Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Women, STDs and Vulnerability

In Ruby Slippers, I talked about the way a woman is vulnerable, to alcohol, to rape, to pregnancy, to abuse, and I have one more to add, to STDs.

There is a discouraging, though not altogether unsurprising, statistic making headlines. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 4 teenage girls have a sexually transmitted disease (STD). The New York Times covers the findings, "Sex Infections Found in Quarter of Teenage Girls". My thoughts kicked into high gear when I heard that. What are my friends and sister's friends going to be inheriting in the coming years? Infertility will continue to rise as infections from disease destroy the fine-tuned fertility micro-climate in a woman's body. For an excellent book on how women's fertility is beautifully and wonderfully made (Ps 139) go out immediately and buy Toni Weschler's Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement and Reproductive Health.

If 1:4 Caucasian women and 1:2 African American women have an STD, we ought to ponder the bitter irony of sexual freedom and how it preys on the more vulnerable. Many believe that safer sex needs to be taught. I read yesterday a huge Wall Street Journal advertisement, nearly full page, that read "America is Not a Sexually Healthy Nation" citing the CDC's findings and offering some steps like "Evolve education- Schools should teach comprehensive sex education that includes both abstinence and condom use." That's sort of strange, I thought. I mean you really don't need a condom is you're chaste. Then I noticed who paid for the ad, Trojan Brand Condoms.

Now I'm not going to climb up on a soap box and tell you that I think condoms are terrible. They're not. They're actually fairly effective at preventing pregnancy. So by all means some married couples should feel free to use them if they'd like to wait for children. But we're not even talking about pregnancy, we're talking about disease. Are condoms really enough? If they don't work 100% of the time to keep out a tiny sperm from sneaking through, what makes us think they can stop all the other diseases lurking about?

But I suppose the thing that bothers me the most is that STDs are infiltrating the core of a woman's body, targeting her capacities for vulnerability in the future. You know how hard it is to raise your voice when you have a sore, inflamed throat? Or to laugh a deep, vulnerable belly guffaw when you have a cough? Well, that's a taste of how hard it will be for these young women to be vulnerable in intimacy when the sensitive parts of her body, her reproductive capacities, her sexual pleasure and recreation has been damaged, ravaged by disease, inflamed from infection. The physical pain is just a small slice of the problem. I haven't even touched on the psychological aspects of sex without the safety and freedom of marriage (see Is Porn Empowering, especially the Comments for a further discussion). In my mind "free sex" makes it more difficult for women to be vulnerable (it's hard to be vulnerable when you are diseased in the area of vulnerability) and that means she is no longer free to embrace a key component of her femininity. (For the link between women and vulnerability see Ruby Slippers pg. 109-117).

Vulnerability means we have places that can be touched, wounded or pleased. As I've written in Ruby Slippers, "Vulnerability requires that we have places that are tender, places we can be affected, touched and even destroyed. A sparrow is more vulnerable than a rock. But because a sparrow is alive, it whistles, and soars, even though it can also be caught by a cat and clawed to death." (p 112).

But what happens when a woman gets clawed half-way to death. What happens when the cat gets tired of her, leaves her for dead, but she doesn't die. When a woman moves on in life, bearing an STD, how is she changed? What does an STD do to a woman's vulnerability (and in my mind her femininity)?

The first Woman, Eve, began life unafraid of her vulnerability for none would take advantage of it. Women today seem so free, we boast of their self-actualization, their empowerment, but I think modern American women are enslaved.

Just as the women who undergo forced gender mutilation in tribal cultures are wounded, their bodies forever changed, so are women who experience sex without the protection, the freedom, the security and comfort of marriage. In female circumcision the knife cuts away the tender areas of a woman's genitals, but in America we're not all that different, for disease is cutting away at women in the very same area, effecting the very same results: guarded, fearful, damaged, ashamed females.

I agree with the Trojan ad. Yes, we can do better than this. Yes, America is sexually unhealthy. Yes, we need to become part of the solution. Yes, women are "at risk." But we're going to need a lot more than condoms. We need to acknowledge, value and respect the vulnerabilities inherent in women.


Cara Nilsen said...

Hi Jonalyn,
I enjoy reading your blog. I wanted to comment that I agree with your ideas. "Sexual empowerment" is a lie that actually enslaves women in a state of danger. I think it has come to mean "the freedom/unrestriction to use your body as a tool to manipulate others and have power over them." It's a kind of pre-emptive "control them before they control you." It's also an adolescent belief that a person should be able to do whatever they want, even if it harms them because it's their choice. That should not be a choice we give to other people if we truly care about them. Here is where adults need to start leading by example because that's the most powerful way a young person learns.
As for the vulnerabilities of women's bodies, the answer lies in honoring this aspect instead of seeing it as a liability. It's like properly treating a precision-engineered car by not putting crappy fuel in it. This is just being smart instead of doing what isn't good for it because you want to prove your car is as tough as anyone else's.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

It's always good to hear you thoughts. I like your point about using our bodies as a pre-emptive control, sort of "get them with your looks before they get you with their brawn." It's a posture of fear and threat.
Also loved your thoughts on how women's bodies are like a precision engineered automobile that needs high quality fuel to run properly. There's nothing smart about saying your porshe is tough enough to "handle" low grade fuel or that your body is tough enough to "handle" multiple sex partners. I think it's worth reconsidering what we're trying to prove.

Anonymous said...

You have broached a painful subject for me, since I am one of those women afflicted with an STD that has no cure. I am almost 50 and am terrified of the possibility of developing a relationship with a man that might lead to marriage. I made choices as a young woman that have haunted me all these years and left me feeling dirty and "less than". Because I bear this secret, I also have a great deal of difficulty feeling the forgiveness that God so much wants me to know. All of this because I did not choose abstinence. It is indeed more than a physical affliction. It afflicts me down to the very core of myself as a woman, a Christian, a human being...This is the one thing that I truly regret and have had such difficulty forgiving myself for. A friend of mine equates "safe sex" with telling your child to watch for cars as they play on the freeway. Please pray for my spiritual healing and help me find a way to use this place I am in to minister to others.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Dear Anonymous,
Your vulnerability and willingness to share the pain of your past is beautiful to read. Thank you for sharing how difficult this burden has been. I've recently spoken of God's desire for the broken pieces in our lives at Biola's Chapel
"God Wants the Broken"

This morning I prayed for God to renew your body and mind with his thoughts of you, that he would show you his approval and pleasure in you as his daughter, that you would remember that you follow a God with scars in his hands and feet and side. Thank you so much for letting us hear your heart's pain. Grace to you, Jonalyn jonalyn@soulation.org

Christian in the making said...

Hi Jonalyn,

I am so grateful to God and Jesus for your openness to write about such a crucial topic online. Your views and voice is very much valued by me and I am sure also to many, many people out there who need to hear and know about the truth about sex that God has created. I'll be visiting your site often and hope to grow in christian maturity about marriage and sex and many others with you and the rest of the online community and also , not forgetting God's word, the bible's wisdom to lead us into His purposes for us in our lives. I hope that the Lord will empower all of us and equip us with the necessary knowledge about sex to last us through our final years and to the next generations.
I truly thank you for your writings and your deep love for Jesus to do this online. God bless you richly and keep you in His arms forever.

Karen Yap

Grian/Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grian/Lee said...

I hope no one minds, but I thought I would comment on this one.

The disease that afflicts most of the quarter of the female teen population and at least 50% of all sexually active people in the U.S. (some studies say 80%) is HPV - the Human Papiloma Virus. Some strains of this disease cause cancer. Most people don't even know they have it and clear symptoms on their own within a year or two of infection.

HPV is the same disease that causes common warts on hands and plantar's warts on feet. Do you suppose anyone with those strains of the disease feels dirty or ashamed? No they don't. The reason why is because sex is stigmatized into being filthy and any disease that is sexual transmitted automatically causes more emotional stress than immediate physical symptoms.

Condoms do not prevent the transmission of this virus 100%. It can be transmitted from any skin to skin contact - or fluid on hands, skin, etc. It can also be passed on orally.

Contracting an STD, while unfortunate and bothersome, is not shameful. Be educated, see your doctor for treatment, tell your future partners, and continue with your life. Disease is part of the human condition and sex is a natural part of life.

Please understand I am speaking specifically about STD's that are not HIV. That virus should not cause shame either, but it is much more serious and I don't wish to be blaze about it at all.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

I'd like to note that part of the reason there is shame associated with STDs is that it affects the parts of us that are most vulnerable and sensitive, most key to reproduction and most important in sexual pleasure. Interestingly enough these sexual organs are precisely the areas we cover with clothing, as did our ancestors when they discovered they had sinned (Gen 3:7).

I don't think the shame is something we must live with forever, God is one who took on the shame of the cross for us, so he's no stranger to it. But we cannot deny the shame as a way to deal with it.

This is why I'd disagree with Grian/Lee (though I appreciate your concern that we get educated about STDs) because I know the shame that accompanies sin of any kind is not defeated through education and "moving on." These have not been sufficient antidotes in my life. Open confession of the pain, watching and working alongside with God who re-works the strands of broken thread into a marvelous tapestry has been part of my healing. For a recent talk about how I worked through this "God Wants the Broken" at Biola University.

For a good treatment of the need for community confession, prayer and openness see "Jen's Blog Deep Dark Secret" or her Christianity Today article
"I Knew I Wasn't Alone"