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.”
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?
In 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.
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.
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.
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^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.