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Stocker, deaf since birth, admittedly attempted to compensate for her disability, her imperfection, through the relentless pursuit of achieving perfection physically and athletically, and even when she excelled, Stocker confesses, for a long time she remained emotionally tortured by disability for which no amount of body shaping or athletic skill in sports could change that disability (2001, p. 154). Stocker's struggle with her self-image, her identity and hers sexuality were in large part shaped by her disability.
While it is not an attempt here to disparage Stocker, or to belittle the significance of her disability; Stocker is a woman who suffered her hearing impairment from birth. Stocker suffered emotionally as a result of her disability, struggled with it for most of her life in the ways in which it impacted her self-esteem, self-image, and sexuality. So, might not a woman who acquired a disability at that point her life when she was approaching, or in the throes of young womanhood and who, like Stocker, relentlessly pursued the "ideal woman" perfection, and whether she accomplished that perfection or not; be equally, perhaps even more so devastated and traumatized psychologically, physically, and sexually by her disability? The answer is: of course she would be.
Consider this scenario: The everyday ideal, a young woman, professional, lawyer, working towards a partnership in the law firm where she currently works as an associate, doing legal grunt work. In order to be professionally competitive, she must compete not just with the other fifteen associates, all of whom have the same goal as she; but she must compete within the existing partnership group to prove herself one of them, without offending them. She is operating professionally in a largely male environment, and by virtue of the historic role of women in education, business and income earning potential, she is competing amongst more women associates than she is women partners. She is single, in a serious relationship, and she shares a downtown high rise executive apartment with the man she will probably one day marry, and with whom she will build a family and life with. A routine visit to the gynecologist reveals she has ovarian cancer. Her life has, with this diagnosis, been professional, financially, physically and psychologically sidetracked. How does she return to her life post diagnosis? Does she give her employer this devastating news? Does she give her live-in partner this news? There are many questions that she has to answer for herself, but what becomes immediately clear, is that her life is in danger at the time of the diagnosis, and, to compound the health problem she is facing, her life, in every other way is about to change.
Women and Reproductive Disabilities: The Inside Perspective
Women suffering reproductive disabilities, such as ovarian cancer, manifest those suffering in a way that is slightly different from the woman whose physical disability if more visual; though not less all around devastating.
Alexander McKay (2001), in a journal article appearing in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, stresses the need for women suffering any kind of a disability to seek "comprehensive sexuality education and sexual health services that are appropriate to their specific needs (p. 65)." McKay cites a study conducted by Walter, Nosek and Langdon comparing women with physical disabilities and women who had no disabilities, and the study revealed that both groups of women were as well informed on their sexuality, but that women suffering disabilities had fewer sexual experiences than did those women who had no disabilities (p. 65). Women who suffer disabilities and who have fewer sexual experiences as compared with those women who have no disability, are, by virtue of their disability, further sexually impaired. Their quality of life is not just impacted by their physical disability, but by the reduced or even absence of sexual intimacy.
Sataya B. Bellerose and Ytizchak M. Binik (1993) write on the subject of women and their body images, referring specifically to women post surgery, during which their cancerous ovaries were removed (oophorectomy) (p. 435). The authors stress the importance of understanding how the procedure, oophorectomy, affect women's health, emotionally and physically (p. 435). Emotionally and physically mean body image, mood, and sexual functioning (p. 435). First, and very important, the procedure increases the patient's risk for heart disease, osteoporosis, and genitourinary atrophy (Cutler and Garcia, 1984; Henderson et al., 1988; Hreschyshyn et al., (1988), "and it is therefore recommended that exogenous hormones, typically estrogens (estrogen replacement therapy, EST) or less commonly, a combination of androgens and estrogens (combined hormone replacement therapy, COM) be prescribed (Bellerose and Binik, 1993, p. 435)." Subsequent research, however, brings into discussion the usefulness and the extent to which long-term hormone therapy should be employed as a post surgical treatment (Egeland et al., 1988; McKinlay and McKinlay, 1984) (Bellerose and Binik, 1993, p. 435).
Bellerose and Binik cite a studies (Andersen and Jochimsen, 1985; Krouse and Krouse, 1982), that showed that women experiencing oophrectomies had more difficulty adjusting to their post surgical body images (Bellerose and Binik, 1993, p. 435). Suggesting that even though the disability was less physical than the comparison group, women having undergone mastectomies, that the unseen disability was more difficult for the women to deal with and to reconcile with their physical self when wearing swimming attire (p. 435). The weakness of the study was that there is no measurement, standardized measurement, by which to measure comfort levels with respect to a woman's comfort with her own body.
However, because gynecological surgeries as a result of cancer or other conditions that warrant such procedures, impact the mood of women, their self-identity, and body images, suggesting that they have trouble reconciling what their body has experienced, the trauma of having lost organs that regulate to some extent a woman's sexuality. There is probably no way that this experience does not intrude upon the woman's intimate relationship, creating self-consciousness about her physicality, and about her ability to, in some cases, manifest the ultimate expression of a man and woman's bonding by an inability to become pregnant by her partner, and to give birth to his child.
How do men respond to women who have undergone these kinds of procedures? Well, first, whether or not men do respond negatively to this kind of information is second to how a woman might believe they respond to this news. Given our "ideal woman," and her scenario, her fears might be obvious: she is on a professional fast track with a partner whose expectation is that she maintain her earning power and contribute to their financial security by minimally being able to support herself. In this respect, she might not be impacted post surgical recovery. However, their relationship would change on an intimate level because the ideal woman has become flawed, physically, because she now undergoes hormone therapy; reproductively, because now choices like adoption must be considered. When studies such as those cited by Bellerose and Binik suggest women experience problems with body image and mood swings, this arises out of the way in which women, if not researchers, connect to their sexuality as it is defined in personal terms of satisfaction arising out of intimate relationships with their partners.
The fact that a gynecological disability, having been rendered incapable of childbearing, is proven to take no less a toll on a woman's overall health because the disability cannot be seen by others.
Physically Observable Disability and Women's Sexuality
Gelya Frank (2000) writes of her friendship and study of Diane DeVries, who Frank describes as,.".. A woman born with the physical and mental equipment she would need to live in our society - except arms and legs (p. 1)." Devries was an undergraduate student when Frank met her, and Frank recalls vividly observing for the first Devries as she entered the lecture hall. Frank describes it this way:
It as the spring quarter, and Diane was enrolled in the large introductory lecture course on cultural anthropology, for which I was a teaching assistant. From my vantage in the back of the lecture hall I watched a blond woman enter the classroom in an electric wheelchair. She looked to be in the fullness of womanhood, wearing a sleeveless white top with narrow straps. Her tapered arm stumps seemed daringly exposed, and the mysterious configuration of her hips was encased in tight blue jeans that ended where he legs should have begun (Frank, 2000, p. 1)."
From Frank's description of DeVries, we can see that the young woman made every effort to touch her femininity, her sexuality, beyond her disability. DeVries addressed her physical image with fashion, and was clearly strive to either achieve or maintain her feminine image, and perhaps even her self-esteem.
As Frank goes on to further describe that which could not be seen about DeVries, Frank's thoughts are revealing of what many in society might expect when meeting DeVries, as well as the disadvantage that DeVries' disability created for her in society, without people knowing her on a personal, much…[continue]
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