Life as an Extreme Sport

The Daily: She Wore a Slinky Red Thing

She Wore a Slinky Red Thing
Publish Date: 2006-04-10

This op-ed was pitched as being a weekly take on medicine in pop culture. I figured it would give me a chance to rant, rave, and giggle about some of my favorite subjects: House, Grey’s Anatomy, the Law and Order franchises, whatever came to mind and seemed interesting.

It was an opportunity for me to gain experience producing a weekly column before leaving the University for other pastures.

It still is.

But this week I’m going to deviate just a bit from my course, and I’m going to talk about the news rather than popular culture, and I’m going to talk about something other than medicine.

I’m going to talk about sexual assault.

Violence.

Rape.

If you haven’t been hiding under a rock (or buried in your textbooks), you’ve heard about the Duke University lacrosse team and the accusations of rape.

For those of you under that proverbial rock, Google is your friend. In a nutshell, the lacrosse team hired two black strippers to entertain them and their guests at a party.

The accounts of what happened next vary. One stripper claims she was dragged into a bathroom, held down by three white men and brutally raped, sodomized and strangled for 30 minutes. The team denies it.

Durham police are investigating this as a case of rape, kidnapping and a hate crime, searching the house and demanding DNA from the white players.

Protestors and the media have latched on to the hate-crime aspect of the case, focusing on the deep racial and class divide that exists between Duke and its surrounding community.

And in all the noise, the fact that someone was raped is being lost, and I don’t think this is unintentional.

We don’t like to have rape be personal. We want the victims to be hidden behind blue dots. If anyone talks about it to a paper, this one included, they opt for pseudonyms.

Is this any surprise, when we live in a society where politicians talk about “simple rape”?

I don’t control the media, and I certainly don’t control what others do. But I do control the timing of what I write, and that this is published at the start of the University of Washington’s Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Awareness (SARVA) week is not a coincidence.

Go talk to the folks running this event, and while you’re there don’t think about numbers. Don’t think about 1 in 3, 1 in 4, 1 in 5.

Numbers are anonymous and impersonal. They don’t have faces or feelings.

Think instead about your favorite singers, professors, your sister or brother or mother, your best friend.

Think about someone you care about, and whether you want them being accused of deserving it because they dared to wear that slinky red thing.

Because they’ve had sex before; because if they’re not a Madonna, they must be a whore.

Stigma, the classic book by Erving Goffman, talks about how the stigmatized convey themselves with those who are not, have not, been stigmatized. How the stigmatized are shunned, shut out, made anonymous and encouraged to adopt what he calls an “air of good adjustment.”

“The unfairness and pain of having to carry a stigma will never be presented to” those who are not stigmatized themselves; and they “will not have to admit to themselves how limited their tactfulness and tolerance is.”

Those who view themselves as “normal,” Goffman argues, “can remain relatively uncontaminated by intimate contact with the stigmatized.”

And in writing this article, I have perpetuated the very thing that I rant against. I have kept anonymous, because I know that by admitting I was raped as a teenager means that every single person I know will look at me a little differently from now on.

But over the years, as I’ve seen cases come up again and again, I’ve begun to realize that the veil of anonymity society offers rape victims is not a shelter; it’s not a protection. It’s a way of removing the violence we don’t want to see, we don’t want to admit to.

The anonymity reinforces the stigma, and the only way that’s going to stop is if we remove the faceless numbers. If we stand up and say, “It was me.”

It was me.

That Nervous Break

So, I’m reading an introductory book on feminist ethics, which is doing a lot of quoting of some “noted” feminist scholars, like Catherine MacKinnon. It’s something I can read about 30 pages of at a time before needing a “break”. Anyhow, I’m reading when I hear, on the TV in the background,…

Why is it herpes? Why isn’t it himpes?

…and my first thought is “Yeah, because that’s oppressive language that’s androcentric, assuming a normative position of maleness, and a stigmatic relationship with the Other of femin…” followed very quickly by “Oh my god, it finally happened. The stress got to me, I’ve snapped,…I’m hearing voices, and projecting what I’m reading!”

About a second later, I realized that the voice was John Leguizamo, and that Comedy Central was advertising a new special. Oh. Better.

I think.

Addiction, Dependency and Vicodin

Tonight, NBC is debuting its new show, The Book of Daniel. Normally, I don’t catch when new shows come on, but there has been a bit of kefuffle about this particular show because of its themes: the American Family Association has decided to protest the show because, among other things, the daughter is busted for doing drugs, a son is gay, and the main character, an Episcopalian priest, is addicted to Vicodin. That addiction may or may not be the reason Jesus is quite literally his co-pilot; he sees and talks to Jesus, who is an active character on the show. Now, personally, this sounds right up my alley, and I’m sorry that I can’t see the two hour premiere tonight. But, it’s not terribly surprising – if the AFA dislikes it, chances are I’ll love it; they’re a fabulous barometer for things, so far as that goes.

But what actually has my attention about this is comments that I’ve seen from several sources: friends commenting to me, in other people’s journals, and critics who’ve been reviewing the new show. Everyone is commenting that this is another in (what some people fear will be) a new trend of Vicodin-addicted characters, and they then immediately cite Hugh Laurie’s brilliantly portrayed Greg House, who eats Vicodin like candy.

Now not being a television reviewer, I can’t comment about The Book of Daniel; I’ve not seen the show, after all. But I was a regular devotee of House when I could be home on Tuesday nights, and I have every intent of watching it again this quarter. And I can tell you, pretty damn clearly, House is not a Vicodin addict. “But wait, Kelly” you say. “What about that episode where he was dared to go off the Vicodin, and he went through withdrawal? That proves he’s an addict!”

Does it? Let’s play a small game. This game is called “what happens when you drink several lattes a day for a year, and then suddenly cut that latte out without warning, and consume no other caffeine.” What happens to you? Do you get a headache? Do you start sweating? Are you nauseated? Do you generally feel miserable? Of course – and when talking about this, people say they’re going through caffeine-withdrawal because they were addicted to it.

This is technically, medically, incorrect. Your body is physically dependent upon the caffeine, but you aren’t showing drug-craving, drug-seeking behaviour because you don’t have the caffeine. Addiction is a biological and psychological condition that compels a person to satisfy their need for a particular stimulus and to keep satisfying it, no matter what the cost. Dependence is a physical state that occurs when the lack of a drug causes the body to react. Physical dependence is solely a physical state indicating that the body has grown so adapted to having the drug present that sudden removal of it will lead to withdrawal reactions, and this can happen with almost any drug.

The character of Greg House is in constant, chronic pain. The physical dependency on Vicodin is one that allows the character to maintain a normal lifestyle. To use analogy to illustrate the point, imagine that a normal, healthy person is akin to a full glass of water. Someone who is in chronic pain is only half a glass of water without their pain medications. Add in a bunch of ice cubes, though, and the person in chronic pain is brought back up to the level of normal and functional everyone else is. (And in the case of the addict, toss a few ice cubes in a full glass of water, and watch everything spill everywhere in a mess – that’s addiction.) The chronic pain person needs those ice cubes of Vicodin on a daily basis to provide what the body needs to function, but it’s not a situation where they would actively seek out, need, or desire any more than is necessary to achieve that state of near-normalcy.

The writers of the show House have been irresponsible in how they’ve portrayed the character of House’s dependency. They have openly questioned – and suggested – that he’s an addict when he’s not. This causes a lot of grief for actual living and breathing people with chronic pain. There is a stigma to needing to take Vicodin every few hours, or oxycodone, or any other opioid. This stigma, shame, and fear prevents many doctors from properly treating pain, and prevents many people from seeking out the relief they need. It’s impossible to say, without seeing, how The Book of Daniel will handle the character’s need for Vicodin, and whether it is an addiction or a dependency, but hopefully they are very clear on which it is, and do a better job than House has at distinguishing between the two states.

That House made the decision to feature a character living not with but in spite of chronic pain is something that drew me to the show. After all, I have a chronic pain condition. I eat Vicodin like candy, and often take two or three other opioids on top of it to control my pain. I’m also an honors student, I work 20-30 hours a week, I teach, and have an active social life. I’m about as far from a junkie as it gets – but if I skip that dose of whatever is up at the hour, I will break out into a sweat. I will start to get a headache, my heart will race, my nose will run.

Regular use of some medications is necessary for some people to live a normal life. A diabetic is not addicted to insulin, nor is someone taking medication to control their high blood pressure addicted to it. They are, however, dependent upon it, as a person in chronic pain is dependent upon their drugs to function normally. And perhaps that’s the thing you need to consider when weighing whether it is an addiction or a dependency – the person who is addicted does not have improved functionality with their addiction, while the dependent person does.

While I wouldn’t say this is a sore subject for me, I would say that it is a personal one, and one that I hope people will keep in perspective when they are cracking their jokes about pill-popping doctors and addicted ministers. There are people out there, people you know, people like me, who have invisible disabilities and dependencies. And while you make your cracks about Vicodin popping addicts, I make a mental note that I should make sure to not take my pain medication when you’re watching. I already deal with the stigma of disabitliy, I don’t need the stigma of addiction to go with it.

Anthropology Letters

Robert Crawford
Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences
University of Washington, Tacoma

Dear Professor Crawford:
It was with interest that I read your article “Reflections of health, culture, and AIDS” and your premise of self/other, healthy/unhealthy, and how we strengthen the boundaries of the self by defining it against the other. I would be curious to know how your thesis would change if you shifted the focus from a binary dichotomy between self and other and looked at the concept of the excluded third, a concept neatly explained by way of a Goya painting, “Duel with Cudgels.” In Goya’s painting, two men are dueling. As you study the picture, you begin to notice the environment around the dueling men, including that which is directly interacting with them — they are slowly sinking in mud, quicksand, or some sort of mire. But you get the idea, looking at these men, that they’re unaware of the environment around them — they are locked in their own binary existence.

Serres’ “The Natural Contract” makes beautiful use of this metaphor and others to explain our excluded third — that which is left our, unacknowledged, and moves us beyond binary self/other thought. After all, in creating self/other, something is being left out, be it the ground the self and other are standing on, the air being breathed, people we can’t conceive of on the other side of the globe, or the fluids moving between us that transmit disease.

Elizabeth Grosz has said that “[b]ody fluids attest to the permeability of the body, its necessary dependence on an outside, its liability to collapse into this outside (this is what death implies), to the perilous divisions between the body’s inside and its outside.” I would argue that HIV and AIDS, its medium of transmission fluids, acts as an excluded third that joins us, and works to erase the boundaries of self and other that are fictionalized representations of idealized reality (to borrow a very Lacanian thought).

The phenomenologist Iris Young suggests that we

might conceptualize being as fluid rather than as solid substances, of things. Fluids, unlike objects, have no definite borders; they are unstable, which does not mean they are without pattern. Fluids surge and move, and… think[ing] of being as fluid would tend to privilege the living, moving, pulsing over the inert dead matter of the Cartesian worldview.

It seems that if we were to do so, and conceive of Being, of Self, as a fluid concept without firm boundaries, we would do much to remove the social stigma of infectious disease, especially that of a sexually transmitted infectious disease.

One of my students recently said that the self and the other are the sides of a coin, and that the excluded space is the coin itself — that which joins the two sides to one. I wonder how our ideas of healthy and unhealthy would be informed if we moved out of the Cartesian, binary worldview of one or other, us and them, and instead adopted a more fluid, less defined, and flexible concept of how we view, interact with, and describe health.

With regards,

Kelly Hills