Tags: blogging, Feminism, humor, picture post, sexual dysfunction, what
Today marks the 3rd anniversary of this blog. Three years on the internet, blogging about first-person perspectives of sexual dysfunction and feminism – that’s a long time to blog!
I think this calls for some small celebration and a few more pictures on this mostly-text operation. (We especially need some filler right now because I am still working on part 4 Ina blog post series about doctor’s views of sexual pain.) We already have pictures of cupcakes and unicorns here, but there is one very special type of unicorn I neglected to include during my little April Fool’s prank:
[Description: Unicorn pony Rarity leaning into also-unicorn pony Twilight Sparkle. From the MLP:FIM wiki. You can’t actually see Rarity’s horn in this picture, but it’s there.]
Yes that’s right: It’s a Pony post! Deal with it. This blog needs about 20% more Ponies in order to be cool. (Don’t tell me you didn’t see it coming.) Now let’s get this pony stuff out of our systems pronto.
See more on Know Your Meme
[Description: Animated .gif of Twilight Sparkle jumping mid-air and black glasses landing on her face. She talks and text appears saying, “Deal with it.”]
2011 has been a quieter year for Feminists with FSD than in previous years, because I didn’t write anything during the summer. We lost some time we could have spent blogging. On the other hand, taking time off gave me a chance to recharge and shed some burnout. I may have to do that again next year.
But even with that break, things are likely to remain quieter around here than they have been in the past – you may have noticed the lack of weekly blog link roundups. My excuse for this is that I still work full-time in a completely unrelated field and receive zero compensation for putting anything up on this blog. I cannot offer compensation to guest posters, because I have nothing to give. And since my commute got a lot worse this year than it has been in the past, I don’t have as much time to blog as I used to. But I keep trying to chug along and plug along as much as I can.
There’s still a lot of stuff left to talk about with regards to the intersection of feminism & female sexual dysfunction. I’ve addressed only a few of the outstanding issues I brought up in last year’s anniversary post. Your undying patience with my snail’s pace at getting new content posted is appreciated.
On the other hand, there are new topics posted now that I hadn’t thought of last year – such as our still-continuing series on how doctors think sexual pain should be addressed – as a pain problem, or as a sex problem? Hmm. So much work left to do… and it needs to be done.
I am 100% confident that there is still a need to present these first-person perspectives on feminism & sexual dysfunction. I’m still finding posts online and in articles written by people who present themselves as experts on sexuality – yet articles about sexual dysfunction still fail to speak for me, or even, to me. So many articles by folks who have never experienced sexual dysfunction firsthand, yet claim to know more about it than I and my friends do. The authors don’t talk to me as an equal deserving of respect and with a mind of my own, capable of making thoughtful decisions on what to do about my health and sex life. Instead, what I’m seeing as someone who actually has sexual dysfunction, is condescension and stereotypes presented as helpful “Advice.”
I don’t know about the rest of you, but most of the advice offered in these contemporary articles about and critical of sexual dysfunction do not address my problems. Instead, the advice presented just adds bullshit onto my growing pile of crap I gotta deal with – and makes it harder for me to slog along way to a satisfactory resolution. I’m thinking to myself right now, Oh look, another so-called “Sexpert” just implied that anyone who even considers using medication to manage a sex problem must be a pill-popping shill incapable of critical thought re: the pharmaceutical industry and potential side effects. What do these journalists think we do? I think they think we all go to a big city with fistfulls of cash and bang on the door of the first corporation we can find, saying, “BIG PHARMA TAKE MY MONEEEEY!!!”
[Description: Stylized unicorn with a gold tiara and rainbow wavy hair Princess Celestia shrugging with this look on her face: >:/]
I think to myself, And look over there, another journalist just explicitly stated that women who don’t have orgasms are holding themselves back because of peer pressure brainwashing by the patriarchy. I can’t believe this is still a thing.
Remember, I am not an Agony Aunt. Most of the time I hate giving out advice, because I can never have a complete story of what’s going on in your life, what you’ve already tried, where you want to be in the future, etc. I don’t want to be the one to give you the wrong advice that winds up causing more problems in the end.
And please, for the love of god, no one ever refer to me as a “Sexpert.”
I will proceed to make one exception to my general guideline about not giving advice though. Here’s something that the sexual dysfunction writers to which I am referring need to know:
Protip: if you yourself do not know what daily life with sexual dysfunction is like, yet you still want to write about female sexual dysfunction, maybe find some women who actually have sexual dysfunction ask for their opinions and experiences first. Having trouble finding women who identify as having sexual dysfunction and who are willing to open up to you about it? Then maybe you should read the archives on this blog for examples of why it’s risky to come out as having a sexual dysfunction in the first place. There is still tremendous stigma attached to it as a diagnosis, whether you’ve got a low libido, pain, or any other seriously distressing sexual problem. Is your blog post or magazine excerpt going to be yet another one of these problematic articles?
So instead of copying the way I see most articles about sexual dysfunction, here’s what I prefer to think when I write stuff for this blog. I start off from these general points of view to serve as guidelines:
People with sexual dysfunction are smart.
People with sexual dysfunctions are capable of making rational decisions about what to do about their health and sex lives.
People with sexual dysfunction have probably already sought advice, are currently seeking advice, or will seek advice in the future. That means that whatever advice you as an individual have for someone with a sex problem, it probably isn’t that new or revolutionary. Whoever you’re writing for has probably seen some iteration of your advice, or will see it again in the future. So that’s why I like to take things in a different direction here – I like to show off stuff that I haven’t seen before, or stuff that I’ve only rarely seen.
It’s a different starting point from how I usually see sexual dysfunction patients handled. Most articles and essays about sexual dysfunction start off from a position where the patients are ignorant, gullible and easily manipulated.
Hmm… No, sir, I don’t like it.
What th— wait a minute! This was supposed to be a pony post! Who let Mr. Horse in here?! Get out of here, Mr. Horse. You’re from a different show.
[Description: Mr. Horse from the Ren & Stimpy show standing on two legs and wearing a gentlemen’s coat and tie. Standing in front of an abstract yellow & gray background with a sour look on his expressive face.]
A problem holding me back is that since I am not an Agony Aunt, Sexpert, Ph.D., M.D., M.S.W., or anything other than an ordinary lady with an extraordinary crotch, I still lack something critically important: Credibility. Who is going to listen to a young lady’s views of sex and feminism when she herself has not actually even had any penis-in-vagina activity in over two years, despite being in a long-term heterosexual relationship? Who is going to take seriously a critique of peer-reviewed journal articles, as written by someone with no relevant academic credentials? What publisher would ever take an essay about sex by someone like me seriously? There’s no two-or-three letter acronym before or after my real name, other than the generic “MS.” So although This blog has a decent number of readers – as many as some college classes – I remain painfully insecure about my own perceived illegitimacy. I feel like it doesn’t matter how much research I do or if I do a good job of pointing out flaws in the way people present sexual dysfunction; without something to make me look like I’m important, no one will ever listen.
[Description: Light purple winged unicorn Princess Luna crouching on the ground. She is looking up at something off-screen.]
I suppose the solution to this dilemma is to go back to school to get a two-or-three letter acronym to put in front of or behind my name. Except I already have a Bachelor’s degree in another field, and school costs money. Money and time, which I am also short on. It is a conundrum… Plus, in principle, you shouldn’t need to have professionally recognized credentials in order to talk about what’s going on in your life.
So for some reason I keep on blogging anyway. It’s one of those things where you do it because you have to do it. Not that I’m being compelled by any outside force; just something inside pushing for more. So more comes out – and hopefully, will continue to pour out for the foreseeable future.
Thanks for reading, we shall return to our regularly scheduled non-pony blogging shortly.
Tags: academia, communication, disability, experts, female sexual dysfunction, FSD, health, language, medicine, pain, psychology, sex, sexual dysfunction, sexual health, vulvar vestibulitis
No one knows what to do with sexual pain.
If you have experienced long term sexual and/or genital pain, you’ve probably seen multiple doctors about it. You may have started with a general practitioner, who referred you to a gynecologist or urologist, who referred you to a sex therapist, who referred you to a pain specialist. There may have even been a dermatologist or psychatrist in there somewhere. And you may have noticed that each of these professions have their own ideas (or lack thereof) about how to best handle the situation. When getting refered to yet another doctor, you’re getting clued into who your current caregiver thinks is likely to have the most knowledge about treatments. (Of course, this assumes you have the health insurance and cash to cover medical treatments.)
But having been through the doctor shuffle already, I have come to the conclusion that no one really knows what to do with sexual pain.
Part of the reason chronic pelvic pain patients get bounced around so much is that, behind the scenes, doctors themselves are still debating how best to handle sexual and genital pain. Are we dealing with a chronic pain syndrome akin to something like back or neck pain? Or are we dealing with something purely sexual? A gynecologist may feel inadequately prepared to deal with long-term genital pain that doesn’t resolve following standard operating procedures. But when the pain takes place mostly during, or most acutely, during sexual activity, a pain specialist may think the problem is purely sexual – and some pain specialists may feel uncomfortable addressing unwanted pain during sex. Sexual dysfunction as we in the US know it is a relatively new and highly controversial area of study. And it will take time for doctors, scientists and philosophers to sort out the defining characteristics and treatments of dysfunction – if indeed such standards can ever be decided. It is the nature of science and medicine to go through revisions and changes.
I just wish these doctors and professionals would make up their minds already about which one of them I’m supposed to go to for treatment.
One such behind-the-scenes debate about the appropriate way to address sexual pain took place in early 2005, when Dr. Yitzchak M. Binik, Ph.D. wrote in to the peer-reviewed journal, Archives of Sexual Behavior. You can view an abstract of Dr. Binik’s piece, Should dyspareunia be retained as a sexual dysfunction in DSM-V? A painful classification decision here. If you want to learn more, you can view the full text on Dr. Binik’s website. (I can’t determine if what we’re going to look at today is considered an editorial piece, a study or a research review.)
So who is this guy? Dr. Binik is the director of Sex & Couple Therapy Service up at McGill University Hospital in Canada. He was one of the contributors to the textbook, Female Sexual Pain Disorders, (wrote the foreword) and he has written many articles about dyspareunia. According to his website, he’s also been involved with research on painful sex – there are three grant-funded projects listed as of 2011. But wait, there’s more – his whole resume is up for perusal.
At the time of Dr. Binik’s submission to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, dyspareunia (painful sex – usually when professionals say it, they mean “Cis-heterosexual intercourse,”) was classified as one of the four female sexual dysfunctions then-recognized by the DSM-IV. (The DSM-IV is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – basically it establishes guidelines for recognizing and treating various mental illnesses and disabilities. Professionals that rely on the DSM include psychologists and medical doctors. As of today a fifth revision to the manual is pending.) The other three sexual dysfunctions recognized by the text are arousal, libido and orgasm problems. Until then, there was not much debate among professionals who deal with dyspareunia about how appropriate its classification as a sexual dysfunction is.
Dr. Binik set out to challenge the classification of dyspareunia, with the goal of shifting it out of the sexual dysfunctions and into the pain category of mental disorders in the DSM. Reclassification of dyspareunia as a pain disorder instead of a sexual dysfunction would not remove it from the DSM completely – it would just move the problem around and give it a different name, grouping dyspareunia with any other pain while recognizing non-sexual pain in the crotch – such as the pain of a gynecological exam or attempted tampon insertion.
In Binik’s discussion of the history behind the term, “Dyspareunia,” he makes it sound like sexual pain was pretty much just thrown in with the other dysfunctions for lack of any better ideas at the time. But painful sex presents some unique problems compared to the other three sexual dysfunctions – after all, sexual pain frequently bleeds out into non-sexual areas of life. He talks about the differences between pain during sex (an act) vs. arousal or desire dysfunctions (physiological reactions,) and how dyspareunia is a broad term – to Binik, its breadth is a weakness instead of a strength.
There are several sexual dysfunction issues that Binik didn’t explore, and these omissions mean something. He did not challenge or question the existence or appropriateness of the term “Dysfunction” for any other sexual problem. He excluded a discussion of vaginismus, though this may be because vaginismus isn’t technically a dyspaerunia issue in the current DSM for some reason. (I’m not yet 100% clear on what the reason is for vaginismus to sit on it’s own tier of dysfunction; I think the folks behind the DSM fixated on how it prevents vaginal insertion of objects as the main feature, instead of the pain associated with attempts at insertion. This distinction is likely to change with the DSM-V.)
As examples to bolster his reclassification argument, Binik focuses almost exclusively on vulvar vestibulitis (VVS) patients – so he’s talking about people like me. Binik did not talk about dyspaerunia and endometriosis, or dyspareunia and interstitial cystitis, or dyspareunia and cancer. For this discussion, dyspareunia and VVS are used almost interchangeably… even though VVS is not the only cause and kind of painful sex.
I summarize Binik’s main agruments to move dyspareunia out of the sexual dysfuctions and into pain as:
1. Dyspareunia is similar to any other pain in self reports. Genital pain is similar to other pain conditions when visualized using brain scans (pages 14, 16.)
2. There’s more research on pain. “By contrast, there is a relatively large literature onhow pain is represented in the brain (Casey & Bushnell,2000; Talbot et al., 1991).” (page 16.) So there’s more material to work with.
3. Treatment plans for sexual dysfunction don’t usually include pain management. If professionals take a pain perspective of dyspareunia, it opens up more complementary treatment options. That means potentially better outcomes for patients (page 18.)
(Unfortunately, Dr. Binik doesn’t address this – it also means more anxiety about seeking treatment in the first place, since pain management can include oral medications – and certain feminist anti-FSD activists in particular and bootstrapists in general dedicate extensive resources to opposing medication for sexual and health problems. Just think of all those sensationalist news stories about celebrities becoming addicted to pain pills.)
4. Socially, pain is a more dignified, less controversial subject than sex – “Finally, as a seeker of research funding, I have noted that there have been several recent new governmental funding initiatives for pain related to dyspareunia (see National Institute of ChildHealth and Development, 2000). As far as I know, this is not being matched in the sexuality area where funding is constantly under attack” (page 19.) This is an unfortunate reflection of how sexual issues are downplayed and sneered at by the public. It’s just easier to get funding, research and respect if you’re exploring pain than it is if you’re exploring sex.
Judging from the passionate responses included with the same issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior, Binik’s article was quite controversial at the time. There were at least 21 responses, plus however many other e-mails and memos were written up and sent around but didn’t get published. Eventually Binik wrote a follow-up statement in response to professional criticism, which I’d like to look at with you later.
My biggest schtick with Binik’s article and the responses is: I honestly don’t get why this has to be an either/or question.
I’m saying this as a patient: This isn’t a simple either-or issue. Dyspareunia isn’t something that fits neatly into a single box. Try to stick it in the sex box, and the pain stuff will still leak out into every day life. Try to place it exclusively in the pain box, and sexual problems will jump in. You can have pain AND another sexual dysfunction, like problems with arousal or orgasm.
If you ask me, pain in the genitals should be recognized as both a pain and sexual problem. For some patients, it may very well fit neatly into only one category. But whatever professional field is assigned as having the final say on the best way to treat dyspareunia – you need to be prepared to go outside of your own comfort zone, in order to bring me the comfort I need.
Unfortunately my perspective as a patient isn’t given much value. Just the location of publication presents a problem – the insular nature of being part of a peer-reviewed journal itself acts like a firewall to keep out non-professionals and non-academics. Which means ordinary folks probably don’t even get a chance to find out when debates like this happen, and we probably won’t be solicited for feedback. These debates excluded most women with FSD from participating.
It’s a bummer, too, since I got more to say about this article, which I’ll spell out here instead.
A major weakness of Binik’s argument and one that Binik had to address in a later, separate response, is that he did not really consider the sexual part of sexual pain.
Like it or not, pain in the genitals takes on a different meaning than pain in the arm or neck. And no it’s not fair, I think it sucks that it is socially unacceptable to say, “My vulva/penis/clitoris hurts today.” Not that its easy to talk about chronic pain to begin with though! Non-sexual, non-genital pain still gets heaps of stigma and able-bodied folks going, “Deal with it.” But right now, in the US at least, genitals are all tied up with issues of gender, identity and performance. So looking at dyspareunia exclusively as a pain problem won’t address the ways in which pain can impact sexuality. Even if the pain resolves satisfactorily, dyspareunia patients may still have to deal with long-term insecurity and body memories. If other dysfunctions like difficulty or loss of orgasm have gotten tied in with the pain, then those non-painful problems may not resolve at the same time as pain. To ignore the sexual component of genital pain, to the extent that it is present, is inadequate.
ON THE OTHER HAND, for some folks, skipping the sex part and addressing the pain is exactly what’s needed. This was actually more the case for me – what I needed the most when I went through the most intense period of genital pain and treatment wasn’t sex therapy or a better understanding of social construction. Gender roles and patriarchy, as much as they do hinder me in many other ways, did not reach inside of my body and cause my cells to rebel. What I needed most was something to address the physical pain and discomfort.
That urgent need is lessened now, but it’s not completely gone and it will probably never go away completely. So I remain open to medicine in my sex life now and in the future.
Now, of all the people who wrote in, who do you think would have been the most likely to agree that dyspareunia should not be classified as a sexual dysfunction? I’ll give you a hint: After all, sexual dysfunction is a controversial term – part of the resistance against it stems from concern that the medical industry will throw around the term to convince able-bodied women that they have physical problems, thus increasing sales of medications and devices to address it. Who’s to say whether a libido is low in the first place, and how exactly are we supposed to measure such a subjective experience?
So I was shocked, absolutely shocked, to see Dr. Leonore Tiefer, Ph.D., organizer behind The New View Campaign, sex therapist, educator, author and editor, write a negative response to Dr. Binik’s proposition. You may remember Dr. Tiefer from such posts as a 5-part series on Sex is not a Natural Act and A Review of A New View of Women’s Sexuality. You may also recognize her name from prolific writing on feminism, social construction and female sexual dysfunction. Dr. Tiefer is a critic of female sexual dysfunction, particularly the way it is handled by organizers of the DSM and its end-users (the end users being doctors and other professionals.)
So if, in other cases, Dr. Tiefer supports the view that female sexual dysfunction is a myth manufactured by medicine (even if she herself is careful to avoid using that exact phrasing,) then what’s she doing getting involved with the reality of dyspareunia?
To be continued…
Tags: blogging, sex, sex education, what
[Dear internet, I submitted my Afterglow candle review to Pleasurists, and what I wrote was included in their roundup! As part of the rules & regulations of Pleasurists, I am to re-post the edition in which my post was included – behind a cut is permitted. You’ll have to click through from the main page to view the Pleasurists materials, although everything should still appear in your RSS feeder. All links should below the fold should be considered potentially NSFW.]