Just Because the Book’s Not Pornographic, Don’t Assume There’s Nothing Obscene Going On

As a former high school English teacher — and longtime analyst of the US’s weird dance between puritanical prudery and enthusiastic sexualizing of…well, EVERYTHING — I shall forever find entertaining the books parents want to ban their children (and everyone else’s) from reading. I mean, the most challenged book of 2013 was Captain Underpants, for heaven’s sake. Captain Underpants!

So this recent headline was guaranteed to catch my eye: Tennessee Mom Calls Book On Cervical Cancer Cells ‘Pornographic’

Turns out the book in question is Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, described by the author as “a story of race and medicine, bioethics, science illiteracy, the importance of education and equality and science and so much more.”

immortal life_skloot

I’ll come back to Henrietta Lacks (and why you should know who she is, if you don’t already) in just a moment. First I need to alert everyone to Tennessee Mom’s disturbing discoveries: Bodies have insides.

Those insides have organs. 

And sometimes those organs develop cancer. 

If this is ‘porn,’ I’ve been doing masturbation all wrong

The mother’s objection to this book being read by her 15yo son [and, lest we forget, by all his classmates at a Knoxville magnet school for STEM education — and all the other students in Knox County, period] centers on two passages: 1) the first describing infidelity on the part of Henrietta’s husband, and 2) the other detailing the moment in which Lacks discovers the lump on her cervix.

Curious to hear the wording that’s too “graphic” for teenagers? Cuz I sure was! Thankfully, The Guardian‘s got us covered:

“With the door closed to her children, husband, and cousins, Henrietta slid a finger inside herself and rubbed it across her cervix until she found what she somehow knew she’d find: a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening to her womb.”


Part of me can’t help but wonder: did Tennessee Mom see ‘slid a finger’ and ‘rubbed it’ and ‘marble [at] the opening to her womb’ and think: “This is a literal masturbation scene”? Or perhaps she believes her son doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) know the difference between a cervix and a clit. Because ladysexbits.

Look, I get the whole “schools shouldn’t talk to teens about bodies/touching/sex [or heavensforfend illicit sex] IN ANY WAY or they’ll start using their own bodies in a manner that I find morally unacceptable.” I disagree vehemently with this position, to be clear — but I at least understand where folks’re coming from^.

My disagreement is not just based on the fact that I don’t think talking about this:


is what gives Jane and Johnny either that deep-down tickle or the urge to scratch it.

No, I disagree because I think it’s unjust to deny kids information about their own anatomy — and I think it’s dangerous to unleash young people with bodies into a world filled with other people (also with bodies) unprepared to use those bodies in ways that are both pleasurable and safe.

I disagree that allowing our children to have accurate information about human bodies will turn them into the degenerates Tennessee Mom seems to fear.

I disagree that touching (or even mentioning touching) our sex organs is inherently filthy.

And I really, REALLY disagree with allowing school curricula to be dictated by certain people’s phantasmic blurring of “behavior leading towards the mass perversion of society” with “self-exams conducive to maintaining one’s own physical and sexual health.”

In fact, we should talk about health — Tennessee Mom’s, just as much as yours and mine — and what it has to do with Henrietta Lacks.

Don’t have polio? Might be time to send Mrs. Lacks’ family a thank you card

Let’s review a few facts, shall we?

henrietta lacksIn January 1951, Mrs. Henrietta Lacks, a 31yo Black woman and mother of five, went to Johns Hopkins Hospital after finding a “knot” on her uterus and experiencing heavy bleeding. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer, treated according to the standard practices of the time, and died later that year from a particularly aggressive strain of the disease.

During the course of her treatment and without her knowledge, doctors removed samples of both healthy and cancerous cells from her cervix and sent them to Dr. George Gey, who used her cells to culture the first immortal human cell line. Named “HeLa” after the first letters of Lacks’ name and surname, it has been used extensively in biomedical research ever since. The oldest and most commonly-used human cell line, HeLa has enabled research into cancer, AIDS, radiation effects, gene mapping, cloning, IVF, and more — including Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.

Much has been made of the fact that Lacks did not consent to the taking or using of her cells, though as Skloot points out, such practice would not have been considered unethical or even unusual at the time. The truly troubling aspects — as well as a recent victory — generally happened later, and involved Lacks’ children and grandchildren.

Of course, if you’ve read Skloot’s book, you’re already up to speed on all this. And if not, might I suggest you order a copy today? Not just because I think the greatest response to any outright attempt to book-ban is when as many people as possible read said-book. (Though I do, and you should.)

As I see it, the Tennessee Mom’s objection follows a pattern that is connected to far more than this one publication.

“It’s What’s Inside That Counts!”

What is it about women and vaginas that provokes such fear and outrage? Everywhere I look, both today and across history, I see simultaneous efforts to reduce women to this single piece of anatomical real estate and to lay claim to their intimate interiors as a legitimately public space. [Not to mention the concomitant attempt to deny out of existence all people whose gender and anatomy do not line up in the same neat, binary fashion.]

There’s no “war against women,” Ben Carson pronounced recently. The war is actually “on what’s inside of women.”

Ya don’t say.

While I suspect what the good doctor — and GOP presidential hopeful — meant to say was blah blah abortion blah, he stumbled into conceding a stark truth: a whole lotta Not-Me people are staking ownership claims to my insides. And to those of every other vagina-carrying member of the polity.

“I saw everything as no man had ever seen before,” wrote J. Marion Sims in 1894. Sims, the ‘father of modern gynecology,’ now sounds like a Monty Python spoof of colonial exploration/exploitation as he describes inserting a makeshift speculum into a woman’s body and looking inside her vagina for the first time.

What’s that? You’re not familiar with Dr. Sims — or why he’d make an appearance in this post?

Perhaps it will help if I explain: the bent soup spoon that this Christopher Columbus of Medicine used in the earliest of his grotesque and  nonconsensual dubious surgical experiments on enslaved women evolved into the duck-billed apparatus still in use today. If you’ve ever had your feet in a OB/GYN’s stirrups, it’s likely you’ve experienced Sims’ invention.

It was almost certainly the speculum design doctors used when harvesting Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells.

Our Bodies, Ourselves Whose Selves?

In 1969, a group of women (perhaps best known as The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective) began meeting to discuss what health and body awareness had to do with women’s liberation. The book they eventually wrote — Our Bodies, Ourselves — has been helping women learn about their own anatomy and physiology for over 40 years, including how to do one’s own gynecological exam.

“Knowledge is power!” remains their rallying cry for this approach to women’s health.

Image: Feminist Women’s Health Center

Though, when it comes to ladies’ junk, “Seeing is power!” might be the more apt phrase.

The methods advanced by J. Marion Sims went beyond tools; he also pioneered new patient positions that allowed doctors to look without being seen looking. Or, put another way, he enabled gynecological patients to be seen without looking at the doctor who saw. As historical drawings of female patients’ examinations demonstrate, significant changes in Acceptable Doctor-Gyno Patient Eyeline™ occurred from the mid-19th century’s “Whose hand is that up your skirt? Surely not mine!” — to Sims’ trussed carcass on a chaise — to Dr. Howard Kelly’s 1928 dream for kinky fapsters — to today’s stirrups. (Which I suddenly feel quite content with!)

I am struck, looking at these pictures, not only by the doctor’s power of seeing. I am also aware of the patient’s power of pretending-not-to-be-seen, as wielded by these [notice how they’re all white? I’ma bet they all have money, too] women.

The idea of modesty has always had two edges: it serves both to trap women in limited social positions and to distinguish “good” women from “bad.” (Or “loose.” Or “impure.” Or “not the one you marry.” Or “asking for it.”) Too much sexual looking — whether by or at — can cost access to such modest female privileges as purity culture allows white, middle-class and wealthy women. As Michelle Murphy points out in her study of the women’s liberation movement circa Roe v. Wade, even some activists worried that vaginal self-exams were “immodest.” I’m quite sure these correlations remain in effect today.

Isn’t that right, Tennessee Mom?

At What Cost Modesty, At What Cost Health

The object raised by a mother in Tennessee to a description of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical self-examination goes to the heart of these questions: what does it mean to see inside a vagina? Who is empowered — and who is polluted — by such seeing?

Whose rights-to-see matter? 

And whose health is implicated by where people are allowed to look?

Women’s health care today rests on advancements only possible because the enslaved black patients Sims experimented on — Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsy, as well as others whose names we will never know — were not accorded the modesty rights that would have made such operations on a white woman unthinkable. Everybody’s health care today depends on the cells of a poor, African-American woman — whose descendants struggle to cover their own medical costs even as their mother’s genetic material supports a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Today begins “Banned Book Week” in the US: an annual celebration of everyone’s freedom to read. Out of the 10 most challenged books last year, seven made the list for being “sexually explicit.”

Today also brought an announcement that while the entire government will not shut down in an effort to block federal funding of women’s health care, House Republicans plan to proceed with their investigation of Planned Parenthood over bogus charges. Which is to say: people whose sexual health is not at stake continue fighting to dictate the options, and restrict the access, of the poor and minority women (and others) whose health is.

And that, dear readers, is truly obscene.

# # #

^Nearly all credit for which goes to sociologist Kristin Luker’s thoughtful and compassionate study of communities divided over the issue of sex education: When Sex Goes to School.

Images: Diagram of internal reproductive organs. The Open University. Licensed via (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Detail of portrait of Henrietta Lacks via. “Knowledge Is Power” via ourbodiesourselves.org.

42 thoughts on “Just Because the Book’s Not Pornographic, Don’t Assume There’s Nothing Obscene Going On

  1. I have many thoughts but I definitely LOL’d at “blah blah abortion blah”!! I also didn’t know about Henrietta Lacks or this book, so thanks for writing about it. As a woman who has had ongoing gynecological issues (having a biopsy done tomorrow 😣), I really wish our society was more open to recognizing said issues, talking openly about them, and funding research for them! May vagina and accompanying parts don’t only exist inside the realm of sex.


    1. I laughed at that line too, as I was writing it! Seemed like an accurate way to capture the thought process of Mr. “Gravity — where does it come from??”

      Best wishes for your test. I hope you receive highly competent, informed, and respectful treatment, whatever the results.


  2. I am rather curious…since we all know that this Planned Parenthood inquistion is complete tripe…wtf is the GOP hiding that they are trying to keep our eye off of? How are they even getting away with spending so much time and energy one completely bogus charges?! My mind is truly blown. I have no words.


    1. I wish I felt like I understood too, Mara. Part of the challenge, I suspect, is that different elements within that caucus have different motivations in mind: from strategy and political posturing for the base, all the way to the rigid (and misguided) ideologues who fervently! believe! something!

      Also, some of them may just be as stupid as they come across. Maybe?? Hard to believe, and yet… Most of them are certainly as misogynist as they come across, regardless of what they choose to believe about themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am heading to Amazon straight away after this to put the Henrietta Lacks book on my list. It’s interesting what is considered “inappropriately” pornographic while the porn industry continues to make money off of objectifying women and sex. I have a teacher who talks about how women’s bodies have been colonized by the patriarchy both outside and in. I agree with her- and it’s been quite the journey to take ourselves back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with your teacher and you entirely! And it seems to me that an objectifying pornography [to be clear, IMO that’s #notallporn] and the effort to censor and ban *all* public representations of sexuality are two sides of the same coin. Opposites that feed off each other and, in a paradoxical way, each side ends up producing the other. Whereas if we could all take a slow, deep cleansing breath (no pearl-clutching or heavy breathing allowed!) and get over ourselves for a just moment, how much more healthful for everyone!

      I am so tired of people perverting sex, either because they MAKE it degrading — or because they SEE it all as degradation.


  4. You know, doncha, Alice, they’re not doctors. They’re not scientist. How could they know anything about this stuff? Ammirite?

    I’ve never heard of this book. It sounds intriguing.

    Thanks for a great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed reading about Henrietta’s life and never would have thought that the book would be banned. It’s history and science embedded in a biography. The thing that infuriates me about a story like this one is that one stupid person can cause this much trouble– and then bask in the attention that he or she gets. Shouldn’t we as a society be ignoring the stupid one? Just saying…


    1. Nope, other movies her kids can’t see are “Face Off”, “Happy Feet”, “Places in the Heart”, “Cool Hand Luke”, “Tooth Fairy”, “Footloose”, “Braveheart”, and don’t even mention “Goldfinger” to her!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Perfect timing. I have been thinking a lot about banned books after reading about a coming of age book in NZ that is currently coming under fire, which occurred at the same time I was finishing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Today I saw a post from Margaret Atwood which mentions The Handmaid’s Tale being a banned book (of course it is) which led me to thinking about how what is going on in Congress is not all that far from the text of The Handmaid’s Tale, which led me to thinking about all the people who want to invalidate the experiences of others who aren’t JUST LIKE THEM (hello Kim Davis!) which of course made me think about the penguin picture book that gets challenged every year, which led me RIGHT HERE. So…there you go. Ironically, I haven’t read Henrietta Lacks yet, but it’s been on my ‘wish list’ for about 3 years now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think 3 years is about how long I’ve had Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow on my own ‘gotta read’ list. Haven’t heard of that one being banned anywhere — and given its lack of explicit sex or vaginas, I suspect it wouldn’t be. Of course, given the presence of Alexander’s explicit critique of institutionalized US racism instead, I’m not sure how many high school reading lists ever include it in the first place…


  7. I loved this book. Thought it was completely magical, even more so because of the science of it, and the humanity of it. That real, grisly, human type of magic is my favorite.

    As to banning books, well, I can’t imagine what one would have to say in order to have me agree to that bit of nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “That real, grisly, human type of magic” — I love this. What FANTASTIC phrasing, for a feeling I absolutely share. (Just a heads-up, I will totally be borrowing this language!)


  8. I bought “The Immortal Life…” for my foxling on her 10th birthday… she devoured it, and now 15, does her own exams between office visits…

    The idea that being informed is pornographic, or that a penis-carrying member of the human race dictates what services my cervix has access to is simply the most absurd, offensive and ignorant shit I have heard in a long while… here’s to our united states of freedom… for the republican, christian, white, male, upper class citizens, that is…

    just… sigh. =(


  9. Great post! That’s just crazy that someone would want to ban that book, particularly for those reasons. Hopefully the mention of banning will drive teens to go out and purchase it. I remember when it was suggested that an YA author I was fond of (Chris Crutcher) should be banned, I soaked up everything I could.

    Btw, I don’t see mention of J. Marion Sims online too often (nor would I have any reason to, I suppose), but he is considered one of my area’s “hometown heroes.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I often have the same response to book-banning attempts: not just to read, but to defeat such censorship by promoting the heck out of targeted books!

      “Hometown hero” — Sigh. Lemme guess: none of the Sims’ fans in your area talk too much about Lucy, Anarcha, or Betsy, do they?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh Hell, you know that I don’t even have to comment right, because you know just how much this type of crap infuriates me. However, in regards to moronic Tennessee mom I would simply invite her to have a look at my ‘vaginal vault’ home to what used to be my cervix and the lovely blood red, raised, pulpy, quarter size Stage 2 cancer lesion sitting smack dab to the left of the external os…because yes Tennessee mom, I too inserted my fingers into my vagina and felt my cervix, and I too (with the help of my gynecological oncologist looked into a mirror and deep into my body to see the thing that could have killed me. Over and above all that HL endured, and I am sure Tennessee mom could care less about that, she indirectly enabled me to live, and deserves my thanks. Wait until TM 15 yo son becomes, god forbid, a gynecologist…and touches those naughty parts everyday, and looks inside of strange lady bodies. I hope her god makes her spend eternity touching herself, deep inside.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. gods I love you, Deb. I love your fierceness, and your anger, and your wit, and your wisdom. I love your oncologist too, for making sure you were still around for me to meet.

      And I absolutely ADORE everything about what you wrote here.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Well…hope this does not come as a shock, but I am HIGHLY unlikely to stop writing about women’s bodies under patriarchy anytime soon. Best keep your rant supply fully stocked.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. I want to jump up and down on the “Like’ button.

    I read Skloot’s book when it first came out and knew someone, somewhere would ban it. Or try to. I’m truly surprised it took this long (unless I’ve missed something).

    I have to think you’re right in thinking Tennessee Mom didn’t know the difference between cervix and clitoris. Though, once people start talking about “down there,” it doesn’t seem to really matter.

    I’m so glad you provided the links to those illustrations. We have such a long way to go, but gladly, not THAT far.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aren’t those illustrations something? I’ve been reading and reading about 19th c. gynecology, working on this post, and still…seeing those particular pictures gave me the worst case of the heeby-jeebies. So you’re right, even with all the backtracking on gyn health care access — thankfully, we haven’t gone THAT far back!


  12. “the US’s weird dance between puritanical prudery and enthusiastic sexualizing of…well, EVERYTHING ”

    This is crazy, isn’t it? That weird tension must lie behind other weird things like calling that book pornographic.

    And then there is the crazy right that wants to control women’s bodies!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I often wonder what US culture must look like to people raised outside this country, when it comes to our absolutely incoherent approach to sexuality.

      Well… “incoherent” if one believes that women are full human beings, with equal capacities and complexity to men. Looked at from a perspective of “women are toys for men to control and play with, both physically and sexually”? Then I guess it makes total sense.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Everything about that book amazes me. The women who wrote it, the way they worked together while writing it, the international phenomenon it continues to be, the whole organization that has been built around it…

      I spent a lot of time browsing around the OBOS website while working on this piece. Fascinating repository of knowledge, history, and activism!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Terrific post, Alice. I had the good fortune of hearing Judy Blume talk last week and of course, one of her books has been frequently challenged – “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret”, because of addressing menstruation. It’s really amazing how anyone would think having information about the human body (especially one’s own!) could be anything but a positive thing. I’m putting the Skloot book on my reading list. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Michelle!

      And poor Margaret, still getting challenged 45 years later! It’s astounding, isn’t it, how a body process experienced by half the human population, for roughly 15% of their lives over decades, still manages to be treated as taboo?

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Once again, I finish reading one of your posts with a desire to say SO MANY THINGS all at once that I can’t begin to discern where to start. Fantastic. Just fantastic.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! Glad it spoke to you!

      Since I started writing this post back before the fire two weeks ago, I guess I also need to thank the House GOP — for keeping “wacko offensive attempts to control women’s reproductive health care” such an evergreen topic. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

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