here are several ways to disarm your enemy. One is to resist, to defend your territory at all costs; another is to open yourself up and take the wind out of your enemy’s sails by deliberately letting them in. At least then when they storm the castle gates, they’ll never have the satisfaction of being able to claim they forced entry.
That was my logic surrounding getting my IUD when I was in my early twenties. It was a statement that said, “do your worst” to whoever might be a threat to me and my nether-regions — be it the medical institution, careless doctors, or the boys I had sex with.
I’d become generally pretty terrified of sex — of contracting some kind of disease, getting pregnant — and equally terrified of the medical regimes surrounding the experience.
A lifetime of conversations with people about the clinical dangers sex entailed, rather than the relationships that made it desirable in the first place, had left me with the sense that sex was a battle ground to be negotiated, a set of dangers to guard yourself from, rather than something to be enjoyed. Foreign hormones coursing through my body making me feel off-tilt, hands poking at me and into me, the equally probing questions from doctors and nurses trying to assess whether I was having sex ‘the right way’ — I often wondered whether it was even worth it at all.
I’d decided accordingly to get ahead of the game with another invasive penetration. Precautionary armor.
I didn’t like that, in my mind, sex seemed so similar to the experience of having an IUD fitted by a total stranger. Sex, I knew, was supposed to be intimate, characterized by an atmosphere of trust. Or at least an energetic exchange. But to me, both came with a general disregard for my comfort, a loss of control, and possible pain; the two inspired a similar sense of impending doom.
I went to my GP, a man who I gauged to be in his late sixties. He looked disheveled, his hair and clothing in disarray, chest hair poking out over the top of his crumpled shirt. His office mirrored his chaos — dust and papers scattered across his desk. He gave me a prescription after a lackluster interrogation about my sex-life — regularity, number of partners, STDs — and then sent me off to the pharmacy to go and buy the coil I’d asked his medical permission to procure.
Twenty minutes later, I entered the cool interior of the pharmacy, the familiar white linoleum-and-bleach smell transporting me back to my childhood. An equally familiar tightness spread across my chest as I joined the queue — the same panic I felt before almost any medical procedure.
I approached the pharmacy counter, head spinning. I was temporarily distracted from my panic by the pharmacist asking me to pay, enabling me to stay upright until I walked outside. I mounted my bike, peddled a few times, then leapt off just before I fell to the pavement outside my local hairdresser. A woman came out and peeled me off the ground. I later wished I’d talked to her.
You can trust hairdressers; they care about social relations.
The goals in medicine are much more covert.
In that moment, though, I couldn’t find the words. I sat limp on a chair and sipped the water the hairdresser had given me, confounded by the extremity of my reaction. I didn’t understand it.
After a lifetime of transgressing my own boundaries in the face of sexual and medical penetrations, followed by a steady convergence of the two, my body had been conditioned, it seemed, to go paralytic at the mere suggestion of a medical touch. My body repeatedly refused to cooperate. I’d done what was expected, I’d performed the scripted routines with my doctor, I’d braved out the medical examinations, and sexual health rituals that “society” expected of me throughout my life.
Why, given my pristine record, was my body so determined to fight me? Why was it making simple, commonplace procedures — basic maintenance that most patients seemed to undergo effortlessly — so difficult?
I had an appointment the following week to have my coil ‘fitted’, a word that the doctor had used and made it sound like my IUD was some kind of bespoke tailoring; the truth was, I was about to discover, that it would be inserted by the crudest instruments imaginable.
The same man with crumpled clothing and the messy office welcomed me with small-talk and led me to an examination table. I was given one of those paper ‘modesty’ blankets in which was encoded the age-old assumption that modesty is somehow protected by turning a blind-eye to one’s anatomy.
He opened the cardboard box and pulled out the strange, spidery gadget that was headed for my genitals. He hesitated, as if he was nervous too. I looked up at the ceiling, bracing myself for the worst. I’d heard that this would hurt. When the spidery metal made contact with my skin, however, all I felt was a faint scratching, nothing compared to the violent sensation of a rod piercing my core I’d been told to expect.
Turns out it wasn’t violent because the procedure hadn’t really started. In fact, it wasn’t working at all. I watched the doctor’s head between my legs go increasingly red. “I’m having a bit of trouble,” he said in a flat tone that was somehow meant to reassure me. “It’s not going to fit.” After an awkward five minutes, he gave up, wrapped the coil in its plastic wrapping and slid it back into the cardboard box. He removed his gloves and spoke as he went to wash his hands.
“Your vaginal opening is a bit small, given that you haven’t had any children, so I’m going to send you down to the gynecologist for them to insert it.” He passed me the opened packet.
“Just give them this, they’ll sort it out.”
I couldn’t help but feel that the anticlimactic episode was a direct result of our lack of chemistry.
The high-tech equipment in the gynecologist’s office was in some ways reassuring, while at the same time all the more terrifying for it. The prospect of a more drastic intervention loomed over me.
The gynecologist appeared in the doorway. She suited her futuristic environment well: grey hair pulled back into a bun and a bright white coat, standing beside her elevated white futuristic chair, poised between various monitors and wires. She asked me to take a seat.
“So, your GP was having a bit of trouble,” she stated. I handed her the opened packet that I’d been told to take with me by means of explanation.
“He said it’s still usable.”
Her face twitched slightly as she resisted the urge to show her disdain.
“That won’t be sterile. Very dangerous. Don’t know why he told you that.”
I wasn’t surprised. He’d seemed distracted — and slightly dirty. I silently reprimanded myself for not trusting my instincts, for not taking seriously in that prior moment in the doctor’s office the sense that I was being penetrated by a dirty man. These are the types of inklings, based on rational observation, that patients discard as unfounded, that we suppress to guard the illusion that we are somehow in control of our medical biographies. Who are we doing that for?
Take two. The gynecologist lowered the back of my chair and spread my legs apart using some form of scaffolding, then produced a speculum — the instrument my GP had considered to be dispensable — that she used to open pry open my cervix. She produced a new packet and asked me to cough as she seamlessly slid the coil inside. She then showed me the coil on her monitor. I looked at it, feeling suddenly like I’d been cast in the role of the expecting mother. This coil would be my first baby.
I had a relationship to it. This gynecologist understood that.
Of course, it couldn’t be that easy. The cramps hit me half an hour after I’d left the safety of her techno-lab, my body once again trying to expel the foreign device. I sweated it out, curled up on the sofa for several hours, until my body conceded. It had come to terms with the conditions of a pre-emptive defense.
Where does this leave me?
With an alien device inside of me symbolically inviting “the enemy” — defined as a range of medical and sexual interventions — to try their worst. With a body that was fortified from within a self-destructive defense strategy.
The IUD proved that my body was subject to a system that caused me mental distress even as I tried to actively resist that messaging. But the device is only the tip of the iceberg, just the index of a system of gendered oppression for which I seemed to have been groomed curiously well by my medical encounters.
Subjection, submission, silence. Silent bodies screaming.
I didn’t have a language to describe what was happening. The whole series of assaults was characterized by a silence so intense that it traps millions of people in a shared delusion that knowledge of our bodies can be expressed one way: as medical fact.
When we try to articulate what we feel in other ways, perhaps through the stories of the relationships that shape them, it is often discarded as hypersensitive, neurotic, unimportant. Despite the consciousness-raising of recent years, this idea is still pervasive.
There remains a consensus that our biology is private, domestic, and therefore difficult to discuss in any broadly representative, objective way. The only authoritative language in all of these discourses seems to be the language of biology; the only authorities are doctors. Even as a feminist claims the right to a voice about the fate of her own body, to make choices about childbearing, for example, she relies on doctors to bring this birth to term, so to tell her how her own body works.
How does a young person, told that their body means this and that and then given a very limited repertoire in which to discuss it, ever begin to compare their experience to anyone else’s? How does the unnerving, disconcerting and sometimes outright harmful treatment they endure — be it medical, exterior or interior, fact or premonition, psycho, somatic or psychosomatic — how does that come to light?
The answer is that it doesn’t.
It festers and shapes us silently, makes us feel profoundly insecure and alone. We are isolated through this absence of a language. We are alone as a result of this denial of the commonality that is the shared physical experience of our biological selves. We are alone because we don’t speak, and so our bodies take on the muted meanings, the morphed, repressed terror that is felt when we deny our biology a hearing. Bodies speak the truths we can’t.
My experiences with my own body, these stories of what felt like affronts on my anatomy, show that my best interest wasn’t always served by the options available to me — and it is crucial that we ask why that is. The only way out of our biological silos, is to find a way of discussing private bodily experience as a public issue. These stories need to be a constitutive part of medical practices as they develop.
They should hold as much authority as medical records.