Don’t act like you don’t like old Bon Jovi references.
One of my most radical (and therefore coolest) readers, chlorophyll, has pointed out one of the most insidious forms of terrorism women face, the terrorism inherent in the medical system/industry/whatever-you-wanna-call-it.
I’m out of town right now and don’t have access to my usual school clinic, which is thankfully lousy with female nurse practitioners, and I just had to go for a little visit to the doctor for a little flu-type thing. I normally request a female doctor, but they didn’t have one available and I decided to stay and see a male doctor. I can honestly say that I felt uncomfortable making that decision, because I felt like I was going to subject myself to emotional discomfort in order to avoid offending their male doctor with my preference for a female doctor. What the fuck? I heard my Homeland Security-issued Terrormeter (TM) start to twitter (It looks kind of like that thing they used in Ghostbusters to detect paranormal activity. I suggest you get one.). Was some subtle form of terrorism afoot?
My doctor, who looked like a cross between Craig Kilborn and Larry the Cable Guy in Crocs, was pretty cool as far as male doctors go, but the experience nonetheless reminded me what a strange position a visit to the doctor puts women in. Despite the fact that this doctor was perfectly well-behaved and a nice dude, I couldn’t help but think of George Bush’s little gaffe about gynecologists practicing “their love with women” and some of the experiences I had with male doctors before I was old and wise enough to know what was and wasn’t appropriate behavior on the part of a doctor.
I remember going for my yearly women’s exams when I was younger and not knowing that I had the option to request a female doctor. Those exams are heinous enough with a woman doing the examining, but when you’re 18 and alone in a room with a dude doing the exam (this was 10 years or so ago, before having a female present became standard practice during gynecological exams), it can be borderline traumatic, and that’s if the motherfucker behaves himself. As such, I would often go 2-3 years between exams, making and canceling appointment after appointment because I didn’t want to deal with the weirdness of the whole thing, which I hear is common behavior. The fact that women avoid examinations that are crucial to the protection of their health because the exams are so emotionally trying should tell us there’s a problem with the way we’re doing things.
There’s a problem with the entirety of the way our medical system deals with women’s health, and, though this connection is going to be about as easy to make as one between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, I’m going to show that the way our medical machine operates amounts to terrorism in that the culture of our medical system terrorizes women into acquiescing to treatments and procedures that are detrimental to their physical and emotional wellbeing.
First off, doctors are invested with WAY too much authority; as people with several years of training that supposedly makes them experts on that most important of subjects, health, they unsurprisingly command respect from the culture at large, and especially from their physically vulnerable patients. We are told from childhood that doctors are to be respected and listened to at all times, and that what they say goes as far as our health is concerned. It’s no shock, then, that we don’t think it’s our place to question their pronouncements. It’s only in cases of flagrant misconduct that the authority of these experts ever comes under any kind of scrutiny, and it’s a funny thing, because they rarely even seem to know what is wrong with us. The relationship between a western doctor and patient is a distinctively lopsided one; the patient must do what the doctor says and must maintain reverence for him (or sometimes her) regardless of whether his/her diagnoses and treatments prove correct and efficacious (respectively).
That to me seems ridiculous; a doctor and patient, despite the fact that the doctor may possess more cultural authority than the patient, ought to form a reciprocal relationship in which the doctor, in exchange for the respect afforded to his/her authority, takes responsibility for the care of the patient and the results of his/her ministrations. But doctors in western medicine have the full weight of science behind them, which means that they are representatives of the source of truth as our culture defines it. That’s pretty heavy shit, if you think about it. In China, for example, there are several different ways of understanding the human body, and though some of them tend to carry more authority than others depending on the circumstances, there is no one source of immutable “truth” about the human body and how it will operate. And hence, the relationship between a Chinese doctor and his/her patient is a much more reciprocal one. (I know, I know, Chinese medicine includes eating bears’ dicks and whatnot, and often doesn’t work in the way we’d expect it to, but just remember that your opinion of it is heavily influenced by your having been raised in our own science-says-it’s-so-so-it-is culture.) Anyway, what all this means is that questioning the authority of a doctor in our society is akin to questioning the established source of all truth and knowledge, and who’s going to be brave enough to do that shit? I imagine that someday our slavish belief in the ultimate truth of science will seem as odd as the unquestioning faith people had in the Church before the Enlightenment, but for now our obsequiousness toward doctors seems to know no bounds.
It’s easy for doctors to let that shit go to their heads, is it not? Imagine if 50 people came to see you every day to ask for your advice about something essential to their beings, like whether they should get tribal tattoos, and they listened raptly to whatever you said and then went home and followed your advice to the letter (the answer is no, in case you were wondering). How would that not cause some delusions of grandeur? Sure, some medical professionals can minimize the egoism corollary to such a dynamic, but most of them succumb to it to some degree over time, and some of them get into the profession knowing full well that they’ll be invested with that cultural capital and intending to use it to their own ends, whether those ends be as relatively benign as self-aggrandizement or as nefarious as easy access to victims to sexually assault. Just think about it: how many medical students do you know that aren’t assholes? Most people’s motives for entering the field in the first place are pretty weird, kind of like those of the majority of the people who choose to become cops.
So, we women head into the doctor’s office expected to place our unalloyed trust in someone whose motives we have every reason to doubt, and whose expertise has yet to be verified, and we’re expected to eschew asking any questions lest we offend this sacred authority figure with our impertinence. I don’t know about you, but that sounds suspiciously like terrorism to me, if terrorism equals the use of fear to manipulate the behavior of others.
But what fear are doctors are using to manipulate us? Are they doing it on purpose? Can we consider most doctors terrorists? I’d say that in most cases it isn’t that a doctor is consciously using his/her position of authority to frighten us into submission, but that there’s an unspoken awareness on both sides that the doctor can help us or hurt us, and we don’t know which he/she’ll do, so we’d better play nice lest we offend the doctor and bring his/her wrath (or complacency) down on our already vulnerable bodies. That fear confronts men, too (although they are conditioned to defer to male authority figures to a much lesser extent than women are). But there’s another fear that only women face when deciding whether to question a medical professional’s authority: doing so likely means we’re going to be accused of being irrational, overly emotional, or (fuck!) hysterical.
The medical system we live under right now tends to see being female as pathological by nature, and sees the female body as particularly likely to betray its owner. Everything our bodies do that men’s bodies don’t do is treated like a disorder, from menstruation to pregnancy to the fact that we have breasts. Our bodies are seen as enemies that will stop at nothing to sabotage us. Menstruation and pregnancy aren’t natural states in this system (unless you’re arguing against abortion or for women’s sequestration within the home, that is), but rather things to be “dealt with” by professionals. Saith chlorophyll:
I’m especially sketched out by the traditional insistence that women give birth lying down in a hospital, administered by a male doctor, rather than giving birth in the natural squatting position with the assistance of a midwife. … [T]here is something wholly unnatural about a woman needing institutionalized male assistance in an act as biologically reflexive as childbirth.
Post-industrial American culture seems to have conditioned its female subject from an early age to believe that pregnancy outside the institution of Christian marriage is an unnatural and dangerous phenomenon. The fear of dying by childbirth seems to be a timeless and exaggerated fear, because come the fuck on, people — the female body (as many misogynists love to observe) is perfectly designed for the process of conception and birth.
Unfortunately, most young girls throughout historical cultures have been raised in a heavy fear of illegitimate birth for reasons beneficial to men, and this fear has been wrapped tightly around the spaces of the female body. Childbirth is a natural act that even a mute retard in a McDonald’s stall could do simply because that is what the female body is equipped to do.
Why, then, should young girls be conditioned to believe that she must not, under any condition, be impregnated without the proper social sanctions in order to give birth? Most reasonably well-do young girls are raised to believe that a successful live birth is absolutely impossible without expensive medical care and a team of medical practitioners. Is it an issue of class or something? Do the upper and middle class women unconsciously seek to require such extensive professional care in regards to the primitive instincts of childbirth in order to distinguish themselves from the lower classes that are forced to give home births like crossbreed bitches because they simply can’t afford the “proper” medical care?
Most contemporary women who decide to get pregnant are subjected to a series of social obligations like frequent medical checkups leading up to the Big Day when she will be placed on her back on a stretcher before being wheeled into a room full of doctors and nurses to give birth. The helplessness conveyed by a body lain out on a stretcher is further magnified by the fact that this position defies the very gravity that is actually a helpful proponent in easing the fetus out of the womb through the vaginal canal.
The medical system also tends to assume that women, when they are ill and when they are not, are especially susceptible to bouts of irrationality and hysteria, that most feminine of mental maladies. Our mental health system, because we live in a society in which the default identity and the default normative experience is a male one, tends to treat women’s mental health as naturally defective, and tends to treat women’s emotional concerns as trivial or irrational. I’ve yet to meet an adult woman who hasn’t had a mental health professional tell her she’s a few beers short of an 18-wheeler because she’s unhappy to find herself stuck in a repressive patriarchy that limits her freedoms and subjects her to terrorism on a daily basis. I once told a psychologist that I thought this world a difficult place to be a heterosexual woman because sex was so closely tied to power, and he told me I needed to go to biweekly counseling for at least half a year to “deal with” what I consider a fairly clear and sound assessment of the current state of things. (Remind me not to share my most logical of worldviews with men whose authority that worldview threatens anymore.) I wonder if men go into a phsychologist’s office and get told they need to straighten their loony asses out when they complain that they don’t like the current government’s policies or some such thing. Probably not many.
And here’s how this all amounts to terrorism: doctors and mental health professionals, having the power to label us irrational and hysterical, having the power to deem us “abnormal,” and having the power to harm our health, hold us in a state of extreme vulnerability. Though they don’t always use that to blatantly sinister ends, they do avoid having to explain their actions and decisions (and mistakes) to us, and we keep silent out of fear of offending them, even when it comes to our own physical and emotional wellbeing. That’s the best case scenario, which we all face every time we see a doctor. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are many of us who can’t give an example of the worst case scenario, in which a doctor or psychologist, knowing that he has us in such a position of vulnerability, uses his advantage to abuse us sexually or mentally. That sure as fuck sounds like terrorism to me, since there’s an awful lot of fear being deployed to manipulate women into acquiescence and silence, even in situations in which an assault has taken place.
So what’s the solution? Frequent female doctors until the demand for them evens the field between male and female doctors? Sorry to say, that ain’t going to work. There are far too many appeasers working in the medical system, and especially the mental health field, for that to prove effective. I hate to say this, but I have to be a serious radical on this issue: our medical system isn’t ever going to serve women’s needs, nor will it ever be free of terrorism directed at women. It operates under the assumption that maleness is the ideal and that femaleness is inherently pathological, and is therefore fundamentally flawed when it comes to treating women (I won’t even get into transgender issues), and it places many women at the mercy of men who most likely don’t understand women’s experiences and who frequently abuse their position. Really, it doesn’t even serve men’s health needs very well (although that’s their problem). We’ll have to scrap the whole thing and figure something else out. But you’ll have to call Michael Moore for that shit. All I do is complain, I don’t offer alternatives.