Like most progressive feminists, I celebrated this moment during the congressional testimony of Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards last week, when the particularly smug House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, produced an entirely slanted, politicized graph which he claimed he manufactured based on Planned Parenthood’s actual number of abortions. Ms. Richards recognized that the graph had actually been doctored by Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group, and called him on it- which both effectively shut down his entire interrogation as well as pulled back the curtain on his affiliations- with a simple, steely “Check your source.”
As cathartic as that moment was, the most chilling and pivotal part of the clip for me actually happens earlier on, when Chaffetz is grilling Richards on why Planned Parenthood hasn’t administered a single mammogram this year. Through his badgering her and cutting her off, she finally manages to incredulously educate him that no medical providers have the technology to perform mammograms: only radiologists can do that, and all women must go to radiologists for that cancer screening. Even her.
This to me was the REAL curtain being pulled back: that the guy leading the congressional investigation on PP doesn’t feel he should educate himself as to how a basic mammogram works is a Big. Fucking. Problem. This is elementary stuff: it’s Healthcare 101! Mammograms don’t happen at doctors’ offices. Chaffetz didn’t know, his arrogance and condescension belying his ignorance of women’s health. And why should he? He would never have to have one. It’s not about him. To him, a breast exam is a hypothetical inconvenience, a talking point, someone else’s problem.
It was clear to me in that moment that this is what the debate of Planned Parenthood is about: how little men understand about or are interested in women’s bodies and health.
As a man, I sympathize. Our relationship to our bodies is very simple. The closest I- and any man really- have to any sensation in my lower abdomen is gas. The menstrual cycle is so far outside a man’s understanding of his own anatomy that it borders on science fiction.
As a male acupuncturist, I’ve had a specific exposure to female health that forced me to narrow the gap in my working knowledge of a woman’s body. I sat through gynecology classes in acupuncture school both enraptured and horrified. I’d pass a note to my lady classmates: “Can you feel…ovulation? Like…inside?”
Most pretended not to see it and I don’t blame them one bit.
The education I received was mind-blowing, mostly in emphasizing that the female body is an amazing complex system, that requires a lot more nourishing and management than the relatively-simple “Ford Explorer” male body. Women’s health is complex. Polycystic ovarian syndrome, pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids and endometriosis are real conditions, very common and require a specific arm of healthcare to manage. Fertility, child bearing and child birthing are so intricate they actually necessitate a consortium of legitimate healthcare providers that a man would never seek out, let alone identify.
Women get urinary tract infections- a lot! Some women get them every single time they have sex, whereas most men have no real grasp of them. Birth control hormone replacement is a giant fucking can of worms we couldn’t possibly wrap our heads around- I’ve had patients who were put on the pill in their teens for cramps try to go off of it in their 30s, and the hormone shock was so intense they thought they were suicidal.
Just menstruation alone is demented: a week of intense, systemic blood stagnation, followed by 5 days of bleeding, followed by a week of anemia, to be repeated for 40 years, is not something a man can sympathize with.
It requires empathy. That’s the problem. If I was bloated and my pants were unreasonably tight for a week of the month, I would barely leave the house.
That is what this debate is: can men empathize? Do they even want to? Can men be interested and compassionate to problems that don’t specifically affect them or see the universe in a way that doesn’t relate to them? Will these men altruistically make the space in this conversation for things they don’t know, may never understand, and maybe makes them corporeally uncomfortable? Can they be interested enough in the female body to lift the lens on policy that tells them male health is the default?
To give women’s healthcare the respect and autonomy it needs requires legislators to get over their childish conviction that everything is about them, and recognize that there are whole worlds and sciences and industries that exist outside of male necessity. It requires politicians to engage policy as more than just a self-gratifying hall of mirrors.
It is very telling to me that when the conservative politicians debate over the “approved” medical procedures Planned Parenthood should perform –as opposed to the totally legal yet controversial abortions- it is always “cancer screenings” or “STD testing,” i.e. diseases that men can wrap their heads around because they are diseases that could actually happen to a man. They are never talking about vaginal infection checks, pelvic exams, thyroid screenings or abnormal bleeding exams: they think cancer is the worst thing that can happen to a woman because it aligns with their own limited fears for their own health.
As far as I’m concerned, every time one of these jackass politicians mentions “cancer screenings” instead of osteoporosis, yeast infection, or vaginitis testing, he is demonstrating what he doesn’t know about female health. He is talking about men and pretending it’s about women. He is talking about himself, and masquerading it as compassion. (Also, keep in mind that both male-only cancers – prostate and testicular- miraculously and somewhat suspiciously have a 99% survival rate.)
This is the same narrow-mindedness that produced the original witch hunts in 14th century Europe: the vilification of female health and the restriction of medicine to the lower class. Much of what was considered “magic” at the time, we would now simply call “gynecology.” This isn’t new. Women have always had these concerns. ALL women’s bodies require a bit of extra care that can never and will never affect men. It’s ok. It’s not because women are the weaker sex, or dirty, or sluts: it’s simply because a woman’s body is complicated in ways that a man’s is not.
I’m not a political person; and I’m probably mostly only compassionate in ways that I hope people are watching and secretly giving me credit for, so I have no real leg to stand on. But I am interested in other things and other perspectives than just my own experience, and that is my hope in writing this post.
I would not presume to imagine what Rep. Jason Chaffetz wants of his life or this world but I would ask of him exactly what I am asking of you: Be interested. Be curious. Make space in your life for a bit of magnanimous fascination. Be willing and wanting to learn about the very things that exclude you or preclude you. Open yourself to the possibility that the infinite height and infinite depth of the human experience could be more compelling than infatuation with your own existence. Inquire with altruism. Engage in a world outside of your self-identification: the very fabric of society depends on it.
Curiosity has its own reason for existing. And women must have their magic.