In Terri Kapsalis’ published work, Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both Ends of the Spectrum, she uncovers the real issues that come from making medical decisions and assumptions based on gender dynamics and cultural opinions of the female body. Addressing the implications and problems associated with the work of sociologists, Henslin and Biggs, in the “Dramaturgical Desexualization,” Kapsalis criticizes their claim that the vagina is a sacred organ, and therefore must be treated as a separate entity from the woman, a site of profanity.
According to Henslin and Biggs, society treats the vagina as a sacred object, and in response, medical professionals should do the same. By calling the vagina “sacred” or “holy,” a set of strict rules accompany the organ in both a professional and casual setting that ensure the vagina does not become desecrated and “impure.” By this virtue, only the woman’s husband and her doctor can see her vagina. However, her physician can only approach her genitals when they have been medically defined as an “organ,” separated from the person. If others view or handle the woman’s vagina, then she has automatically damaged its purity and therefore, gets the title of being “promiscuous” or a “whore” – names that hold negative moral stigma. Of course here in the Juliland Universe, we see words such as those as simply meaning “professional.”
The issue in Henslin and Biggs’ article is not only that the woman is separate from her vagina, but it is also the assumption that the vagina is sacred while the woman is not. Strange dichotomy, no? By using this claim, medical establishments regain a sense of control and authority over the female body, which at times presents itself to be a threat to even the most professional and knowledgeable of doctors. We see this relationship at its best, and essentially its worst, during the allusive vaginal exam. By using the drape sheet to literally and physically separate the woman from her pelvis, the doctor gains even more control over the patient, making her feel inferior and dependent on him. Kapsalis claims that in its entirety, medicine has the ability to reduce the female patient to a compliant patient or a patient that is dehumanized into an object.
Yet there is another issue at hand – the claim that “the vagina is essentially ‘sacred is suspicious given the many ways in which the vagina is otherwise culturally rendered ‘profane’ (menstruation, taboos, vaginal “odor,” vagina dentata, etc)” (Kapsalis, 19). Most often, the vagina is publicly on display within the realm of pornography and sex work, two areas that according to Henslin and Biggs are sites of genital desecration. Within these instances, the vagina is not only being used and paid for, but the images associated with it are those of disease and filth. If only Henslin and Biggs spent a week here in the Juliland Universe – I’m sure they’d change their mind quite quickly. Therefore it’s important to ask: if medicine and culture are supposedly intertwined, how can society see the vagina as a place of filth and impurity while medicine views the vagina as “sacred” and the woman as profane?
Kapsalis states, “the medical institution is constructed as champion of this sacred vagina, simultaneously protecting it from the profanity of disease while performatively protecting it from the profanity of improper interaction” (Kapsalis, 19). But as the pelvic exam is first and foremost a performance involving power dynamics in relation to gender, one could assume that the doctor calls the vagina “sacred” in order to once again gain control over the female patient, in spite of of his/her true feelings towards the female genitals. It wouldn’t be the first time major institutions were both lying and manipulative.
So in response to Henslin, Biggs, and Kapsalis, I will do the following: I will schedule a gynecological exam with 1) a female doctor and 2) a male doctor. I will ask each doctor if I can remove the sheet between myself and them, and then see their response. I hope I make then squirm, and I hope more than anything, I’m proven wrong.