This podcast takes on the “mysteries” of women’s bodies
A few months ago, my best friend sent me a link to a podcast. “Stop what you’re doing and listen now,” her text said. And so I did, right there at my desk. When the episode finished, I lapped the quad of Colorado College, where I studied and now work. The episode, entitled “Sex Hurts,” had moved me in such a way that if I hadn’t physically moved — exerted my muscles a little, let the emotion manifest — I may have burst.
“Sex Hurts” is one episode of “Bodies,” a podcast produced by Allison Behringer. “Bodies” delves into some of the physiological experiences women commonly have but individually find mysterious. Each episode examines the journey one woman takes in attempting to address her health plight and, ultimately, better understand her body.
While this may seem like a feel-good foray into feminine self-discovery, Behringer’s vignettes highlight a much more sinister truth: these stories aren’t medical mysteries because they are uncommon issues, but because they have been systematically overlooked and understudied by a historically male-dominated medical community.
The mystery at the heart of “Sex Hurts” demonstrates this. After penetrative sex with her boyfriend became increasingly painful, Behringer saw her gynecologist, only to be told nothing was wrong. Behringer then discussed her experience with a friend who, after seeing 20 doctors over the course of seven years, had finally found a specialist able to connect her own experience of painful sex to the birth control she took. Over the course of this episode, Behringer unveils that she discovered she suffers from vulvodynia, or chronic pain in the vulva, which Behringer’s doctor attributed to the birth control she was taking, specifically its manipulation of testosterone levels.
According to a 2012 study, over 8 percent of women over the age of 18 have symptoms that would qualify as vulvodynia. But while nearly 50 percent of those women have sought medical treatment, only 2 percent have been diagnosed with the condition. So about half of the many (almost one in 10) women who experience pain due to vulvodynia do not seek medical treatment at all, and the other half seek it out almost exclusively to no avail.
Therein lies the haunting premise that undergirds “Sex Hurts” and the entirety of the “Bodies” first season: Women are taught to internalize pain as a normalized part of their daily experiences. And even when they attempt to externalize this pain, they are frequently dismissed by doctors — who are not commonly taught about vaginal pain disorders — and birth control brands that also fail to list conditions like vulvodynia in their side effects. When Behringer asks a guest to the show, gynecologist Dr. Goldstein, about why this is allowed to persist among doctors and the medical industry, he responds, “Health care providers don’t view women as sexual beings.”
This series reminds us of the very tangible, physically felt consequences of patriarchy. Our medical establishments — the body of knowledge they utilize itself as well as the power of those who teach and wield it — are couched in patriarchal culture just like all other institutions. Patriarchal institutions are underpinned by violent ideologies that deny women their full humanity, and that violence plays out on our bodies.
When I returned to my desk at Colorado College, therefore, I sent that same message I had received to all my closest friends, my mom, and the guy I had been sleeping with: Stop what you’re doing and listen now.
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