Apparently the clitoris was a scientific mystery until recently…or at least this post I found on FB says so: until-2009-the-human-clitoris-was-an-absolute-mystery. I guess it shouldn’t really be a surprise since much knowledge held by the western medical establishment can be parochial at best and misogynist in general. How we—women and men and those along that spectrum—are supposed to figure out our bodies is an even bigger mystery.
When I was about eleven, the pharmaceutical companies did one good thing of note: they produced a booklet on women’s reproduction and menstruation which was distributed free of charge to schools and the camp I attended! A teacher was even allowed to teach us about our bodies back then. This was a major gift for me since I was raised by my great grandmother who was born in 1883 and the least likely person in my life to be explaining the facts of life and love.
I like to think that young people today have a better idea of how their bodies function, especially since the religious right has helped pressure school systems around the country to prohibit teaching anything that would help girls know how to take care of their gynecological health. The idea probably is that if we know something it might lead to us believing we have a right to power over our own bodies…like contraception and prosecuting rapists. With the rates of HIV/AIDS infection I worry that youth don’t actually know enough and that parents often fail to make up for the educational losses. In some teen circles the belief is still held that you can’t get pregnant if it’s your first time having sex!
I had the good fortune to be a part of the feminist movement which left no part of a woman—physical, spiritual or psychological—unexplored. Probably the oldest lesbian publication or at least the widest circulated is Lesbian Connection, which used to have a section called Contact Dykes. It was a list of women who could be called if you needed some help. They didn’t provide a B&B but simple assistance if you found yourself stranded in a city you were visiting. I never was brave enough to either list myself of make use of that list; I was, however, part of a small network of women who might be called on to help a stranded visitor in New York City. This was pre-Google so I helped one woman find a store to replace an orthopedic shoe in a hurry; and another to find some lesbian theatre to attend.
So it happened that a friend of a friend (who happened to be out of town in the moment) needed a place to stay for two days as she flew in from London and waited for her next flight to Australia. Even though I had a tiny flat it was easy to give up my bed to a weary woman for a couple of nights and to make the acquaintance of an East Indian lesbian feminist activist making her way home. Ultimately we had a wonderful visit, however she arrived with a slight problem and no one to help her but me…a total stranger.
Before she’d left London she’d developed a vaginal infection. She worked in a health clinic so followed a natural practice and inserted a garlic clove in her vagina. It seemed to work but she was unable to extract it before boarding her 9 hour flight to NYC. By now it was causing some pain as garlic is likely to do!
But it was the 1980s I had the first edition of “Our Bodies Our Selves” (an updated version is now available) and a fierce commitment to sisterhood, even when we were both embarrassed! So I got on the phone to another friend who worked at a clinic and asked, with very little trepidation, if she could get me a speculum. She asked what size? There I was tripped up and had to respond: “I don’t know her well enough to actually know what size.” But again, it was the ‘80s; no sweat. I met her at a West Village subway stop and she handed over the goods in a brown paper bag and I gave her some flowers.
I crossed the platform for the uptown train and once at home pulled out three clear plastic speculums (speculae?) of different sizes. I suggested my friend pick the one that seemed ‘familiar’ and we’d get to work.
Thus I found myself on the other end of a speculum (not necessary to warm up since it was plastic) for the first time and working it gently into place. After some fits and starts I retrieved the errant clove of garlic and had a friend for life. I’m grateful I didn’t do any harm; but I figured as a lesbian I had a good working knowledge the interior, so to speak, and I wasn’t going to introduce any foreign objects…if you didn’t count me.
I don’t know how many young women today would know what to do about a simple vaginal infection or how to help someone in that state. Or just as important: would have the bravery to ask for help. Too much about our bodies goes unspoken and for women that can be fatal. Since men still seem to have control over what we’re able to learn and what we’re taught to think about our bodies women need to stand up for ourselves when we face doctors and demand information. And we must not let younger relatives and friends wander in an informational desert. The number of piercings or tattoos does not indicate sophisticated knowledge about how the body works.
Biology shouldn’t be destiny but it can be a rather fateful one if you don’t know enough about it. If western medicine didn’t know about the clit until recently I’m scared to think about what else they don’t know. They should have asked an old school lesbian!