Thursday, November 6, 2014

Indecent Exposure

“Molly was never one for modesty,” my mother assured the nurse during my first visit to the gynecologist, when the nurse suggested I might feel embarrassed about being nearly naked on the examining table, my ankles hoisted out in front of me in what were called stir-ups—a word which made me think of the horseback riding lessons I’d taken years earlier.  And my mother was right, I was not bothered about being naked—or nearly naked­—so much as I was bothered by her words that made me sound like something other than the eighteen year old virgin that I was.  My mother had been referring to the fact that I didn’t like to wear a bra under my clothes when I was home.  She did not feel the phrase: “in the comfort of one’s own home” was applicable to what she considered “common decency.”  I was always indecent, just ask my mother.  I talked about my menstrual cramps in mixed company, I complained loudly about the discomfort of bras, and I didn’t believe in keeping secrets.  Or, I should say, I didn’t understand the need for keeping the kind of secrets that she insisted that it was decent and proper to keep. 
Later, after that first gynecological exam, when I noticed my underwear soaking with blood, and I asked the nurse if this was normal, the nurse looked down at my once lime green now mostly dark red underwear and replied, “Pretty common.”  It was my mother who then responded, “Well if it’s so common, then why have I never heard of such a thing happening?”  The nurse didn’t look up from the form she was filling out as she said, “You know us women don’t tend to go around broadcasting our female problems.”
I felt rage in my blood and I felt blood in my underwear, soaking through to my jeans.  And I knew I was going to make a point of broadcasting what I felt. 
Two months later, a surgeon sliced through my hymen with a scalpel.  I woke up still bleeding, with fifteen plus stitches in my vagina. (That’s what they told me, fifteen plus, as if they had lost count.)  A nurse reminded me not to have sex for at least 24 hours after the surgery, which she had previously assured me wouldn’t be as bad a childbirth.  I felt like I was a product of a system no one was talking about.  And I was going to talk about it. 
I spent the following two years of my undergraduate creative writing courses talking about it, making all my classmates uncomfortable as I described nerve damage and numbing cream and sex that was mostly stubborn and also painful.  I talked about things that people wished I wouldn’t but they didn’t know how to ask me to be quiet because that would mean in some way addressing what I was saying.  And what I was saying was, “Why should I be quiet?” 
It surprises me now six years later when I read aloud among fellow writers about having casual sex once or twice during a sad spell in late winter and see my peers making snap judgments about the quality of my character.  It surprises me when I talk about being raped and I am told that people would prefer I didn’t talk about it, that I shouldn’t talk about it.  Recently someone suggested to me, “Maybe you should write something happy for once.  People don’t want to hear something that’s going to ruin their night.”  To which I responded that they should just go look at their Facebook newsfeed if they want a glossed over, reality TV version of life.  It hurts me in spite of how many times I tell myself that I shouldn’t let it bother me, when people dislike me because of what they’ve heard me write about.  And I feel compelled to point out that when someone is talking about me because they’ve heard me read about sex or rape or abuse and they’ve judged me for it, they should instead consider talking about why what I wrote made them uncomfortable.
If I have learned anything in the past year it is that people desperately want to cling to the belief that bad things do not happen to good people.  Somehow, the person deserved it.  Why do people want to believe that?  Because everyone wants to believe that he or she is a good person.  And they want that goodness to serve as a totem that will protect them from all evils of the world.  No one wants to have to address the fact that really nothing can save you.  There’s prayers, luck, and self-defense classes but at the end of the day things happen.
Really, I think if you believe in some arbitrary monotheistic heaven and hell type of line between good and bad, then you are setting yourself up to judge others and ultimately, you are building yourself a glass house in which sooner or later you’ll find you are throwing stones and the walls are breaking down all around you.
My point is that bad things don’t happen to bad people.  Bad things happen to people.  Children are abused.  Women are raped.  But I think people would prefer to think that abused children come from those kinds of homes.  As in: not good homes.  It is the same with rape.  I think people would prefer not just to think that a woman was raped because of what she was wearing but because of who she was.  Had she had a lot of sex in her past?  Was she known for being flirtatious?  Was she a bad person?  Molly was never one for modesty. 
Modesty in such a context seems to be defined as knowing what to keep to oneself, by being humble bordering on ashamed.  Such modesty could imply having a sense of what to keep private.  How many of us grew up with parents who called vaginas and penises “private parts?”  Private.  Secret.  Things that only exists in that common phrase “behind closed doors” or in the proverbial “comfort of one’s own home.”  But privacy is an odd thing and those are two very strange components of it.  My mother hated that my father kept pornography in his office on the second floor of our home—behind closed doors.­  Plenty of women dislike that their boyfriends watch pornography on the internet in the comfort of their own home, because it is freely available to them through a quick Google search. 
What I am saying is that it is contradictory to treat sex, genitalia, and etc. as private parts of one’s life when they really are not private at all. They are extremely public is mostly the wrong ways.  Unrealistic sex is in movies, TV shows, on gleaming on billboards over Houston Street.  I know far too many men who sit down to dinner and begin discussing women’s pubic hair among themselves. (They’d prefer it to be entirely absent from the picture, if you were wondering.  But they hate high maintenance bitches.)  And yet people don’t want to talk about the hard realities of sex. 
I believe in talking about hard things.  I believe in talking about sex and abuse, rape and drinking, depression and trauma and that secret, heavy loneliness that so many of us carry.  Say it in that average way in which people talk about the weather.  Because such matters are just as common place, except no one is acknowledging them. 
Two years ago, when my brother read a story I had written about our childhood he looked up at me with big troubled brown eyes and said, “Molly, who would read this? It’s so sad.”  In the past year, I’ve met more women than I can now count who say things to me like, “When I heard what you read about rape it made me feel like I didn’t have to be embarrassed to read my story.”  You have to talk about hard things because you are not alone and because other people deserve to know that they are not alone either.  No one should be made to feel as if who they are is shameful just because someone else is uncomfortable with what happened to them.  Asking people to not talk about being abused or raped or whatever else is asking them to keep a secret for the sake of “common decency” as if who they are is otherwise indecent. 
And so I would like to advocate for indecent exposure.  Talk about what you’ve been through, not as a matter of self-pity but as a truth and a component of the shared human experience.  Talk about depression.  Talk about drinking.  Talk about sex.  Talk about violence and rape and abuse.  Expose the many indecencies of life.  Expose yourself.