"My friend’s uterus once gave me a very useful insight. Not literally – I wasn’t stoned and her lady parts weren’t talking to me – but I was by her side during one of her monthly sessions of agony when she had to curl up on the bed and stuff down painkillers at slightly more than the recommended dose and at slightly shorter intervals than officially sanctioned.
She had to rely on friends to rub her back and bring her hot water bottles, gossip, lecture notes and course assignments so that she didn’t miss out on too much as a result of her two-in-every-28 days’ incapacity.
The insight was this – pain is pain. Pain is not normal. Pain is a sign that something is wrong. Pain is not something we habitually expect people in this day and age to endure – except when it is attached only to the female condition. If men, I suddenly realised, were suffering this kind of thing on a regular basis… well, do you know what? They wouldn’t be. Because one of the first things that would have happened as soon as the development of civilisation, science and the invention of the necessary pipettes and test tubes allowed would have been research into its causes and cures and we would be reading about it today in history books, listed alongside all the other relics of the bad old days – plague, scrofula, people playing the spinet – and as remote and irrelevant to us as they.
I was reminded of this by a new study from the University of Bath which found that – and hold onto your Dutch caps here – women with period pains perform slightly worse at various tasks. Or – people in pain respond exactly like people in pain.
It’s an old feminist cliche to say that if men got pregnant, abortion would be a right, but like most of these things it’s a cliche because it’s true. Women’s bodies and women’s health are still treated with a strange and decidedly unhelpful mixture of contempt and reverence.
While of course there are any number of fantastic, sensible, skilled and empathetic doctors out there, I have lost count of the number of times my female friends and family and I have found ourselves having our concerns about various nether-regional conditions swatted away as if we were mad hysterics (the very word ‘hysteria’ of course deriving from the Greek for “womb” whose wandering about the body was thought to cause our emotional excesses. Intercourse and pregnancy were thought to be the cure which was very handy for those who wished to have sex and children with the patient, if not so much for her).
I have lost count of the number of times we have endured painful examinations and been told that actually, they were not painful at all (this only becomes the more infuriating when you go to another doctor, have the same procedure and discover that the former doctor was right in the sense that it doesn’t have to be painful).
And I have lost count of the number of investigations my poor, cramping friend at the beginning of this column has had in the nearly two decades since we nursed her at university to find the reason for her pain and a course of treatment to stop or manage it without succeeding at either. Maybe fibroids. Maybe endometriosis. Maybe something else. Maybe she should try getting pregnant – except of course, no-one can tell her whether any of this messing about with her innards or the underlying condition that has prompted it all has affected her fertility.
Even in the doctor’s surgery, women have to fight that little bit harder to be taken seriously. In the wider and historical sense, their health concerns are not taken as seriously. If they had been, over the generations, do you think pregnancy and birth, for example, would still be the freighted affair it is today? If men had smears, do you think they’d ever hurt?
Or would anyone who came near them be required to be a veteran specialist with an additional diploma in speculum-warming? Or would so much money, resources and research have been devoted to unpacking the manifold mysteries below stairs for so many years that the idea of any kind of suffering or uncertainty in the field would be unthinkable? I wonder. I’m sorry. I’m probably being hysterical. It’s that time of the month. But still – I wonder.”