites to the vulvodynia family… however I have a sneaking suspicion that culture, class & a lack of access to medical care are making it harder for nonwhite women to get properly diagnosed and treated for their FSDs. Perhaps the very high number itself is making doctors more hesitant to diagnose a pain condition in a nonwhite patient presenting with chronic pain, thus making a self-perpetuating cycle…?) Because so few vulvodynia patients are non-white, the producers couldn’t afford to screen them out.

This is all speculation. As of today, this new episode has not yet aired. My understanding is that it was finished being filmed but that there was some kind of holdup & it won’t air for awhile longer.

I’m hoping that Oprah treats this topic sensitively & realistically. When drama & comedies take it on, so far they’ve pretty much screwed it all up. In 2000, Vulvodynia made its big debut on Sex & the City. How appropriate – a show that deals with a myriad of sexual topics, tried to deal with a dysfunction. My family didn’t have cable TV at that time, and so while my elder sister was able to see this episode as it aired, she didn’t think much of it at the time.
This episode was heavily criticized for the way it handled vulvodynia – it was handled flippantly.. Charlotte went to see her gyno to find out what was going on, as she’d have chronic symptoms of a yeast infection. The gyno suggested “It could be vulvodynia.”
Vulvo-whodia? What is that?
Charlotte asked something like, “Is that serious?” and the gyno responded, “No… mostly it’s just uncomfortable.”

Not serious?
I find this to be the more condemnable offense in the episode, moreso than Charlotte’s treatment & subsequent speedy recovery. Having a constantly painful sex life, or even being in constant chronic pain, sounds pretty serious to me.
Evidently, Charlotte made an absolutely miraculous recovery, because vulvodynia was never mentioned ever again for the entire duration of the show.

If only it was that easy in real life. In real life, it would probably take at least several weeks, possibly a few months, to see if there was going to be adequate improvement from the oral medication. And I suspect these were tricyclic antidepressants. Charlotte would have had to struggle through drowsyness as her body adjusted to this type of medication.
I appreciate what you were trying to do there, Sex & the City, but you messed it up. Maybe you were trying to just throw it out there for discussion. Maybe one of the writer’s friends or family members had vulvodynia and saw an opportunity to bring it to the attention of the general public.
I’m sure the writers are fully aware of their blunder by now, having been soundly criticized for it for the last 8 years.

Vaginismus has likewise made a couple of guest star appearances on UK television. Here in the US, the only instance I’m personally familiar with is when it was mentioned on Private Practice, alongside its good buddy Vulvar Vestibulitis. Suffice it to say, this episode of Private Practice, stumbled about as much as Sex & the City. To its credit, it went into more detail with pelvic pain problems and ran the gamut from vaginismus to the proper diagnosis, vestibulitis. However, mistakes were still made, and the female patient still made an absolutely miraculous recovery in a very short period of time.

The maintainers of the Vaginismus Awareness site did a good job analyzing & picking apart how the British media handled treating vaginismus when it came up in television and in printed media.

We can also criticize the mainstream media for encouraging the idea that sexual intercourse is inevitably painful for women, at least the first time she tries it.

We can also criticize mainstream media for its depictions of sex – and here, I don’t mean the overabundance of it on television and in music, but rather for the limited kinds of sex depicted.

Dr. Marty Klein and Dr. Riki Robbins addressed this in their book, Let Me Count the Ways. At the time of writing, when sex was talked about on tv, it was limited to the typical definition – penis-vagina penetrative intercourse. Rare were tales of oral and anal sex and masturbation. One of their ideas is that the media was inadvertently increasing sexual anxiety & dysfunctions in the general populations, by making the general public believe that sexual intercourse is the only sex worth having (7, 52-54).
However, I may be able to ease off this particular criticism today. Since this book was published, Sex & the City came out and is now syndicated on national television – although the syndicated versions cut out the graphic sexual scenes. Since the book was published, the internet (and all its sexual content) took off in developed nations. I may be restricted to vanilla intercourse on television, but if I go online, I can find a wide variety of alternatives & groups willing to share, teach & accept. Meanwhile, still on televison, I can recall innuendo about masturbation on Futurama and obvious jokes about different kinds of sex on South Park and Family Guy. At least when things like this appear on tv, the shows acknowledge alternatives.
I can ease up a bit, on the limited kinds of sex shown in the media, perhaps – but I won’t come off of it completely, since sexual intercourse is still treated as the default by media, some doctors, and even within feminist circles, as I will elaborate.

There is one traditional, in-print media outlet that’s very interesting in how it handles FSD – Magazines.

There’s thousands & thousands of magazines in circulation worldwide. I can name several off the top of my head that dedicate articles & columns to sexuality – the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan, RedBook, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Elle, and the more male-oriented magazines like Playboy. Even Seventeen got itself into trouble a few years ago when it included an article about the care & feeding of the vagina. This issue was banned from the stands at a grocery chain.

As pointed out by Berman et al, articles about female sexual dysfunction have appeared in magazines from time to time over the last few years, and continue to do so with increasing frequency (249.) Of personal interest, the NVA itself lists at least 11 magazine articles that have taken on Vulvodynia. I, like the authors of this book, am encouraged to see that awareness of FSD is being spread in these magazines, which can have large audiences of readers. Maybe somewhere, someone read an article about an FSD and said to herself, “Hey that sounds familiar…” and maybe she was able to improve the quality of her sex life as a result.

I suppose with so many different magazines, it is inevitable that eventaully the writers will write about female sexual dysfunction. It’s bound to happen sooner or later, statistically speaking.

Interestingly, one feminist magazine actually did a pretty bad job of dealing with FSD. In September 2004, Ms. magazine published an article about FSD, or, as they would appearantly like to call it, “So-called ‘FSD,'” in quotes just like that. This discussion wasn’t handled as flippantly as Sex & the City’s attempt, but it was just as dismissive.

This article is difficult to wrap my head around. These are feminists that are actively standing in the way of proper medical diagnoses & treatments for women with FSD. It’s possible to become sexually dissatisfied without it turning into a dysfunction – but this article makes it sound like all dysfunction IS simply “Dissatisfaction.” Especially when the author claims that women don’t get sexual dysfunction. What does that even mean; is she trying to assure me that feeling intolerable pain with any penetration is perfectly acceptable & well within the meaning of “Functional?” If there is a nerve or blood flow problem in the genitals, then I for one can certainly understand why some women would call that “Getting jammed up.” Is it really realistic to expect me, a one for whom sex hurts, to have sexual intercourse once per week, if that is indeed the sex this author is referring to? How is the author defining sex itself as a prescription for sexual dissatisfaction; does this include oral, anal, manual, et al? How interesting that in a feminist magazine, the author neglects to touch upon the definitions of sex & the problems such definitions can present. When she says that we are “Naturally sexual,” she is forgetting that as expressions of sexuality, sexual activity may require some education & practice. It may be natural for her, but it doesn’t come so easy for the rest of us. And to say that Viagra definitely won’t help any women with sexual dysfunction, is ignoring the whole entire 20% who reported improvement after taking it.
20%, possibly due to blood flow & lubrication issues.
It sounds like a huge chunk of women to me. A whole fifth of women reporting difficulty lubricating…

One blogger pointed out the errors of Ms.‘s ways and wrote a letter to the editor. Her response was published, but the editors snipped out the parts about all the different causes of FSD, including the physical problems.

Let us keep in mind that this is the same Ms. magazine that rapped Nancy Friday on the knuckles and said, “Ms. will decide what women’s fantasies are,” (Friday, xiv in intro,) and the same Ms. magazine that refused to run ads by Good Vibrations, a woman-oriented, sex-positive adult toy store, in 1989. At that time, their statement was, “Ms. is not a sex magazine” (Klein & Robbins, 26).
Maybe Ms. shoulda kept their hands out of FSD, then, a decade & a half later. “You got your peanut butter in my chocolate sex in my feminism!”

Welp.
There’s not a super-lot of information about FSD in the media as of right now, espesically in the larger context of all the sexuality articles that are availible. It is a niche, something that can take up a few columns of space or a few pages, depeding on how much room the producers are willing to give it and how much work writers are willing to do. But media discussions of FSD are building up in spurts & stops. Sometimes it stumbles allover itself & winds up being misinforamtion, even while it tries to be useful. Sometimes there is useful information but it’s hard to pick out.
Sometime in the next few months, we may have another episode of Oprah to TiVo.
I’d like to see the media continue to take on FSD, but I do so with caution, knowing full well how easy it can be to screw up & make things worse. Please tread carefully, writers.
This isn’t all in our heads and it isn’t that easy.


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