We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The bodies of women in cyberspace & medicine · 10 April 06

Dear Arabella,

I was going to answer your letter first by pointing out that in "Women in Cyberspace," Elinor argues that the heart of the problem for women in cyberspace is the same as for women in physical space: where in physical space their bodies are not regarded as their own, and they are made answerable to, and are controlled by others for the advantage of men, so in cyberspace their bodies are presented as objects to have sexual experiences (of whatever sort the man can dream up) with, images to be bartered, sold, and for the most part in debasing, degrading ways. They seek safety and are only comfortable in regions where there is vigilant-moderation on behalf of courtesy and respect to individuals; a list membership held accountable through knowing who the members are where the members are colleagues in the same profession; or where women are owners and/or moderators because only in such places are their egos and felt bodies not at risk.

So what you say holds true in the area of abortions is parallel to what happens in cyberspace.

She also argues in the paper "the predicaments of social life in physical space are replicated in cyberspace. Cyberpsace is not cut off from physical space, but an extension of it and experiences in cyberspace as a matter of course spill over to physical space to affect an individual’s physical and local life." Nothing could be further from the truth than the implication of the notorious New Yorker cartoon that no one knows you are a dog on the Net. Research has shown that even in forums where disguises and masks are insisted upon, the class and ethnic background of participants counts, and in all places beyond those soon becomes known or guessed at and affects the individual’s experience. Indeed "An individual’s access to and experience of cyberspace is dependent on power relations in the physical world."

Why men should so want to control women in El Savador in ways that even endanger the individual women they happen to control, have acess to, or be related to is puzzling. You will say they depend on their money to get abortions for such family members, and since in many cases the woman will have to come to them for such money in the first place, this again makes them powerful. The Bush administration is doing all it can to discredit and stop the dissemination of contraception. All this to be assured of maintaining the male image of successful masculinity (which includes marriage, children, appearing the boss too)? It’s colluded by women who are desperate enough to feel that compulsory pregnancy will enable them to force men to marry them if they should become pregnant. (Almost as good as buying a house with him that is super-expensive and nailing him down to have to make the salary to pay for it.)

However, I think we can widen the application or reach of what we are saying. My daughter, Caroline, went into hospital today to have a tonsillectomy, and I’ve discovered that a law was passed by Congress whereby I cannot get any information on how she’s doing unless she has specifically requested I be informed. I asked the nurse at the surgery desk if she died, would they tell me. She said "no." The self-satisfaction of the tone with which she could utter that had to be heard for its import to be fully comprehended. The "rule" may be there to protect patients from other people, but I suspect it’s been put in place by the medical establishment to protect itself.

Dear Arabella, I’ve spent one third of every term I’ve taught Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences on the real delivery of what’s called medicine in our society. I begin with the definition that medicine is a form of behavior people practice towards conditions the society as a whole or individuals agree to regard or define as illness. We often call things illness that we feel we are supposed to sympathize with and help; we often refuse to call things illness which we don’t approve of. Say alcoholism: we call it a disease in order to create sympathy for it; or we refuse to call it a disease and despise the person. Mental problems and illness represent the kinds of illnesses our society likes to deny the term illness: say depression, we refuse to call it a disease in order to force the person to "snap out of it." People would have to admit the individuals around the sick person (or social conditions in general) are responsible for the individual conditions, states of mind, and pressures that lead tollnesses—and in many cases that means the particulars of the person’s circumstances. It is often hard to change these. Easier to blame the individual.

Each book I’ve assigned (and I’ve chosen some very different ones) demonstrates that medicine is not a science but a craft and a doctor is an artisan; or better yet, that all sciences are subcultures with their own attitudes many of which are not scientific at all. Or not based on anything we can demonstrably call science but rather realities we have to deal with (messy, contradictory), values (often false or harmful to individuals) and prejudices (against individuals of different races, sexism, age, those who have a condition the society is prejudiced against). In the area of the applied technologies of medicine where the customer fears death and is afraid of being sick (there’s a stigma), exploitations (for big sums of money too) and irrationalities predominate in many many situations. What the medical technicians (their word) more and more refuse to practice today is medicine as a humane art where psychological interaction is as important in reaching a cure, or helping the patient get better or cope with his or her illness. By omitting these things, they practice bad and pseudo-medicine, come up with inadequate diagnoses.

A doctor has the expertise to do an operation or procedure, he does not necessarily have the wisdom to say whether the patient should choose it. He is also an interested party—makes money, it’s his profession. People are encouraged to undergo risky operations to make themselves over as young or beautiful or thin. Over the course of the term we learn how so much that goes on in the medical world is devised to take their autonomy from patients and protect the interests of the individuals and powerful institutions who make up the medical establishment.

On lack of autonomy and physician’s irresponsibility towards women patients, it’s worth it to read

Common Ground
by Danielle Ofri.

It’s a short simple and powerful dramatic non-fiction tale where Ofri presents real common experiences of having an abortion both for the woman and the doctor who has a conscience (and is a woman). These two abortions did not happen in El Salvador, South Dakota nor Louisiana. They happened in the great liberal progressive regions of Massachusetts & New York. To professional women. Note the boyfriend who impregnated Ofri. He can’t "be with" Ofri any more. She has gone down in his estimation. How will she stand losing him? What a punishment he inflicts. Poor thing. What did he do to help her? Not a thing.

I typed the essay so my students and and others online could read it. It was omitted both Ofri’s published books and given this innocuous (no hint of abortion as the subject) title in the anthology I found it in.

To conclude, the way abortion is treated is but an aspect of how medicine is delivered and functions in our society. Just as cyberspace replicates the injustices of physical space towards women so what occurs to them when they come into the medical world.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Dear Sylvia –

    You have given me much to think about. I tried to read "Common Ground" but didn’t finish it. Unfortunately, I read a review that gave away the ending and I was too disgusted to go on reading the book. Too much "kiss the rod" to suit me. (rod = prick)

    The rightwing fanatics who are outlawing abortion refuse to talk about penalties for women seeking abortions. For the abortion providers, yes, but not for the women. Why? Are women incapable of making moral choices? If a woman is pregnant against her choice, she is held hostage to a clump of cells living as a parasite within her uterus. Her body becomes her prison.

    I maintain that we women are always prisoners within our own bodies. With regard to plastic surgery, women are made to feel like lumps of flesh. Flesh that is to be chopped, cut and stuffed to meet artificial standards of beauty. Full lips and large breasts are desirable because they are signifiers of a woman’s fertility. Some women become addicted to plastic surgery, striving to mutilate themselves until they are "perfect."

    No wonder women are uncomfortable with their bodies – so many contradictory messages. The internet may seem like a safe place where we are not burdened with our physical being, but as you say this is not completely true.

    There is something within us that never allows us to completely transcend body and gender.

    Soemthing comes to mind right now, but I don’t know why. Michael Faber's Under the Skin is a thought provoking novel about "otherness" and sacrifices a woman makes to be survive in a hostile world. This book torments me. I hope to have a chance to discuss this book because it brings many disturbing things to mind. The protagonist, Isserley, can never be at home in this world. Nor can she be comfortable with her own body which she has had surgically altered to meet the requirements of her job. I am very interested in discussing this book on the internet.

    Arabella Trefoil    Apr 10, 9:25pm    #
  2. Dear Arabella,

    I feel the central issue is not discomfort with our bodies, but safety. Women are not, and do not feel, safe. It may be that women feel forced to mangle and destroy their bodies, to starve themselves, to undergo painful dangerous plastic surgery to present a body thought to please men. They may be endlessly self-conscious about their bodies. These are side issues. The core is: women are answerable to men and to the society at large for the use they make of their bodies, and when it's not approved of, they are punished, sometimes up to the point of death. It's a calculating quirk in political stance not to outline what the punishment for women will be, one designed to erase the threat for now. Read the history of women accused of of infanticide. Men are violent to women and this violence is condoned and allowed, even celebrated still.

    Body image, reproductive and health rights, career options all are shaped by a response to the implicit threat of violence. All sorts of issues. Consider women immigrants, how nannies are treated.

    I don't know where we could as a group read Under the Skin on the lists we share. On WWTTA I've decided after a time with male authors, reading male authors defeats the purpose of the list. (On Trollope-l we'd never get a good discussion going on such an issue: even if a couple of people joined in, previous history of the list suggests others would interfere.) You could bring it up as a discussion on WWTTA: a book to discuss from a woman's point of view. That's what we did for Achebe's Things Fall Apart. I agree there's a startling manufactured heroine in deep pain in the center. If you wrote about Under the Skin there I'd answer. Angela R is there and has read the book.

    chava    Apr 11, 7:04am    #

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