I want to tell you a joke.
It’s one of my favorites. It’s about mansplaining, and I like that it’s funny and clever, but also has a certain social awareness. Here it is:
Q: Where does a man get his water?
A: From the, “Well, actually…”
That’s good, right? Anyone who has experienced mansplaining can laugh at it, and the “Not all men!” crowd can smirk smugly at their assumed superiority over the rest of their gender. But it still has a punch to it. It resonates because of the truth behind it. It’s one of those jokes that’s funny…except when it isn’t.
Toward the end of the summer last year, I was feeling really run down. I had been traveling a lot for work and I had my usual level of stress trying to juggle all of my responsibilities, but this felt different. I was in Seattle for a week, a city that I love, and most nights I could barely get myself to a restaurant for a quick bite before heading back to my hotel and crashing out early. That’s not me. I’m never in bed early; I’m the quintessential night owl. It was weird but I just shrugged it off as just the result of too much travel or one too many conference calls.
My hands started to get really dry, and I noticed small blisters on my hands. There wasn’t any pain, they didn’t itch, but they looked like hell.
I made the rookie mistake of poking around online and found a very helpful article called “10 Surprising Signs That You May Have Cancer!” I’m usually pretty good at shaking off this sort of thing, but I was at 6 out of 10 for their list. I started to think that I should go against my natural resistance to doctors and make an appointment for a checkup.
I had almost convinced myself to make the appointment when I get a message from someone I used to sleep with. Sort of a “friends with benefits” things, I guess. It sounds crass to say it that way, but we had never really socialized in a formal, clothes on type setting, and the term “lover” makes me gag and would imbue the situation with way more intimacy than it warrants. We had hooked up a few years ago before he moved to the Cities. He had a new job and made it up to this area every now and then, so we hooked up a handful of times before things kind of fizzled out. It was nice and familiar, but neither of us was particularly invested in it and after a couple of months of occasional meetups, we stopped messaging each other. I was pretty surprised to see a message come in from him.
“How have you been?”
He was never very verbose, but this message was brief even for him.
I told him that I was doing alright, just tired from work.
The next message was longer, and went in a direction I definitely wasn’t expecting: “I recently went to get tested and I tested positive for something. I think you should go get checked. It’s not terrible. I’m fine, but they said I should contact you, and that you should get tested.”
He wasn’t exactly forthcoming with what he had tested positive for, but I wasn’t immediately concerned. We had actually had pretty open conversations about safer sex, and we had agreed to use condoms when we had sex. I know that isn’t 100% effective, but I figured this was probably just part of the routine.
“I’m so sorry to hear that! I hope everything is ok, and I’m really glad that you told me. I will definitely get tested, but I’m glad that we decided to use condoms.”
His response started with, “Well, actually…”
Before this situation, I wasn’t familiar with the term “stealthing.” It’s “when a man who is having consensual sex and has agreed to wear a condom takes the condom off, without his partner’s consent, immediately before or during intercourse.” (Psychology Today) It sounds so simple, such a brief explanation. Just a little sleight of hand. His “Well, actually…” was followed with the news that each and every time we had sex this past winter, he had removed the condom without telling me.
We had agreed to use safer sex practices.
Suddenly, the joke wasn’t funny anymore.
I went to get a full range of STD tests done; I didn’t have any idea what we were looking for because, well, the conversation devolved pretty quickly after that. They did the full panel, but almost immediately the woman who was examining me felt certain that it was syphilis. My appointment was on a Friday; she needed to send me to Sanford for a blood test to confirm, but she seem concerned enough to give me a shot before I left the office to get the test. We did the other tests as well to see if there were any “gifts with purchase,” and let me tell you – that 15 minutes waiting for the HIV and hepatitis C results were a bit of a nail-biter. The syphilis test came back positive, as did the test for chlamydia. The rest were all negative, like most of the experience.
I was in the secondary stage of the infection. Here’s a fun little description of secondary stage syphilis from the CDC:
During the secondary stage, you may have skin rashes and/or mucous membrane lesions. Mucous membrane lesions are sores in your mouth, vagina, or anus. This stage usually starts with a rash on one or more areas of your body. The rash can show up when your primary sore is healing or several weeks after the sore has healed. The rash can look like rough, red, or reddish brown spots on the palms of your hands and/or the bottoms of your feet. The rash usually won’t itch and it is sometimes so faint that you won’t notice it. Other symptoms you may have can include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue (feeling very tired). The symptoms from this stage will go away whether or not you receive treatment. Without the right treatment, your infection will move to the latent and possibly tertiary stages of syphilis.
Notice at the end: the symptoms from this stage will go away whether or not you receive treatment. I mean, my own internal cancer paranoia was pushing me toward an appointment with my “regular doctor” (who I see so infrequently, I can’t remember if his name is Tim or Joel…I’m pretty sure it’s one of those two names), but what if those symptoms had just cleared up and I hadn’t made that appointment? What if that guy hadn’t messaged me with his joke that really wasn’t funny.
Here’s what could have happened, also from the CDC:
Most people with untreated syphilis do not develop tertiary syphilis. However, when it does happen it can affect many different organ systems. These include the heart and blood vessels, and the brain and nervous system. Tertiary syphilis is very serious and would occur 10–30 years after your infection began. In tertiary syphilis, the disease damages your internal organs and can result in death.
Oh, and for an extra little treat, there’s this:
Without treatment, syphilis can spread to the brain and nervous system (neurosyphilis) or to the eye (ocular syphilis). This can happen during any of the stages described above.
Symptoms of neurosyphilis include
- severe headache;
- difficulty coordinating muscle movements;
- paralysis (not able to move certain parts of your body);
- numbness; and
- dementia (mental disorder).
Symptoms of ocular syphilis include changes in your vision and even blindness.
I’m doing a fine job of going crazy all on my own – I certainly don’t need any help!
Sorry, just my attempt at a little humor. But somehow it’s just not funny.
You know what else isn’t actually funny? Here’s another little zinger from that article on Psychology Today:
How is it classified legally? Currently, there is little consensus from legal quarters about how stealthing should be defined. Some argue that it is not quite a crime against consent so much as a violation of informed consent thus causing harm but not on the same scale as rape.
Not laughing yet? Really? Don’t you think it’s funny that the people who represent us in the political bodies that make the laws that govern our actual bodies – still mostly men, by the way – haven’t come together to acknowledge that this sort of violation is clearly a kind of assault? I mean, it’s almost like some of these legislators don’t respect a person’s right to body autonomy, their right to give informed consent, their right to choose. But that can’t be right…right?
People sometimes challenge why I’m so adamantly pro-choice; I don’t have the equipment to make babies, and I don’t generally have sex with other people who have the equipment to make babies with me, so why do I care? Shouldn’t I just leave the arguing to those who have some skin in the game, and stop plotting the murder of fully grown fetus babies or whatever ridiculous, non-scientific activities anti-abortion crackpots think I’m up to? Seriously, the anti-abortion people should have to take, like, one basic sex education class before they are allowed to speak. They imagine a world that is rife with moustache-twirling and innocent babies metaphorically tied to railroad tracks, but pretty barren of actual factual information. Some of the shit they say is laughable.
Laughable, but not funny.
I care about abortion because I care about body autonomy. And no, I won’t ever know what it feels like to wrestle with that intensely personal question of whether or not to continue a pregnancy. I won’t have to make that choice. But I do know what it feels like to not have my body autonomy and my consent respected, to have my choices taken away from me by someone who wanted to exercise power over me. I don’t care about choice because I have an opinion about what people should choose in any specific situation; I care about choice because nobody should get to make that choice for them. Or for me. Or for you.
That’s why it’s important for us to have hard conversations about consent and about body autonomy, and it’s why we need to get out of our own thoughts and opinions and respect that if you aren’t living inside of a particular body, you don’t get to make choices for that body. And there will always be contrarians who want to bring up strange situations where someone, like a care-giver for someone in a coma perhaps, would need to make choices for someone else. And yes, those kinds of situations exist. And yes, we should navigate through them as carefully and respectfully, and with as much grace and dignity as we can. But that’s not someone deciding whether or not they want to bring a child into this world. That’s not an adult deciding whether or not to sleep with another adult. It’s not someone agreeing to sexual activity provided that their expectations for safer sex practices be respected. Those are simple issues of body autonomy, and the rest is just noise.
There are so many new attacks on body autonomy right now, and it makes me sad. And it scares me. Are we really devolving to the point where we can’t even respect the basic humanity of those we share this planet with? Is this just some swing of the political pendulum, part of the ebb and flow of progress versus conservatism? Is it just some sort of growing pain that our society has to work through in order to emerge in a more just and equitable place?
I hope so. I hope that someday we can look back and laugh at how simple it should have been to respect each other and lift one another up, instead of trying to control and manipulate and tear people down.
But right now, it just isn’t funny.
Well, actually…it’s a whole lot more “not funny” for certain kinds of people, and that’s the root of the whole goddamn problem.