Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sex, HPV, Daughters and God

In my gynecologist's office I witnessed a thing: a mom and her teen-aged daughter and her teen-aged daughter's  boyfriend were there getting the girl a prescription for birth control pills, an exam, an HPV vaccine, and a "talk" from the doctor. We could all tell what was going, not just because of the configuration of those three but because the girl was quite vocal about it all, reading aloud snippets from flyers held aloft so that anyone could scan the titles, and clearly enjoying holding the floor by being hopelessly young and beaming with joy at being initiated into womanhood in a pharmacological way.

The doctor came out from his offices to hand her some pill samples and more flyers and told her that she could go now unless she had any more questions.

"Do you remember delivering me?" she asked.

Everybody - the other patients, the women in the office, all the other doctors chortled. It was somehow delightful.

"That was a long time ago," he responded.

It looked to be about 16 years ago.

Her lad was ridiculously gorgeous, well-muscled and out of place in a room full of women waiting for pap smears etc..

They oozed youth, sex, and embarrassment. It was hard to imagine that they wouldn't be "doing it".

The mom kept her head held high, but did NOT make eye-contact with another soul. She steadied her nose in a magazine until it was time to go and she could lead the couple gratefully out of the waiting room.

My kids are little and this "situation" is a long way off, but then again, not really. We mothers know how our children grow in heartbeats. There will be a blink of the eye between the time visit our ob-gyn for a prenatal exam and  a prescription for birth control pills, an exam, an HPV vaccine (or whatever they come up with next), and a "talk" from the doctor for our teen-aged daughter.

Or maybe not.

Maybe this day will never come because our daughters will choose abstinence.

Or maybe (one can only hope) nobody will ever fall desperately in love with them, and she with him, so that they can think of nothing other than touching each other everywhere, every way, all the time.

Or maybe we just will have no idea what's going on with our daughter and what's-his-name who we're not really sure exists. We'll have no clue where she's spending all her time. To me, this is kind of a worst case scenarios.Though, I know there are worse cases -- I don't feel like dredging any up right now.

I had to respect this woman's pluck in handling her horny teen-aged daughter and her off-the-charts hunky boyfriend. Surely that is the way to deal with it - the team approach; the armament with facts, birth-control, vaccines and a gynecologist. Surely it's better gotten all out there under the fluorescent lights and glaringly white lab coats then all furtive and mythical from friends who embellish and whisper in privacy, without the sense of any grown-ups to buzz-kill with their sagging wisdom and experience.

I'm coming at this from a particular angle, as we all are. My P.O.V. is of someone who was raised with a proper religious upbringing. My mother gave me a sex-talk when I was 22. It caused me great despair. It was too late and it was far, far too little.  My mom had me when she was in her 40s and there's not so much a cultural gap between us as a chasm into which you could stick a whole 'nother generation. The fuddy-duddy brand of sexuality she hoped(?) I'd inherit from her just wouldn't do for me, not at all.

I slept around some.

It was mostly fun. Some of it, I could have done with out. And if I could go back again, there are definitely some things I would change. But I can't. Most of it was wonderful and fun and I think about my lovers with fondness.

I remember listening to the CBC on the radio in my car and the announcer was talking about HPV and HPV vaccines and it was the first I heard of it and I thought, wow! "Lucky me, I'm glad I got through my 20's without catching that. Now I'm in a monogamous relationship with a baby daughter, and I'm off scott free."

Incorrect.

At a postnatal check up following the birth of my second child,  my midwife discovered squamous cells on my cervix caused by an HPV infection.

What I went through to get rid of cancer on my lady-bits was psychologically, emotionally, and physically horrible.

Sometimes I think about the consequences of the sexual freedom I tried a little too hard to embrace in my youth and I wonder if it was worth it.

If I had followed my parent's desires and expectations that I wouldn't even think about sex until I fell in love and then got married and was shocked and appalled on my wedding night to discover how horrible my "wifely duties" were, I wouldn't have gotten HPV.

If I had married another virgin, I wouldn't have gotten HPV.

The thing is that sleeping around is dangerous. There are risks. I was lucky. But not that lucky on account of, you know, the cervical cancer. That was caused by a virus that I caught that from someone I had sex with. It could have prevented me from having children. It didn't, but it could have. When I was a teenager, I don't think I would have thought of that as the worst thing in the world. Now that I have children, I think it would be. Thinking about one of my daughter's losing her reproductive abilities makes me want to sob.

I don't think God gave me HPV to punish me for being unladylike. I think viruses spread because they can and every living thing follows the directive to eat, survive and reproduce. HPV is like any other virus -- it wants to move from host to host and survive inside that environment long enough to colonize another host with its' DNA. If the virus' host survives long enough to do this, it is successful. If the host dies after the virus has moved to another body, the virus is still successful. This is why little babies in Africa can get AIDS from their mama's breastmilk -- because viruses are opportunists, not because God hates little African babies and their mamas.

Sex is a great way to move between human hosts because it's a pretty good bet. People have sex. Sex is something that people do. I am a people. I am not angry with myself.

At the end of Blue Milk's Why I Will Go Easy on the Save Yourself Rhetoric with my Daughter
 she asks: "So, how would you like sexuality to be different for your daughter, or girls generally, in growing up? How would you like your son to learn about girl sexuality differently?"

If I could pass one chunk of sexual wisdom onto my daughters it would be this:

You don't need to be too grateful for male attention. They might try to make you feel undesirable and inadequate, but that's exactly opposite to how they really feel. They can think of nothing else but you. That's how they are made.

This, and an HPV vaccine is exactly the kind of armour that would have helped me.

So, this girl in the gynecologists office: she's protected from several evils that women before her were not -- unplanned pregnancy, STD's, and perhaps most importantly, utter ignorance and blind eyes turned on her. I'm glad for her. As squeamy as imagining that day where I bring a daughter to my gynecologist to discuss her becoming sexually active makes me right now, that is exactly what I want for my girls and my boy and the young people they come of age with.

When I was young, it was AIDS we learned about in health class. Now it's HPV. In another decade, it will likely be something else.

And if something goes wrong, like it did for me, and my kids need rescue, I want it to be there, I want them to have people to turn to, including me, and I want it without judgement. I want medicine to keep on task of protecting sexual health.

This whole, "you've made your bed, now lie in it" thinking has been used against women and girls for the longest time, and it's shit. My vision for the future is more like, "you've made your bed, now start your day and know that you'll have a nice tidy bed to return to at the end of it. It's your bed to make. If there's some reason you don't want to lie in it anymore, get out of it."

9 comments:

  1. Wise words! I agree and with three children aged 7, 10 and 12 I have already started the the talking. Not just about the mechanics of sex but the whole lot of issues and subjects linked to it.

    My 10 year old son came home asking what rape was a couple of weeks ago. We had a very wide ranging conversation covering respect, protection, STD's, and more! He can discuss it, he understands. It has to be out in the open. I hope that he will be the young man that is able to make sure that his girl friend is safe, happy, and can respect her needs and wishes.

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  2. Yes - wise words. And I LOVE that that Mom brought her daughter AND the boyfriend. I have to re-read The Purity Myth because I remember it was good but naturally I can't remember enough of it to accurately paraphrase WHY it was good. I was raised religious also, and I actually didn't sleep around, so yay on the no cervical cancer but not so yay on the big issues surrounding sex for a long time. I will NOT be passing that on to my children. With Eve I've only gotten to the point where she asked about how babies were made and I told her and she pronounced herself unspeakably grossed out and said that, should she manage to forget the whole disgusting business, I was NOT to ever tell her again. So now I need to figure out how to approach that. :)

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  3. This is a great, and very challenging post, especially for those of us with very small children who are desperately trying not to think about these issues! Ahem. *Duck.*

    All I can say is, I sure wish the HPV vaccine was around when I was a teenager, because like so many women, I ended up with a strain as well, which could rear its ugly head at any time. I've been privy to some debate among pro- & anti-vaccine folks about it, and the anti arguments sound familiar - "I'll teach her that abstinence is the best way to avoid STDs." Um. Good luck with that ...

    I can't help but notice that this argument didn't work 200 years ago, and it doesn't work now. Why won't it die?

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  4. Thanks so much for your comments.

    Inder-ific -- I was kind of nervous posting this, and for some odd reason I pictured YOU reading it at your computer terminal while sewing a bonnet out of vintage fabric, sighing, resting your work on your pregnant belly and excaliming, "Gosh, what a ho."

    So your words here are extremely meaningful. Thank you.

    What I meant to say in this post but didn't spit out quite right is that I think the old timey sexual moors of female purity come from somewhere that's meant to protect women. To greater or less extents, that is what they did. But when they didn't work (say you got molested by a priest or an uncle) they really really didn't work. So I think we can do better. It's a big job we have though, because in many ways, we're kind of starting from scratch which is both fun and terrifying.

    And of course, you don't need to be a ho to get HPV. You need to have sex with one person who has also had sex with one other person.

    That's all.

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    1. Ha! Well, what you read on my blog obviously does not reflect the whole me (my parents and partners at my law firm read my blog! I have to be careful!).

      I would not be nearly so generous about the protective effect of old mores of female purity, myself. Cultural norms of female sexual purity have also (primarily) been used to control women. Since men were subject to much more lax norms (their sexuality doesn't need to be as tightly controlled), the protective effects (at least when it comes to STDs) for women were minimal or almost nonexistent. But the norms did one thing - attempt to protect women from out of wedlock sex and childbirth, which, in a society that rigorously controls women's sexuality, actually did result in "ruin."

      However, given the number of 19th century novels I've read about just such ruin and destruction, I'm going to posit that it didn't work that well back then, either. People have been having sex for um ... a long time. ;-)

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    2. Yeah, I totally get that yours is a sewing blog that your mom and lawyer colleagues might read. And I don't think of you as a prude, I think of you as brilliant, I have no idea why that image floated up to judge me. It probably has more to do with the fact that when I was diagnosed, I was a nice lady with a newborn, shopping for baby bonnets at the farmer's market and it was just shocking to me that this could happen to the likes of me. One gets the feeling as a pregnant lady and parent of a new baby that you are somehow ... purer. I did, anyway.

      And you are right, where it all falls apart is the hypocrisy -- when men yap about purity on the pulpit, then all sleep with the same hooker and pass that "knowledge" onto their wives.

      I want better for our daughters.

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    3. Me too!

      (Also, not to mince matters, in prior, allegedly more prudish times, "ruin" actually meant prostitution. Just so we're all clear.)

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  5. I aspire to be that woman who can take her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend to the doctor. Will I be? I'm working at it every day. I hope that it's enough.

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  6. I am so glad I found your blog, best one I've read yet...it's made me laugh and feel so much better about my HPV, squamous cells, and my hysterectomy scheduled next month. Bravo for your wisdom, humor, sensitivity, and honesty!

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