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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