December 6, 2010

Photo Credit/melibeeglobal.com
Photo Credit/melibeeglobal.com

I may be in the cheering section when I hear others urging the transparent and shameless public discussion of health issues.  The problem is that I don’t think I’ve ever been very good at it when it has been my health issue.

Which leads  — prepare for a jarring transition —  to my prostate.  I had a biopsy done last Monday.  I wanted to share some of what went through my mind as  I hopped on the table doing deep breathing exercises, preparing for a distinctly unpleasant procedure.

For close to two decades, I have been teaching an undergraduate class at Hunter  College that has examined the representation of disease and illness in media and culture. Much of the class has necessarily focused on HIV/AIDS and other health issues.  In recent years, I have taught a related graduate version of the course. You’ll have to trust that in the classroom I have been able to speak about  these topics  explicitly and without shame.

And actually done it pretty well.

And then, waiting for the brief, dull  pain I had been warned about,  I felt something else that no one had warned me about — a brief yet intense wave of shame.  And it seemed to be coming directly from some mysterious hiding place where I had filed away  all my nonsensical, sub-rational fragments of culture, ideology,  and anxiety.  I couldn’t believe it:  I actually was embarrassed.

It wasn’t my arms or legs, body parts I could imagine infused with athletic prowess.  It wasn’t my head or my brain, sites of intellect. And it wasn’t my heart,  mythical source of power and love.

It was my prostate.

For a moment, I actually imagined myself as one of Dorothy’s new friends heading with her to the Land of Oz, trying to imagine what language I would use when – after my three friends had asked for courage, heart and brain – I would have to ask for a new prostate.  All four of us would have to admit feelings of shame and inadequacy, but only I would have to go there. Where?  You know, there.

Almost immediately, I was stunned that I even had these thoughts.  So much of my writing and research has struggled to eradicate the shame and skittishness that clouds honest discussion of difficult issues.  One early newsroom ethnography  I did specifically revealed the confusion and unnecessary anxiety that  results  when reporters are reluctant to write stories using clear, specific terms for body parts.

Yet there I was, feeling the kind of embarrassment that that has managed to obscure honest discussions among men whenever the words “prostate,” “penis,” or “erection” must be inserted into a sentence.  For so many of us, to have these discussions is to cut directly to the timeless issue of potency, and to reveal so much of the transparent foolishness with which  we have conflated the fact of our having a certain type of sex organ with feelings of power and privilege.  Now, the shame intensified and I was confused:   Was I more ashamed about the need to publically discuss my  prostate or about the fact that I harbored such nonsensical ideas?

Later, when the local anesthetic wore off and the mild pain medicine kicked in, I realized something more fundamental.  With all the cultural distance we have traveled since  the Victorian era, a time in which almost any difficult word or topic could be obscured  with a creative euphemism,   far too many of us still live in the 19th century when it comes to discussions of prostate or penis.

We may laugh when testicles are described as “jewels,”  with  the implication that they are treasures to be hidden and protected,  but  — while there is obviously an evolutionary reason for some protection of the male sex organs  — I wonder whether their  cultural seclusion doesn’t somehow relate to the male need to mystify and infuse them with power and potency.

Consider the word “endowment” – often paired with euphemisms for “penis” — and how it  implies  notions of a specially conferred power or privilege.  After all, while somebody might hand you a cheeseburger,  you are only endowed with things that are powerful, even mystical. Even the best cheeseburger doesn’t do that.

Perhaps it is time for men to consider just how much self-defeating nuttiness is present in all this talk of potency and endowment. Rather than being privileged and empowered by the mystification of the male sex organs, perhaps all we are “endowed” with is ignorance about our bodies, gibberish about potency, and a lack of anything approaching sane, empowering, and healthy behaviors.

Yet there I was, lying exposed on a table, worrying about losing some special power that, had I stopped for  just a moment,  I would have realized had never really  been anything more than centuries of self-serving folk-tales, body legends used by men to reinforce privilege and avoid unflinching, unembarrassed confrontations with truth, body, and self.

On Wednesday, the doctor called to tell me that the biopsy revealed no cancer or any other abnormality.  Good news.  My cultural abnormalities, however, will continue to  require long-term treatment.

CHMP Senior Fellow, Steve Gorelick is Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York.