Guest Post: Interview with Elizabeth on Asexuality

11/01/2010 at 10:17 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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[Dear internet, we have a guest poster today! This is a follow-up post that picks up where Guest Post: Interview with K on Female Sexual Dysfunction over at Shades of Gray left off. Our guest poster, Elizabeth, had some questions for me about FSD and HSDD in particular, which I addressed over on her blog. And I had some questions about HSDD and asexuality which I was hoping she would be able to clarify.

To refresh your memory: In summer of June 2010, hearings were scheduled to determine whether the antidepressant-turned-potential-libido booster, flibanserin, should receive FDA approval. The possibility of this drug of questionable value going to market in the near future was met with resistance, especially from certain feminist organizations and activists. There were also some concerns about flibanserin and the type of sexual dysfunction it was supposed to address (Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorer) from within the asexual community. Elizabeth and I first made contact when we bumped into each other on a thread about the drug over at Ily’s blog; there was some delay between then and the posts you see before you now.

I suggest that if you would like to participate in the discussion here, please check your privilege so as not to step on anyone’s toes. Don’t forget about the intersectionality; it’s possible that we’ve got some folks with sexual problems & dysfunctions lurking in the wings here who put the “Questioning” or “asexual” in LGBTIQQAA. Flibanserin will no longer be pursued by Boehringer Ingelheim so we don’t need to debate it today. As Elizabeth said in the preface to my interview, let’s focus on making each other more aware, understanding & accepting of asexuality and sexual dysfunction.]

My name is Elizabeth, though many in the asexual community know me by my online moniker, the Gray Lady. I am a twenty-something cisgendered female blogger. I am both asexual and a feminist, and I blog about both subjects and how they interrelate. I identify myself as panromantic asexual, and am currently in a committed polyamorous relationship with a trans woman. Although the original subject of my blog is about being in the gray area between sexuality and asexuality and my own questioning where I fit on that spectrum, I now simply identify myself as being a sex-positive asexual. I take an intersectional approach to feminism, and always strive to identify where I have privilege and confront it, though of course from time to time I will fail to see it, as anyone does. I think it should be noted here that not all asexuals are feminists or any of the other things that I listed, and certainly not every asexual agrees with me. I represent only myself, though I try to do my part to help the community. In my leisure time, I can often be found reading, learning foreign languages, or playing Pokemon.

I understand that there is a lot to think about in a definition of asexuality. What are some important points you would like to see people understand about asexuality?

Most importantly, I want people to try to understand the word as we actually use it before trying to enter into a conversation with us. Too often, people make the mistake of inferring a meaning from the word’s component morphemes–that is, they think it simply means “not sexual”–which is very vague and could have a whole range of meanings, depending on how each person defines “sexual.” Some people have such a broad definition of sexuality that from their perspective, it encompasses the entirety of human existence. So at first glance, to some people it seems to be impossible. Others may think that we are referring to celibacy (lack of sexual behavior), an inability to have normal sexual function, or even think we’re saying that we don’t have genitals.

Generally speaking, however, we’re ONLY addressing sexual attraction. What that means is that, while we may be attracted to people in other ways (we might think they’re pretty, or like their personality), and while we are certainly capable of love, that (by itself) just doesn’t translate into a desire to have sex. If we do get “crushes,” they’re not sexualized; for me, if I like someone, the things I want to do with them are things like having deep intellectual discussions, cuddling, sometimes making out (though at other times I find myself grossed out by the thought of doing so), and literally sleeping in the same bed. Or sometimes, when my attraction to a person is purely aesthetic, just looking for a while. For this reason, some of us will use the word “squish” to describe a non-sexualized crush, so that hopefully there will be fewer misunderstandings.

That’s not to say that none of us ever want to have sex for other reasons, but the attraction itself just isn’t it. I never look at people and think anything like, “Wow, that person is so hot, I would so do her/him!” It doesn’t typically occur to me to think about sex on my own without some sort of external reminder, except as some sort of intellectual puzzle. I’ve found that I can have desire for sex, even enthusiastic desire for sex, without experiencing attraction, however. I never really feel this desire as I’m going about my day-to-day life; it only really arises when I’m in a situation where I’m comfortable with my partner and okay with the idea of having sex, and she begins to physically arouse me. That doesn’t mean that when I’m not in that situation I never think, “Oh, that might be nice,” but that kind of thought is usually pretty detached and apathetic, not so much a true desire. My partner and I will still often go months without realizing how long it’s been since we last had sex, even though she is sexual. I think one thing that helps me be comfortable with her is that she is not really sexually attracted to me either, because she mostly prefers guys for sex.

So asexuality doesn’t necessarily mean that we dislike sex, although there are certainly some asexuals who do. There’s tons of variety in the asexual community. There are some asexuals who would prefer to be celibate for life themselves, but are totally fine with sex otherwise. There are other asexuals who are disgusted by even the idea of sex, and don’t want to talk about it or see it in movies, books, etc. Just as there are many different sentiments within the asexual community about sex itself, there are also many different preferences on romance and intimacy. I’ve had people assume that just because I’m asexual, that means that I don’t experience love, or don’t experience romantic love. That’s confusing what we in the asexual community call romantic/affectional orientation (which, just like sexual orientation, describe what gender(s) a person tends to attach romantically to; e.g. hetero-romantic, homo-romantic, etc. And on that note, just to clear this up, it’s not a contradiction to identify as, for example, an asexual lesbian, because lesbianism can refer to either sexual or affectional orientation.) with sexual orientation at best, or assuming a lack of basic human emotions at worst. I think it should be the default assumption that asexuals of ALL stripes, even aromantic asexuals, experience love, even if it is platonic or non-romantic love. There is a wide variety of ways to form close connections with others; some rely on a close group of friends, some get intimacy through their communities, some have intimate relationships that aren’t categorized as strictly friendship or as romantic. What does “romantic” actually mean, anyway? There is no clear definition, and some of us struggle with deciding whether we are romantic or aromantic because of that, or don’t believe there is a distinction at all.

There’s so much variety that really, it’s reasonably safe to say that the only thing that unites us is a lack of sexual attraction significant enough for us to embrace this label. Of course, there are some gray areas as well which I’ve devoted much of my blog to, but that’s a little outside the scope of this.

Is there a difference between asexuality and HSDD, and if so, what is it? What about sexual dysfunction more broadly defined?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, asexuality has to do with sexual attraction, and HSDD has to do with sexual desire or sexual interest. These are not the same thing; it’s very possible to have either one without the other. For example, I’m not sexually attracted to anyone, but with an understanding partner and a different approach to sex, I’ve found it enjoyable and desirable, even though I don’t really have an intense level of interest in it. I’ve found that I tend to fall into a pattern of responsive desire as mentioned above, wherein I don’t really think about sex too often or get “in the mood” for sex without having had any kind of physical stimulation, but being in a safe space with a partner I’m willing to have sex with does allow me to enthusiastically consent, and generally speaking I find that I have no trouble on the physical side.

Of course, I used to have a lot of pain with PIV intercourse, to the extent that my first sexual partner condescendingly explained to me that I have a sexual disability, but that situation was coercive at best, and the real problem there was that I wasn’t able to become aroused enough in a situation that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, with a person who didn’t seem to really care how I was doing and never bothered asking my permission before touching me. He essentially was writing off any responsibility he had for the way I felt (both physically and emotionally) by claiming that I was just “defective.” Initially, even in a situation where I am completely comfortable with having sex, I do sometimes have pain with intercourse for a variety of reasons, but it’s not very much pain, and it’s mostly due to not being used to the size, not enough lubrication, perhaps a bad angle, something like that. As far as I understand, this kind of pain is relatively common and normal for a person who has intercourse as infrequently as I do. I don’t have any pain with outercourse or any other form of sex. It’s not something that typically inhibits my ability to even have PIV intercourse on the same occasion that I have that sort of pain; most of the time, it is temporary. I’m not distressed about it at all. So I don’t define this as a disability or dysfunction of any sort, though if I did, it wouldn’t be HSDD.

One other thing I wanted to mention is that there was a study that recently came out recently called “Physiological and Subjective Sexual Arousal in Self-Identified Asexual Women” (by Brotto and Yule)” which I want to quote from here. This is just from the abstract, so you don’t have to actually read the full article to see where the quote came from:

“Asexuals showed significantly less positive affect, sensuality-sexual attraction, and self-reported autonomic arousal to the erotic film compared to the other groups; however, there were no group differences in negative affect or anxiety. Genital-subjective sexual arousal concordance was significantly positive for the asexual women and non-significant for the other three groups, suggesting higher levels of interoceptive awareness among asexuals. Taken together, the findings suggest normal subjective and physiological sexual arousal capacity in asexual women and challenge the view that asexuality should be characterized as a sexual dysfunction.”

So at least we do have some scientific evidence that asexuality is not a sexual dysfunction of arousal, in addition to much anecdotal evidence that asexuals are perfectly capable of normal sexual function. However, I also want to note that asexuality and sexual dysfunction can and do sometimes overlap. I know of at least one asexual woman who also has vaginismus, although I have not been in contact with her for a long time now. I’d love to hear from anyone in this overlap who would be comfortable talking about this, because I’m curious how these issues intersect, and how people within that intersection deal with attitudes from both sides.

What are some of the key concerns about HSDD in the asexual community and what (if any) are some ways these concerns might be addressed?

The main concern is that it might be used to delegitimize asexuality–which, quite frankly, a lot of times it is, however erroneously. There’s still a widespread view that asexuality is not a sexual orientation, but instead a disorder, a disability, a dysfunction, or the result of sexual trauma. The DSM-IV specifies that in order for it to qualify as a disorder, it must “result in significant distress for the individual,” however I’m not sure that is specific enough. What kind of distress? There are a lot of people who feel distress about being asexual because they have been taught to feel that it isn’t normal, it’s a defect, and that it’s a huge burden to their romantic partners, who will eventually leave them because of it, or that they’ll never find any romantic partners at all, and that not having a romantic partner and not having sex means they will never lead a fulfilling life. Basically, if asexuality is a sexual orientation, then it is not chosen and we cannot expect asexuals to be happy with it all the time, so simply saying there must be distress as a qualifier, while somewhat of a step in the right direction, doesn’t really work in my view and to be honest, it seems like it was just tacked on without much thought. If we assume that only people who are distressed about their lack of interest in sex have HSDD, and that asexuals don’t qualify because they lack that distress, isn’t the assumption that asexuals are all happy about being asexual? I’ve seen many threads where asexuals (with much embarrassment to admit it) discuss their distress due to being asexual, and I think this mindset only disempowers those people by encouraging them to hide how they feel. Plus, in that study that I quoted from earlier, anyone who felt distress about their lack of sexual interest or level of attraction would have been disqualified from the study, so this leads to issues with gathering representative samples as well. Of course, no one who volunteered did feel that sort of distress, and most likely no one who did would volunteer for anything like that, because of the pressure to present asexuals to the rest of the world as being happy and distress-free, so as not to make it easier for other people to dismiss us all as just disordered.

Now, technically asexuality is not about a lack of desire or a lack of sexual fantasies at all, and in fact it’s possible to be asexual and have either some form of sexual desire* or sexual fantasies, or both. But that distinction is very fine, and not often understood. In practice the two are often confused, and this may lead to a situation where an asexual person who has not yet realized they are asexual will be pressured into seeking treatment for HSDD, further internalizing the message that there is something wrong with them. Asexuality is not yet well known enough that we can expect people to realize that it’s a possibility, in this kind of situation. Sometimes it takes many years before people will come to understand themselves as asexual. I think it would help to have asexuality specified explicitly as something that should be considered. That would go a long way towards helping asexuality gain visibility as well.

* Since it’s been pointed out to me that this term isn’t all that clear itself, I’ll clarify that when I use it I’m not just talking about libido or “sex drive”–which I interpret as a physical urge for release–but also non-physically based desire as well. In other words, I tend to use it more in the sense of having any kind of interest in having sex, aside from altruistic partner-pleasing or coercive situations. Not an interest in the social consequences of having sex, but a desire to have sex itself, even when unaccompanied by a physical urge.

So that’s the practical concern. The other big concerns I’ve seen being raised are primarily ideological. I’ve seen asexuals and feminists alike raise these kinds of concerns. What is “normal,” and who gets to define it? In the case of HSDD, the task of defining such a disorder is essentially the same as authoritatively declaring what level of sexual interest–and by “sexual desire” they do seem to also mean “sexual interest,” as the DSM-V’s proposed revisions make clear (it may be renamed to Sexual Interest/Aversion Disorder)–constitutes a normal level of interest, what constitutes a disordered level of interest. This of course has a significant impact on laypersons’ ideas as well, because it is coming from people who presumably know what they are talking about (although I’ve seen some spectacularly bad… uh, “science” used by those in charge of rewriting the gender and sexuality disorders to justify their claims, so that assumption is not always a good one). If not being interested in sex continues to be considered a huge problem (disorder/defect) by and large by society as a whole, unqualified, then how can we reasonably expect stigmatization of asexuality to decrease? Without any explicit expression that asexuality, while uncommon, is still just a normal human variance, asexuals will still get lumped in with people with HSDD and the current cultural ideology (that all humans are sexual and so a lack of interest in sex is unnatural) will remain the same. Likewise, I think we also should be concerned about potentially having the wrong focus in cases where incompatibilities with one’s partner, relationship problems, or abusive situations may be the cause of the disinterest. Sometimes a lack of interest in or aversion to sex is actually very healthy and adaptive, and this needs to be taken into consideration as well.

Andrew Hinderliter of Asexual Explorations, our go-to guy for information about the DSM, posted an article on the Sociological Imagination which addresses this, and helped me to articulate some of my own views on the subject. As he points out, HSDD describes a symptom rather than a syndrome, and encompasses a wide variety of people in many different life contexts. As context is essentially the determiner for whether or not a low or non-existent level of sexual interest/desire is a disorder rather than a natural human variance or positive adaptation to a coercive situation, I have wondered at times whether this is particularly useful as a diagnosis by itself, or whether it might not be better as a symptom of other diagnoses. However, I also realized that the cause of such a problem may either not be obvious at first, or as with asexuality, just plain unknown. Thus, I think it can serve a purpose as a stand-alone diagnosis, but lots of careful thought needs to go into crafting it.

I’m well aware that careful attention needs to be paid to how this diagnosis works as a barrier for women with FSD from getting the help they need, or how any diagnosis might. If it is a symptom of another problem, that might not be immediately obvious, and so for those people, this diagnosis might be useful to get things started, and can change as more information surfaces. That’s a big if. But I also think that this can be a useful diagnosis in and of itself. Asexuals tend not to realize that you can have sexual attraction or interest in having sex without feeling desire for it. Because it’s a realm outside of our own experiences, we don’t necessarily tend to think about the possibility of this kind of disparity that deeply inhibits a person’s self-expression, this emotional pain that actually does come from an internal source. Although I wouldn’t compare these two experiences, I imagine it might be like a cisgendered person trying to understand what it’s like to feel a mismatch between one’s internal gender and one’s physical, wrongly-sexed body. That mismatch doesn’t exist for us, so we don’t tend to think about the possibility that it might exist for others, or the deep distress that it might cause. That distress alone should be sufficient to qualify for calling it a disorder or disability. I don’t think it’s right to minimalize the way it affects a person’s life by calling it a sexual “problem” instead, though at the same time I do think we ought to be careful not to make “distress or no distress” the sole distinction between people who have HSDD and people who don’t. I think that’s reducing it to an on/off, yes/no type distinction, when it’s really more complicated than that.

Another big concern I’ve seen raised, particularly among feminists and certainly by New View, is whether what is expected of women sexually speaking is centered around a male-centric norm. The argument, as I understand it, is that female sexual desire is very context-dependent, and that “sexual desire” may for many women mean having a sort of desire that is triggered more by physical arousal (in a safe and consensual context) rather than initial interest or attraction. From my own personal experiences, I know that this can be true, but other than knowing that responsive desire is perfectly possible without experiencing sexual attraction, I don’t know what to think about it. Does the HSDD diagnosis itself indeed put women in a position where they are expected to respond the same way as men, or is that more of a cultural assumption? Will the proposed split between male and female SIAD correct that? I don’t know those answers, but more pointedly, is that even the reason why women seek treatment for HSDD? That’s a pretty big assumption, I think. It’s certainly possible that some women do seek treatment for it because they apply a model of desire that’s more appropriate for men, but does that mean that all women who seek (or would seek) treatment for HSDD are doing this? I doubt it. What about women who don’t even have responsive desire? And why assume that no women who might seek treatment are aware of this tendency to view women’s sexuality through a male lens? I do think this cultural tendency ought to be addressed, but I don’t think it’s grounds to dismiss the entire diagnosis.

Switching gears… I want to return to something I mentioned briefly above: the issue of relationship incompatibilities. I feel this needs just a little bit more explanation before I move on to the next part of the question. I’ve noticed that the vast majority of the time, within a relationship where one partner has a much higher level of desire for sex than the other, the partner with the low level of interest gets all the blame for the problems that arise out of that. Rather than viewing this as just another incompatibility with both partners working towards a solution, often it is assumed that only the person with low desire must change, because there must be something wrong with them. A person who is told this over and over again might internalize this and begin to believe it themselves, and in this case might begin to feel distress over this aspect of themselves and want to seek treatment for it. I think many asexuals know this sense of believing oneself to be broken just because it’s what they’ve been told over and over and over again, because it is how they felt before understanding asexuality. I myself have been told many, many times that I must have a sexual disorder or disability, and while I never believed that, to some extent in the past I have considered asexuality to be a shortcoming in sexual scenarios because of it. I would say that this very emotional, touchy subject is what drives many asexuals to discount the possibility that HSDD/SIAD might be a legitimate disorder, and I think we saw that come out in the comments to K’s interview on my blog. But we do need to keep our emotional reactions under control, and realize that we have the privilege of not dealing with this internal pressure that inhibits our self expression.

So, with all that said, how might our concerns about the HSDD/SIAD diagnosis be dealt with, aside from all of us trying to take a level-headed view that acknowledges our own privilege? I’m not sure on how the diagnosis should be worded. I do think we need something that distinguishes between different kinds of distress, not so much as something that delineates specific definitions (being too specific would be exclusionary), but something that at least directs therapists and medical professionals to try to locate the origins of it. It seems to me like no matter how it’s worded, a short list of diagnostic criteria is still going to fail to acknowledge the complexity of all the different things that might be going on, and so I think perhaps having educational materials on asexuality available to be presented at the time of consultation might be a good option. (This of course with the acknowledgment that it might not apply, but is just being presented as a way to empower people with the knowledge that it exists, and ability to decide for themselves. I think it should be handled very carefully so as not to be coercive.) I don’t foresee that happening in the near future though, just because it’s such a tremendous task to get such materials distributed to every therapist’s office, not to mention getting them to understand and accept asexuality. If not that, then at least I think that all therapists and medical professionals should be made aware of both asexuality and the instances where low sexual interest or desire would be adaptive, and of the concerns of women who have FSD. They should be educated on the importance of balancing those concerns, and not assuming that the whole diagnosis is bunk just because it might be somewhat too vague in its description. I don’t foresee this happening soon, but we’re taking baby steps towards that goal, and it’s something that I’m hopeful for in the future.

Talking about FSD: Listening to Patients

12/23/2009 at 10:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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A few weeks ago, Alternet posted an unfortunately-titled article critical of female sexual dysfunction and of the pharmaceutical industry, “Restless Vagina Syndrome”: Big Pharma’s Newest Fake Disease, by Terry Allen. I looked at the article and presented evidence that “Restless vagina syndrome” does not mean what you or Terry Allen probably think it means. What it really refers to is Restless Genital Syndrome (RGS,) also referred to as Persistent Arousal Syndrome, Persistent Sexual Arousal Syndrome, or Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder. This causes of this poorly-understood disorder have not yet been pinned down definitively; regardless of the cause, the actual condition Allen referred to manifests as physiological genital arousal & engorgement (sometimes to the point of physical discomfort,) even in the absence of conscious sexual desire and (possibly) frequent orgasms, which may or may not be satisfactory in reliving symptoms. With RGS, these orgasms are frequent enough so that not all of those orgasms are wanted or take place in a safe, socially acceptable setting. I also talked about Allen’s claims about Big Pharma marketing sexual insecurity & questions in research on FSD.

Not too long after, I encountered an interesting post by Ily at asexy beast. Ily, an asexual herself, processed another article on FSD (specifically the controversial diagnosis of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder,) the Women Who Want to Want, quite differently from me. We interacted a little in comments at her blog, and I fleshed out some more ideas here, re: FSD and asexuality.

Most of the time, FSD is an almost invisible topic, except in reference to Big Pharma and the way the pharmaceutical industry markets medications for sexual dysfunction as it relates to libido, arousal & orgasm. The pain category of FSD is frequently overlooked under this umbrella term, and certainly the idea that anyone could ever too much arousal or experience too many orgasms runs contrary to what most people think of as a problem. Restless genital syndrome is so new to research & so misunderstood that authors and so-called experts applaud labeling it “Fake.”
Asexuality is simultaneously almost invisible, and was overlooked completely in the Women Who Want to Want article. You can imagine then (but with a few exceptions, you cannot possibly empathize,) how awkward it must be to be asexual and yet have a sexual health problem that might benefit from medical intervention.

Shortly after all that, I received an e-mail from a person who prefers to remain anonymous. “Uziela” sent me a link to a article, writing, “This article is me.  I don’t mean metaphorically; I was interviewed for this article…”

The article in question is The woman who can’t stop orgasming.

And the topic of the article is a day in the life of a woman who has Restless Genital Syndrome.

To Terry Allen, who referred to RGS and labeled it “Fake,” and others who claim that FSD is a made-up disease, I would ask – are you really willing to invalidate the experiences of women who live with real sexual health problems?

What Uziela did not share at the time of her interview for boingboing, is that in addition to RGS, she also has vulvodynia and identifies as asexual (or demisexual/Gray-A, as she is in a long-term romantic relationship with a cis man.) She contacted me and wishes to address the intersection of these areas in the interest of raising awareness.

Asexuality in and of itself is not a problem. In anticipation of where I’m sure your next thoughts are going, no, Uziela feels that her asexuality evolved independently of the vulvodynia & RGS. She writes,  “I did not become interested in boys during elementary school, throughout middle school, or in high school. I kept assuming that I was a late bloomer, although in high school I asked myself if I was, in fact, a lesbian.” Her sexual orientation is likely not related to RGS & vulvodynia. This means a couple of things: It is possible to be asexual and still experience sexual health problems, and, conversely, if you do have sexual health problems, that in and of itself may not (likely will not) change your sexual orientation, and it may not have anything to do with orientation at all. However, Uziela has run into attitudes that say asexuality in and of itself is a bad thing. “The first therapist who I told that I was asexual told me that it was an unhealthy attitude or something to that effect. I fired her.” This is frustrating, especially in the context of a therapy relationship. Uziela has “Considered seeing a sex therapist at some point just because they might be more familiar with some of this stuff… but it’s a double-edged sword. You never know how they’ll approach my disinterest in sex… ie particular kinds of sex.”

As Uziela puts it –

I think the world can use more sex positivity, always, but there are WAY too many blind spots; I find there’s a huge focus on the belief that all women are straight, want PIV sex, can have it, should seek it, etc.
Some of us are not straight; some of us are queer: gay, or bi, or pan.  Some of us are asexual.  Some of us don’t want PIV.  Some of us are straight AND don’t want PIV and maybe that doesn’t even have to DO with a pain issue.  Some of us are poly.  Some of us don’t identify as women.
We are not all kinky sex goddesses.  Some of us don’t even want to be.
These blind spots can be incredibly frustrating for those of us who are standing in them.  I attended a women’s college, and while I was there, a huge running joke was the fact that the Health Center had this huge sexuality blind spot. In their intake, they would ask if you were sexually active.  If you said you weren’t sexually active, they generally didn’t believe you.  If you said yes, they’d ask if you were using birth control or protection.  If you said no, they’d ask why.  It never occurred to them that a large percentage of our population was lesbian, even though the college was very queer-friendly and out and positive, the Health Center was clueless a lot of the time.

Related to dealing with health service professionals, Uziela told me about her experiences looking for competent doctors. Her experience was,

Mixed.  When I first started having persistent arousal, I didn’t even know what I was experiencing.   The first few doctors I saw passed the buck: the gynecologist sent me to a psychiatrist, who passed me back to the gynecologist.  I saw other psychiatrists, who decided, using strictly checklist criteria and a hammer, that I must be a bipolar nail.  There were three years when I didn’t even know what I was experiencing had a name…

It probably didn’t help that Uziela’s sex education was sorely lacking. Over the years, she and her classmates learned about puberty and heterosexual sex. “We had birth control and condoms… and ‘some people are gay’ but not … ‘how to have safe sex.’ Not … ‘what consent is.’ They did a lot about ‘OMG STDS OMG.'” And her sex ed class did not cover female orgasm (and certainly not RGS.)

It was through the internet that Uziela was clued in to what was really going on in her body. Upon reading an article that finally described what she was going through, Uziela

“Contacted Dr. [Irwin] Goldstein’s office that same day. It took a while to find space for an appointment, but he ran a gamut of tests.  In the process, I learned some interesting things:  He confirmed the diagnosis of what was then (and still is sometimes) called PSAS, he told me I had Vulvodynia/Vulvar Vestibulitis/Vestibular Adenitis, and I found out that I’m missing a major artery in my vagina and have labial fusion, two things I never would have discovered on my own.  The latter two don’t impact my health at all, but it just goes to show how much mystery a woman can have surrounding her own parts.”

However, the doctors were invasive during the diagnostic procedures,

What I remember most was the doppler ultrasound.  Dr. G did an ultrasound of my vulva, and there were SO many people in the room.  Here I am, lying on my back, naked from the waist down, with the soles of my feet together to put my body in the most useful position for the test.  There’s the doctor, the technician, maybe a couple of nurses, a few other people, other doctors and medical students, I think.  It just made me want to laugh.  They all came to see me, because I’m a medical rarity… when I was diagnosed, there were 100 patients worldwide.  Nobody knows how prevalent persistent arousal actually is, because most people won’t TALK about it.  The more doctors know, the better.”

As it turns out, life with RGS isn’t always as pleasurable as fantasizes make it seem to be. Violet Blue may be fascinated by the idea of “the persistent fantasy of unlimited orgasms, without physical barriers,” but life with unlimited, instantaneous orgasm is harder than it sounds. From the boingboing article,

“Every time I do something, I have to evaluate my situation. Where am I? Are there other people around? How well do I know them? What is the likelihood that, if I don’t get someplace private in time, things could get complicated? Can I make noise? (Being vocal isn’t necessary, but it helps release more of the pressure.) I avoid triggers — things like music with heavy bass, vibrations from riding a train or an idle car, cold air, musky cologne, darkness, stress, scary movies, romantic movies, unexpected touch, a full bladder… If my heart rate shoots up too high for too long, I flare up. I avoided exercise and gained a lot of weight. One time, I was hugging a male relative and I felt an orgasm arise… Now, I try to avoid hugs in general unless I feel ready for them.”

It’s a lot to have to take into consideration, and it leaves Uziela with feelings of vulnerability:

“One thing I’ve noticed is being this aroused long term makes me think like a prey creature.  I note within myself a sense of paranoia — that people will discover me when I lose control, that this will incite them to the point of an angry mob and they will visit violence upon me.  I realize this is rather unlikely; people are more likely to be uncomfortable and move away, but since most humans seek privacy and safe places for sex, apparently my brain considers me to be in a chronically vulnerable state.”

Uziela is not the first person to describe having to take these outside factors into consideration before going about her day due to RGS; an earlier article from 2002 describes a case study where for one woman, “The problem [RGS] made it difficult to get through the work day, and prevented her from leaving the house otherwise.”

Interestingly, the boingboing article includes one line which says, “Because of a vulvar pain disorder I have that sometimes comes with PSAS…” [emphasis mine.] Uziela has confirmed that she has vulvodynia. This is the first time I’ve heard RGS connected to vulvodynia, or more correctly, vice versa – first time I have seen vulvodynia connected to RGS. I can definitely imagine that RGS could be connected to pudendal neuralgia, which is correlated with vulvodynia. During our conversation, Uziela described experiencing some mysterious spasm symptoms which may be related to restless leg syndrome or an overactive bladder. But that RGS and vulvodynia have a relationship, comes as something of a surprise to me.
Yet I know that vulvodynia frequently does overlap with other chronic conditions, such as IBS, IC, fibromyalgia, and more. That overlapping of chronic conditions happens often enough so that the NVA is working with a website dedicated to understanding overlapping conditions. And indeed, Uziela does have some other chronic conditions besides RGS & vulvodynia that need simultaneous management, including fibromyalgia and PCOS.

However, it is not clear what the real cause of Uziela’s RGS is. I asked if she had any clues as to what caused her RGS –

“The best guess I have is the hormone onset. I was on Provera [oral pills; not the depo provera shot] to regulate my cycles. I discontinued in … October or November.  In December, i started having symptoms… And I was 16(?) when they started giving it to me.”

There are some additional hormonal factors at work – “I get my [hormone] levels checked once or twice a year.  I know I don’t have low testosterone; although mine’s in range of what’s considered normal, since I manifest PCOS anyway, my doctor thinks my testosterone might be too high for *me* — and given that my sex drive is rather atypical, I know it’s not a hormonal deficiency.”

My own vulvodynia issues may be related to hormones as well, at least a little; I had been on oral birth control pills for about two years at the time of diagnosis. I have seen a study which suggested that hormonal birth control may sometimes be somehow related to vulvodynia later on in life, and that 20/20 television segment on vulvodynia (which was never named as such in the segment for some reason…) birth control pills were explicitly mentioned as a possible cause. I have also heard similar anecdotes from other women with vulvar pain. (Still, I don’t want to panic any readers. I know many, many women use hormonal birth control pills for years without complications. My own sister has been on birth control pills for over ten years.) How hormones could play into RGS however is not as clear to me.

What limited exposure to literature on RGS I’ve had before, suggested that it may be related to damage to the pudental nerve. And during her exam with Dr. Goldetein, the doctors did find signs of  nerve damage. But where that damage came from, is a mystery – Uzelia does not remember ever having a serious injury to that area in her lifetime.
Uziela shared with me that there are several other possible causes for RGS; some proposed areas for further research include “Neurologic – Central, [brain and spinal cord changes or injury,] Neurologic – Peripheral, [changes or injury to local nerves in the pelvis,] Pharmacologic, [SSRI withdrawal may be related,] Vascular and Other.” These areas of investigation merit some urgency, as many patients are distressed from having their lives interrupted by  recurrent, invasive sensations that are rarely fully resolved.

Despite the persistent arousal symptoms and frequent orgasms, Uziela does not have intercourse, “Partly due to the asexuality (I have no desire for it) and partly due to the vulvodynia (I see no reason to seek out pain).  My sexual female friends tell me that when a female gets sufficiently aroused, they have a nigh-irresistible drive in the direction of penetration.  I have never experienced this, which is part of what drove me to decide that even though I seek sexual stimulus as a result of PSAS/PAS/PGAD/RGD, there’s definitely an aspect of asexuality there.” She did mention to me that some asexuals can and do engage in sexual activities including intercourse, but, “It’s a spectrum… most of the more vocal asexuals I see in the community are in one of two categories:
‘ew sex no / don’t touch me…’ ‘meh sex, but I don’t mind doing it.”

That Uziela does not have sexual intercourse with her partner does not impact the quality of their relationship. Like myself, she is in a long-term, long-distance relationship, and she and her partner have occasional visits together. Her partner is aware of the asexual community, and they are both careful about respecting each others’ boundaries. “In the early stages of our relationship, we had discussions regularly on the subject of boundaries, both his and mine.  We made lists of activities: Do, Don’t Do, and Try Once.  (This description probably makes me sound significantly more sexually adventurous than I actually am.)”
Ironically, Uziela may now be more interested in sexual activity than her partner – “In the past few years, he’s hit andropause, which is a true irony, because now he’s even less interested in sexual activity than I am!  (Although I am not “driven” to sex like the average person, I, like many patients, find that the sexual attention of a partner can be more productive in at least temporarily resolving persistent arousal than anything we can do ourselves.) This is a delicate situation, as Uziela must be careful not to pressure her partner for sexual activity, and vice versa.

Note what reason was not cited as a reason for passing on intercourse: relationship or partner dissatisfaction. In fact, Uziela says, “I wish I could see him more often; sometimes I think he is the closest another person has ever come to truly understanding me, and I mean this in every sense of the word.” It may also be worth noting here that Uziela was not in a relationship at the time of the vulvodynia or RGS symptom onsets. So in this case, Uziela’s sexual health problems are not due to an inept or insensitive partner. To insist otherwise would be to place blame and create needless relationship stress.

Currently, Uziela manages RGS mostly by avoiding triggering situations, and is able to manage the vulvodynia since she only experiences pain on contact.(Unfortunately, that means pelvic exams can still be painful.) Her experience of orgasm is more or less intense depending on how long she has been in a state of physiological arousal. In the right situation, some of these orgasms can be enjoyable, but there is a caveat just to mention this: “There’s a stigma about talking about that as it causes people to dismiss our suffering and it gives the impression that it’s not a Problem when in fact, it still is.” One of the problems is that Uziela has little to no control over what situations she is in, so sometimes orgasm can be frightening or dangerous. Most of the time, orgasm returns Uziela to a “Baseline” state but does not completely resolve the RGS symptoms.

Despite the challenges she lives with, Uziela would prefer not to have a major, abrupt medical intervention for her RGS. Some treatments are more extreme than others, and all of them come with potential side effects, which can be serious. While we were talking about life with sexual health problems, we both mentioned that even when symptoms are managed, they could still exist on some level, just below the surface. It’s something we are likely to live with long-term, and a sudden disappearance of symptoms would be unnerving. Uziela also has some concerns about living with RGS long-term, as there have been other patients who find it difficult to reach orgasm over time, and thus are not able to find even temporary relief. Simultaneously, finding doctors and friends who are aware of the existence of such sexual health problems, and are willing to speak frankly about them, is in and of itself a challenge, and one that patients like she and I will continue to navigate long-term. At this point, Uziela’s RGS is less invasive and less intense than it was a few years ago and because of this, she is able to focus on other areas of her health and life.

Note: comments to this post will be under additional scrutiny & moderation. The article allowed some comments of a dismissive and/or presumptuous nature to go through which will not be tolerated here.

Different reactions to different articles

12/05/2009 at 4:20 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Everyone experiences sexuality differently…

It seems everyone also experiences reading & writing about sexuality & sexual dysfunction differently. Before we go on with the weekly blog link roundup, there were two interesting reactions to two different articles on female sexual dysfunction this week. I was going to include these in the regular link round-up but it got too long.

First we have Women getting it up over at Vagina Dentata, a feminist & science blog. Naomi MC wrote a response to news about Flibanserin, an antidepressant drug that may increase women’s libidos, and so may be useful for some women with low sex drives.

MC raises some concerns about Flibanserin and links to two other pretty good resources on the topic, but I’ve got some concerns about the way her concerns are worded.

She says, “But here’s the news we’ve all be waiting for – female Viagra has been invented,” but that’s not really accurate. Viagra doesn’t create sexual desire in and of itself, it just makes a physical response to arousal more noticeable by increasing blood flow to the genitals. The thing is it’s easy to confuse actual sexual desire with signs of sexual arousal. It’s not clear to me if MC already knew that and was just playing up on this misconception for rhetorical purposes.

It’s also not clear to me if, in the next line, where MC says, “In sum, this was a preapproved drug being aggressively marketed for a likely manufactured ‘disorder’, and may be no better than a couple of glasses of wine,” which ‘disorder’ we’re talking about – are we talking about the broad blanket term of female sexual dysfunction in general or are we talking about the specific, more controversial diagnosis of hypoactive sexual desire disorder? Because female sexual dysfunction is a broad blanket term. Under the usual definition, it usually encompasses problems with libido, arousal, orgasm, or sexual pain. There are alternate models of sexual problems, and the percentage of people who have a genuine dysfunction depends on what study we’re looking at, and who’s asking. But, since FSD encompasses pain – the one valid & important dysfunction, according to Dr. Leonore Tiefer – (I’m definitely not okay with minimizing the impact of other sexual health problems for other women,) and because I’m personally distressed by what I’m living with here, I have it. What I’m going through is real. Which is why I’m concerned when I see words like, “manufactured,” used when talking about FSD. But if we’re talking about the specific diagnosis of hypoactive sexual desire disorder, then I have a better understanding why that’s more controversial.
I’m still don’t agree that it’s entirely a made-up disorder though.

There’s some other paragraphs in the post of interest about sexual violence and a historical view of female sexual dysfunction, & then comes, “So if you’re lacking sexual desire, chill out, have a glass of wine and think about it for a bit, considering what factors might be feeding the problem.

Emphasis mine, because this…
Is probably one of the worst things you could say to someone like me.
I can only speak for myself of course, as a pelvic pain patient. What I’ve gone through is, people have said this to me. Bad gynecologists have said this to me upon becoming frustrated with my repeat visits without problem resolution. When the usual medical treatments don’t work, the gynos defaulted to “It must be in her head. If it’s in her head, she should just get a little tipsy and loosen up.” Of course it turned out that my problems did have names and could be treated medically, so the “Relax and have a glass of wine” advice always raises red flags to me. It suggests that whoever I’m talking to is not familiar with the less common gynecologic conditions, and so is not prepared to help me. Time to find a new gyno.

There is another way I interpret the “Relax, have a glass of wine” thing:
Do you really think I haven’t sat down and thought about it?
Do you really think that other women who have serious sexual problems, maybe not pain but problems with arousal or libido or orgasm, don’t think about it, and ruminate on it, possibly night after night with a glass or three of wine in hand?
After considering what other factors might be feeding the problem – what then, when no factors can be identified, or when they can but there is little that can be done about it? What happens when identifying stress and modifying lifestyle to reduce stress doesn’t improve quality of life?

(The last problem I have with this statement is mostly a personal preference. Except for a few times a year, and a few sips at a time then, I don’t drink.)

The last line MC concludes with is, “Or maybe talk to someone; ideally someone who won’t financially benefit from selling you a pill.”

The thing is I have absolutely no idea who this “someone” would be. There are no suggestions listed…
A doctor or gynecologist? There’s a risk there that a doctor or gynecologist could have a vested interest in prescribing a pill to a patient complaining of low libido. (Although in my personal experience, the risk of having sexual complaints taken seriously is slim-to-none, and the patient may have to press hard for a medical treatment.)
Should someone with low libido talk to a sex therapist? Theoretically a sex therapist also has a vested interest in drawing out treatment for an extended period of time, although I would expect a good, ethical sex therapist would want to keep costs as low for a patient as possible. But then if the therapist is able to write prescriptions, then they may also suggest a medical option. That may be reserved as a last resort, but when it comes down to that last resort, does that mean the sex therapist is untrustworthy because they have recommended a medical option?
Should a patient with low libido talk to her sex partner? Probably if she even has a sex partner; what about singles? Between the taboos against frankly talking openly about sex and sexual health problems, and ignorance about female sexual dysfunctions it may be a bit tricky to determine if a friend or family member is trustworthy and knowledgeable enough to talk to. My own family is fairly supportive of me now, but when I first tried to explain to them (multiple times) what was happening to my body and why that was important, they didn’t believe me.
Well I suppose online support groups are always an option… If you have a computer.

Overall Women getting it up is a bit contradictory to me too, since, in an earlier post, MC explicitly said,

It is a concentration on “doing sex right” which leads to the medicalisation of male and female sexual ‘dysfunction’. I don’t deny that sometimes drugs and treatments for sexual dysfunction are necessary and beneficial to individuals but often, and certainly historically, we are being told that there is a right and wrong way to have sex and if you’re not doing it right then you have to be corrected.”

I’m definitely aware of the pressure to do sex right vs. doing it wrong, but, here we have a drug treatment for something that for a few women is probably a very real sexual dysfunction and so might find beneficial… I still think we can re-frame sex to reduce pressure to perform AND explore medical options at the same time. At least, I sure hope we can do both at the same time because that’ s what I need the most. To explore only the social & historical construction of sex, or only medical explanations for sex, backfires against patients like me who need both.

Then we have an interesting post at Asexy Beast, a blog written from the perspective of an asexual woman.
The thought that keeps popping into my mind is with regard to this particularly interesting post is, “So an asexual woman and a woman with sexual dysfunction walk into a bar…
What I mean by that is, I can’t figure out what the next line in that setup is but there’s something going on there…

Background information: A few days ago, an article was featured in New York Times Magazine, Women Who Want to Want. It’s an article about female sexual dysfunction as it relates to low or absent sexual desire, specifically the controversial diagnosis of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD.) The article does not examine sexual pain or orgasm.

I briefly touched upon this article when I did the weekly blog link roundup for the week of 11/28/09. My opinion at this time is about the same as it was at time of reading. That is, I found the article to be interesting, well-researched, and sensitive in dealing with female sexual dysfunction and the women who have it – at least, definitely sensitive compared to other recent articles about female sexual dysfunction, which I’ve blogged about here before. Women Who Want to Want includes my first exposure to Lori Brotto, who researches sexual desire and will have a direct influence over the next DSM revision regarding female sexual dysfunction.

Ily’s reaction to Women Who Want to Want is very different from my own. From what I’m reading, the article was a lot harder for Ily to handle than it was for me. I thought the article was relatively sensitive to women with FSD, but Daniel Bergner and Brotto steamrollered over asexuality and asexuals. Ily says,

It made me cringe to read that women in Brotto’s support group were told to repeat, “‘My body is alive and sexual,’ no matter if they believe it.” Maybe some of those people could really identify as asexual, and could be helped by knowing there is a community of people who are very much alive, and yet aren’t sexual. Even the women with low/no desire who would never call themselves asexual, or obviously are not ace, would probably have a lot in common with us anyway. What is Brotto thinking?

And what comes to my mind here is that, yes certainly the body can be alive and asexual at the same time. It does sound vaguely Freudian to me, to say, “Alive and sexual.” Is equating the two the same as eros, a drive to live & love? I’m asking because although I have read some of Freud’s work and am somewhat familiar with it, I’m definitely no expert & I could use some help here. I’m still struggling to figure out exactly what eros is.

Ily and I both recognized names that appeared in Women Who Want to Want, but we recognize different names. I recognized Dr. Leonore Tiefer’s name towards the end of the article because she is such a prolific writer on FSD – and because I disagree with her a lot of the time. Ily had not heard of Tiefer before, but she had heard of Brotto. Brotto has been involved in researching asexuality, and Ily noted how odd it was to not even mention asexuality in an article about low or absent sexual desire.

Not mentioning the possibility of asexuality when talking about various sexualities and libidos, is probably an omission on my own part too.

Ily and I interacted a bit in the comments (I was a tired that night so I wasn’t at my best over there.) I know I’m probably doing a very bad job of including asexuality in my thoughts when I write about FSD. But on the other hand, I don’t want to slap a label of dysfunction onto someone who identifies as asexual, especially if that someone is perfectly comfortable with who they are. No distress, no problem.

But one complication when talking about low libido and asexuality is that, if you actually live with female sexual dysfunction and talk about it, there’s a pretty good chance that someone may have flippantly said to you, or will say to you, “Well maybe you’re just asexual. I’ve run into that myself. It’s not accurate, and it wasn’t said in good faith by someone who was actually familiar with the asexual community. Asexuality is a real possibility for some women who have absent sexual desire, yes, but used by or on the wrong person, what could be a comfortable identity, is an insult instead. Possibly an intentional insult, a dismissal, a denial of an individual’s stated sexuality.

At the same time, despite popular belief, nonheterosexual orientation is not a cure or prevention against developing sexual dysfunctions. Online, I have met heterosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and pansexuals with vulvodynia. (I’ve only met one other woman in flesh & blood who confided to me that she has vulvodynia, so if I know anyone else in real life with this problem, I don’t know it.) I haven’t met anyone who disclosed to me that they are asexual and are living with vulvodynia, but I can see no reason that asexuals would be immune to it, or other sexual health problems. (I’m thinking I probably haven’t run into asexuals with vulvodynia because the spaces I hang out at do spend at least some time talking about sex, so those spaces may feel less welcoming to an asexual.) But if an asexual does develop what is usually considered a sexual health problem, is it still a sexual problem or is it purely a health problem?

So Ily’s post was particularly interesting to me because raises a lot of new issues to me that I hadn’t considered before, but probably should try to in the future.

The “I’m not a feminist, but…” thing

05/19/2009 at 8:20 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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(To those who have found their way here via FigLeaf – uhh I’m not really sure what the proper netiquette is here but to err on the side of caution – hello. I hope you find something of interest here. Thanks for reading… You’re not here to make fun of me are you? Suddenly I feel a rather self-conscious & sexually inadequate knowing there’s some more people looking.)

If someone had said to me a few years ago, “I’m not a feminist, but…” I probably would have balked.

In my experience, most of the time when I’ve been confronted with “I’m not a feminist, but…” that “But” has been followed up by a statement like, “I believe in equality of the sexes,” “I oppose violence against women,” or “I believe in equal pay for equal work, regardless of whodunit.” These are pretty basic tenets of feminism, especially mainstream US feminism. If I tried hard enough, I probably could have convinced the speaker that they are some kind of feminist, much to their own horror. The word gets a pretty bad reputation in the media. Even when famous conservative speakers are not badmouthing feminism with stereotypes and fearmongering, mainstream media still sends out very mixed signals about it, perhaps reflecting an overall unease of the greater community. (That this example is a cartoon might actually make it be a better example of niche media addressing feminism…)

In my face-to-face interactions, if I then ask, “Why not be feminist then?” often the reason really is because of fear of those misconceptions & stereotypes. Sometimes I don’t even have to ask “Why not be one?” because the person I am talking to is will volunteer their frustration with those bra-burning man-eating home wreckers hell bent on destroying the nuclear family. Once in awhile, whoever I’m speaking with will even say an out-of-context, radical feminist quote made decades ago to illustrate their point.

But sometimes… Especially from what I’ve seen online…
Sometimes things don’t go as expected. This script doesn’t always play out.
Sometimes the reasons for someone not embracing the term, are a lot more complicated than that.
It’s not because of fear of stereotypes. It’s not ingratitude to those women who pushed for the right to vote & for a woman’s right to choose. It’s not because of indifference to the plight of women globally.
Sometimes, it turns out that a lot of thought & anguish goes into making the decision to avoid the feminist movement, or to turn & walk away from feminism.

There’s been some discussion over the last week on other blogs about identifying with the word, the movement(s) & embracing it as a part of who you are. Renee posted once again about how she isn’t feminist; she is Womanist. After reflecting on one of the ex-feminist speakers at the Sex 2.0 Conference, a writer at Punkassblog called out people who do not identify as feminists. Then more comments were had, all about what it means to take on the identity. I’ve actually made two comments about identifying as feminist or not before, so this is the third time I’ve thought about it & the third chance I’ve had to flesh out my ideas a little more.

Feminism is an identity you can “Opt-in” to. It is not like ethnicity or disability (although it can be used to explore these two areas of interest.)  It’s not necessarily something you’re born into (although you can be raised feminist.) Your status as a feminist can change. You may one day find yourself warming up to the term after avoiding it like the plague for years. You might actively decide to become a feminist and start learning more about it and/or start participating in feminist-related events just all at once. Then, you can move from one sub-type of feminism to another, depending on your interests & motivations.
Or, on the opposite side of the coin, you might eventually “Opt-out.”

Why would anybody do this? It looks bad at first glance. Does this person who rejects feminism as part of his or her identity not support equal rights for all? Do they really believe those stereotypes from TV? Do they really not care? Are they genuinely misogynists?

Sometimes the answer is “None of the above.”

Renee explained that she does not identify with feminism since, among other things, its history has not been so kind to women of color. TrinityVA got tired of policing, as she puts it. For Renegade Evolution, actions speak louder than words. These are women of color, disabled women, kinky women, sex workers. I can think of several other noteworthy former feminists who have made comments in some other posts linked to throughout this one here. They live on an edge. Maybe not “The” definitive edge of all edges, whatever that is; what I mean is these are smart women who you don’t often see or hear from very frequently unless maybe you deliberately seek them out (perhaps because they’ve been silenced. They’re secretly around, but have to hide lest they be chased, thus furthering the illusion of their invisibility.)

And they keep having – having to have – the same conversations over and over, having to explain the same not-mainstream principles & concepts to the same people who are not open to reconsidering their opinions. That gets frustrating & exhausting. It leads to burn out.

Yet many of the folks who deliberately reject the label “Feminist,” are still nonetheless associated with the movement. Self-described not-feminists may still say & do things that sound & act just like feminism. Renee won this year’s Canadian F-Word blog contest, and seemed pleased with the nomination. TrinityVA & Dw3t-Hthr (and others) maintain SM-Feminist. Renegade Evolution has hosted the 18th Feminist Sex Carnival post.

Online, this leaves me feeling kind of awkward, because I have links to such people listed under labels like of “Feminism” or “Feminism & sexuality.” It looked like feminism to me… but I may have to re-think those categories out of consideration of their wishes not to be labeled feminist. It is not my place to go around applying and denying identities. It looks to me like once you put on that mantle, it’s actually hard to take it off. The label sticks around for awhile.

As for myself, I remain self-identifying as feminist. I wanted to be one when I was a child, even if children are foolish and screw up the meaning of the words. When I got older and wiser and learned more about it, and all the conflicts & yes, even problems that happen inside this one little word, I still wanted it. “Still the road keeps on telling me to go on…”

But it’s a vulnerable, precarious identity. I still struggle with it. So many different ways to practice it… and I have a lot to learn.

After all, how can I find myself identifying the same blanket movement that Dr. Leonore Teifer rallies for and markets herself as being a part of? We have very different different ideas & goals about feminism as it relates to FSD, to put it politely.

Maybe it’s normal to struggle with feminism. But some people just seem so self-assured in it, and that’s difficult for me to emulate. Am I supposed to be able to do that? Am I supposed to just, go with the flow?

Maybe some day, after being nagged & pushed enough, I, too, will have to put feminist down & be, just another woman with lots of other interests. I’ve seen it happen enough so that I should not be so surprised if it happens to me, too. But then maybe I’ll take some time off and come back around to it again later, older & wiser…
I don’t know if there’s any way to avoid that happening to me.

Alas, even if I put feminism down, I’ll probably still live with at least some residual FSD. That’s not something I can opt-out of. I would like very much to opt-out of vulvodynia & vaginismus but it’s not that easy.
And without feminism, I will have one less coping mechanism to address the FSD with. One less shield to defend myself with from the slings & arrows thrown at me daily by the TV & movies that tell me how sex “Should” be. One less lens to examine sex & sexuality from. One less way of looking at the pain and the treatments available for it.

So nowadays…
When someone says to me, “I’m not a feminist, but…”
I am not so quick to balk anymore.
I might. I might still balk.
But not so fast. Slowly. After listening. There may be something going on there that I hadn’t thought about before.

Thoughts on feminisms in conflict

05/05/2009 at 7:45 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Feministe posted an article yesterday that got me thinking…

Feminist Vs. Feminist

Quick setup: Naomi Wolf is feminist and author of such works as the ubiquitous Beauty Myth. Wolf wrote up a review on a biography about Helen Gurley-Brown, the founder of Cosmopolitan magazine and author of Sex and the Single Girl. It’s questionable whether or not Brown is considered any kind feminist at all, in large part owing to her involvement with the magazine & related topics.

Sex & the Single Girl is another book I’ve yet to read – and in truth, I’m more inclined to read that before Beauty Myth, just out of  whim – but I’ve certainly had enough exposure to Cosmopolitan. Enough exposure to know that, it’s definitely far from perfect and often outright contradictory. Holly of the Pervocracy does a good job picking the magazine apart on a fairly regular basis.

As Feministe points out, Wolf used her review as an opportunity to bring up  differences between two different schools of thought on feminism. Wolf contrasts Brown’s book to Betty Freidan’s Feminine Mystique and then uses the two as Archetypes. She uses these two books as examples to illustrate contemporary conflict between old guard feminism vs. the new generation. Wolf uses Freidan’s Feminine Mystique to represent the more mature, socially responsible second wave generation and Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl to represent today’s third wave feminism, marked by younger women, sex positivity and pop culture.

“Sex and the Single Girl,” Brown’s brash, breezy and sometimes scandalous young-woman’s guide to thriving in the Mad Men and Playboy era, made headlines the year before Friedan’s severe, profound manifesto burst onto the scene. Since then, the media and the women’s movement itself have put these two icons in opposition, pitting Friedan’s intellectual, ideological, group-oriented feminism against Brown’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, girl-power style.

Which is ironic, considering that this isn’t just the media pitting the two aginst one another now: It’s a feminist herself.  Jill of Feministe asks, “Don’t we get this kind of dumbed-down narrative enough whenever mainstream media covers feminism? Do we really need a feminist regurgitating it?”

And she asks for good reasons. Life is a lot more complicated than fitting people into neat little boxes. Things don’t always fit right into compartments. There’s spillover, crinkles and gaps. In practice, you can do more than one thing at a time, even when two or more things seem contradictory to one another in theory.

(In my head, I imagine my days back when I was a little girl playing with dinosaur toys in the grass, pitting a fake plastic t-rex against a plastic long-necked herbivore. They’re very different with one another… …but they’re both still dinosaurs. Fake, plastic ones, representing animals that were both wiped out by probably the same thing.)

Reading Wolf’s review, I feel like I’m once again caught in the middle, or pushed to the outskirts… because I don’t feel like I fit into an “Either/or” category.
In truth, I don’t even know what kind of feminist I am yet. What, I have to pick now?

Well, I know I’m some kind of feminist… there’s definitely something going on there… but to what degree? There are so many different schools of thought on what it means to be feminist, what needs change most urgently, and what the best way is to go about it. Second wave? third wave? even fourth? womanist? sex-positive? Something else entirely?

I don’t know what I am yet. I don’t feel like I fit into any category nice & neat.

I certainly look to feminists who identify as sex-positive. I guess partly I’m hoping some of their skills & wisdom will rub off on me… and partly I’m hoping they’ll be the least likely to judge me poorly & call me a fool for pursuing sex as I see fit.
But I always feel kind of ironic labeling myself a sex positive feminist, when, in reality, I’m actually having, very little sex at all. Like, maybe I shouldn’t even be talking about this kind of thing because how would I know what I’m doing? But on the other hand, who else knows about expressing sexuality while living with vulvodynia better than those who have actually lived it?

And then, even if I do pick one category to the exclusion of another, that means I am likely going to wind up automatically repelling some other feminists who do identify with the school of thought that I don’t agree with.  Which may or may not be a good thing for me on a personal level. But even then, I’m bound to make mistakes & say the wrong thing & forget to acknowledge my privilege. I still have a ways to go yet.

Identity crises isn’t the only thing that bothers me about Wolf’s review though.

In the “Battle” of the feminisms, Wolf declares that there is one clear Winner. And that winner is Third-Wave Feminism, as evidenced by US culture & the sheer number of girls & women who identify with this particular movement.

And guess what? In the long battle between the two styles of feminism, Brown, for now, has won.

Somehow, despite Wolf’s claims to the contrary, I don’t think that any kind of feminism has really “Won” yet.

It’s not a popularity contest.

“Winning” means that we can now safely & truly enter a post-feminst age. “Winning” means that the goals of feminism have been achived. If a widely embraced definition of feminism is the notion that “Women are people,” that means that in order to win, for starters, women’s rights around the globe are have been recognized & are enforced –  or ideally, don’t need to be enforced. If being sex-positive is the most important feature to this generation, then why are we still arguing about & bringing up very real flaws in the sex work industry? Why is sexual purity still so strongly cherished to the point of shaming those who are not? And the list of questions goes on…

Are we there yet?
No… I don’t think we’re there yet…

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