Tag Archives: women’s health

The Real Purpose of the Hymen

Debbie says:

Since I heard Dr. Jen Gunter speak in September, I’ve been wanting to write about her, but I haven’t had a chance to read The Vagina Bible, so I didn’t have a good topic … until I found this fabulous 7-minute YouTube video in which she talks about the hymen: truths, myths, evolution, and humor.

If you don’t know Dr. Gunter’s work, she’s a relentless crusader for facts about women’s health, and she crusades in a delightful no-bullshit tone which is remarkably appealing. Her goal in this talk is to debunk both the the belief that an intact hymen leads to bloody sex which demonstrates virginity. She disposes of that quickly and efficiently.

The hymen has few blood vessels. I know; I’ve operated on them. And they often don’t bleed even when cut with a scalpel.

Watch the video to see her eviscerate the evolutionary theories that connect the existence of hymens to the institution of marriage. She added some details to my knowledge, but basically so far, she’s on familiar ground for me. Then she gets into what I didn’t know.

“if the hymen were, biologically speaking, all about marriage, … why do cats have hymens? Why do dogs have hymens?” (Also, she tells us, horses, camels, buffalo, and elephants.)

I did not know dogs and cats had hymens. I had somehow assumed that, like menstrual cycles, hymens were pretty uniquely homo sapiens. It turns out, however, that the human hymen is a rigid organ until we are about 3 (presumably this varies for different species), and after that it becomes more elastic, and gets out of the way. “This,” Dr. Jen says, “is because the hymen has served its purpose  protecting the infant vagina from urine and feces.” Once the person is continent, the hymen becomes like baby teeth, no longer needed.

Because she’s Dr. Gunter, she can’t leave us without tying her science into where the patriarchal myths come from:

So what about those bloody sheets? … If sex is twist-a-nipple-and-stick-it-in, or if it’s rape, then you get vulvar and vaginal lacerations. Sexual incompetence and sexual violence is what brings bloody sheets, not a disrupted hymen. …

I would like to remind everybody that virginity is a social construct, and please keep biology out of it.”




Doing Harm Could Do More Good


Debbie says:

Maya Dusenbery’s Doing Harm was in a position to be a really important book. Dusenbery’s deep research into sexism in medicine stems from her own experience being (fairly smoothly and quickly) diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, and then learning just how lucky she was, compared to other women in her situation.

I was excited about this book, and glad to see that Huffington Post published a fairly long essay by Dusenbery summarizing some of her findings. And then I was horrified to notice that the essay, which Dusenbery describes elsewhere as an excerpt, does not address the relationship between racism and sexism (including such important stories as the perils black women face in and after pregnancy, and the terrifying story of Jahi McMath). The table of contents and index of the book are available on Amazon; looking them over, I see that Dusenbery does mention racial bias: however, she devotes fewer than 10 pages of her 300+-page book to these issues. The index entry for racial bias is far shorter than, for example, the index entry for postural orthotic tachycardia syndrome. Without in any way reducing the importance of that specific syndrome, I have to worry about a book that focuses on it to a far greater extent than intersectionality in medical bias.

From what I can glean from the Huffington Post piece and my research on Amazon, Dusenbery’s research is good and her focus on autoimmune diseases in women is valuable.

 [Since 1993, when the FDA permitted women to be included in medical research studies], the research community has largely taken ― as one advocate put it to me ― an “add women and stir” approach: Both men and women are usually included in studies, but researchers often do not actually analyze study results to uncover potential differences between the two. When it comes to pre-clinical research, male lab rats are still firmly the norm.

Dusenbery also treats some of the psychological history, starting (no surprise!) with Freud, and the range of ways medicine can dismiss [mostly] women’s symptoms:

It’s not surprising that it’s women who especially find their symptoms dismissed in this way since the typical patient with psychogenic symptoms has always been a woman. In the ’80s, researchers offered a mnemonic aid for remembering the main symptoms of somatization disorder: “Somatization Disorder Besets Ladies and Vexes Physicians.” These days, studies have estimated that up to a third of patients in primary care, and up to two-thirds of those in specialty clinics, have “medically unexplained symptoms.” And about 70 percent of them are women.

This needs additional text telling us what percentage of these women are black, or Latina. Substantial research (such as this) shows that skin color’s effect on symptom dismissal is intense and shameful. Women of color don’t only face far more roadblocks than white women in being taken seriously; they also face higher instances of some serious auto-immune diseases. In particular, systemic lupus erythematosis is known to affect black women at two to three times the rate it affects white women (and this number only takes diagnosed cases into account). However, Dusenbery’s index entries on lupus do not mention racial bias.

Trans people, by the way, merit four brief index entries, which seem to reflect no in-depth analysis whatsoever.

Judging from the quality of the Huffington Post excerpt, and Dusenbery’s well-deserved reputation, the book is probably full of excellent information, well-presented, and worth knowing. But unless everything I can determine from the excerpt, the table of contents, the reviews published on the book’s cover, and the index is all misleading me, and substantial treatment of intersectional issues is somehow present despite all the indications, Doing Harm is ultimately too flawed by privilege and bias. Anyone up for writing the book we need?