Lessons From Pam Grier: How Can We Do Better?

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Lessons From Pam Grier: How Can We Do Better?

Bianca I. Laureano

What can we learn through the Pam Grier's narrative and the conversation she had with her gynecologist regarding her sexual activity and reproductive health while she was dating Richard Pryor?

Trigger Warning

My homegirl sent me an email in the early morning called: How Richard Pryor Gave Pam Grier A Cocaine Encrusted Vagina. This was a article about Pam Grier and a small part of her memoir Foxy: My Life In Three Acts which was released this month. The exchange is between Grier and her gynecologist regarding her sexual activity and reproductive health while she was dating Richard Pryor. The conversation has made its way around the Internet and if you have yet to read it I’ve posted it below. If you want to skip reading it again scroll down to after the block quote.

He said, “Pam, I want to tell you about an epidemic that’s prevalent in Beverly Hills right now. It’s a buildup of cocaine residue around the cervix and in the vagina. You have it. Are you doing drugs?”

    “No,” I said, astonished.

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    “Well, it’s really dangerous,” he went on. “Is your partner putting cocaine on his penis to sustain his erection?”

    “No,” I said, “not that I know of. It’s not like he has a pile of cocaine next to the bed and he dips his penis in it before we have sex.” I had a nauseating flash of one of Richard’s famous lines: Even my dick has a cocaine jones.

    “Are you sure he isn’t doing it in the bathroom before he comes to bed?” the doctor asked.

    “That’s a possibility,” I said. “You know, I am dating Richard Pryor.”

    “Oh, my God,” he said. “We have a serious problem here. If he’s not putting it on his skin directly, then it’s worse because the coke is in his seminal fluid.”

After any shock, fear, or discomfort there have not been too many writings about how this exchange can be useful for practitioners and for people working with women of Color and/or youth of Color. There’s something, I’m not sure exactly what, or if I will know what it is in a few hours (or days), about the Jezebel writers piece doing research with a physician regarding this story. I do not think it was a bad idea at all; there is just something I can’t pinpoint that leaves me with the impression of attempting to debunk the narrative of a Black woman.

Perhaps it is the use of the terms “The Truth” in the headline, as if Pam was not telling the truth. Perhaps it is Dr. Gurley’s statement (Jezebel’s “Bottom Line”): “It’s extremely unlikely that there could be any toxic vagina effect of cocaine” that questions Pam’s recollection of the exchange with her physician which Dr. Gurley states could be “either misremembered recall on the patient’s part, or, possibly more likely, a sleazy attempt by a vaguely irresponsible doc to scare someone into making a major life change.” My bottom line: There are ways to question aspects of a narrative without totally debunking the persons lived experiences. I had very clear memories and recollections of the attempts at discrediting Rigoberta Menchú when I read this piece. These are not memories I wish to have triggered to be honest.

In reading this part of Grier’s narrative I immediately thought of a few things: power physicians have over (not often enough with) their patients as Dr. Gurley mentioned, access to resources and education, various impacts of drug and alcohol use during sexual activity, issues of consensual sex, and harm reduction strategies.

Working at a school based health center in East Harlem under a medical director, physician, nurse practitioner, and other ancillary staff I learned very quickly that certain medical staff make final decisions and sometimes they are not exactly what the patient desires. I know this happens often enough, especially with younger patients, patients who may not speak the language of their care provider, patients who are undocumented, or who are differently-abled and thus have someone making decisions for their care. It took me a while to realize and understand that just because someone is a physician does not mean they know everything they need to about a particular form of care. It also does not mean that they are willing or able to provide the care that is required or desired. I remember being in situations where the physician used their power over me (as in their status, the assumption they knew more than me about my body, their wealth, and the list goes on) and I was so scared/intimidated/overwhelmed that when I left I felt totally frustrated.

Some ways activists and physicians have approached this topic is sharing what patients rights include. Yet, do we explain this to youth who we encourage to seek reproductive and sexual health care by themselves? How do we discuss the rights of our younger patients with them and confirm they understand?

At the time of this situation occurring with her physician, Grier was most likely in her late 20s and she had over 10 films she had starred in. I wonder about what resources and education she was exposed to in the early 70s regarding sexual and reproductive health. During the time of her relationship was when women of Color, especially Black and Latinas were being forcibly sterilized in the U.S., and many Nationalist organizations had taken strong anti-abortion and reproductive freedom stances in response to these human rights violations, in addition to the ideology of increasing the number of people of Color would come an increase in political power. Historical context matters, especially when we live in a society where we are quick to judge people’s decisions.

Many of us discuss alcohol and drug use during sexual activity and the connection to consent. However, as someone born in the “Just Say No” era of drug and alcohol use, it is extremely difficult to unlearn all of the misinformation and “scared straight” tactics that were taught to us. I recall being in an adult education class about the U.S. War on Drugs and having to unlearn so much I was told was right regarding how our bodies respond to various forms of narcotics and alcohol. To this day I’m still appalled at how many deaths are connected to alcohol use and consumption over illegal drug use and abuse.

One aspect of this discussion that is important to keep in mind is the access to cocaine by communities of Color in the U.S. at specific times (and some may argue even today). Anybody remember why “crack is wack?”  It’s tied to class status and wealth. The first time I really understood and even heard about a person of Color using cocaine was Len Bias. That was in the 80s. I can only imagine how cocaine was seen as a drug used by the wealthy and a part of a hierarchy of drugs that is connected to status. Do we even discuss class and status in our sexuality education with youth? If so, how? If not, why not?

I admit that when I first read the story I thought: “where were the condoms or diaphragms?” then I caught myself and asked, “Who am I to ask such questions?” I then wondered what information or lack of it was provided that Grier believed having a numb mouth while performing oral sex might be a normalized physical response. I don’t doubt that Grier and Pryor both received one another’s consent to engage in particular activities together. I do wonder how this narrative challenges my ideas of consent.

Did anyone think of consent when reading this narrative? Do we have conversations and lesson plans in place that helps youth and adults think about how consent is not always so overt? Often my abstinence conversation with youth focuses on the various forms of sex that people may choose to have with themselves or with partners. I help youth decide how they want to define abstinence for themselves and giving them scenarios, versus telling them what it means. Yet, I realized reading this part of Grier’s memoir I don’t think I have as strong a conversation as I thought I did. How do we help people discuss what boundaries they wish to create, especially among younger populations, with their partners?

In the age of reality shows such as Intervention, do we discuss how consenting to a relationship, to a sexual activity, to a conversation about sexual boundaries and relationships is also a part of consent? For example, how could we begin a conversation about consensual sex with a 20-something finding herself in an intimate sexual relationship with a partner who uses a narcotic (even if not around her but to her knowledge) challenge or affirm the consent she’s given to her partner? Do we always meet our clients and patients where they are at in the moment? Or are we too committed to shaming and judging them into some form of action? Have we considered how shaming is connected to race, class, health, and is political as Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell discusses? What do we do if we over-identify with a client or patient?

Enter my ideas on harm reduction. I am in support of harm reduction strategies, yes even among youth who some may define as in “extremely vulnerable” spaces/situations. I realize this is not a very popular position, I worked with a supervisor once who made it very clear to me they did not approve of harm reduction at all, especially for the working class communities of Color we were working with at the time. I’ve found that harm reduction works well with many populations. It has opened up dialogues that I don’t think would have occurred had I shared a stronger judgmental/shaming approach. I also think that harm reduction can be more flexible than we may think. I’ve thought about this for a while now, and wrote a bit about this idea and if harm reduction can be more inclusive than we originally thought or were trained to implement. I wrote: “I choose to respect where people are as I hope others respect where I am at as we move through a situation or seek assistance or community.”

Instead of nurturing the shock, confusion, disgust, debunking of narratives, and ridicule of this testimony, what can we learn from Grier? How can we do better? We need to do better.

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harm reduction