Commentary Politics

The Senseless Ubiquity of Women in Pain

Caroline Reilly

Mining our trauma for progressive mobilization is both an effective and complicated tool of political leverage.

Every woman I know is in pain.

This makes sense. We are moving around in a world where we are increasingly pelted with reminders that our government simply does not care about us; perhaps even more painful than indifference, they seem to actively delight in our suffering. As Jessica Valenti recently noted, all of feminists’ worst suspicions and beliefs about the depths to which misogyny permeates our government and culture are being confirmed.

“For once,” she says, “it does not feel good to be right.”

And she’s right: That realization, that I told you so moment, is darkly melancholic when the truth is tied up with our own suffering.

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A lot has rightfully been said about female anger and female rage. Less has been said, though, about our pain, for which there seems to be an equally bottomless well and has equally vociferous power. Whether it means a survivor confronting a senator in an elevator about their vote on Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or an artist or writing spreading awareness about chronic illness, mining our trauma for progressive mobilization is both an effective and complicated tool of political leverage.

I’ve spent the greater part of the last four years in often unbearable pain thanks to endometriosis. I’ve also spent that time writing extensively not only about the disease itself, but about the ways in which society dilutes and disregards female pain. I’ve read studies showing that women suffer more commonly from anxiety and depression, and that their pain is often disregarded and improperly treated thanks to centuries of myths and cautionary tales about hysteria. I know this kind of gaslighting kills women or leaves them irreversibly hurt—suffering for longer than they need and stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions that the body adopts as a response to trauma and pain. I know these realities come down harder on women who live with other forms of marginalization: Black women, for example, face both racism and misogyny in emergency rooms when they seek pain management and other forms of basic care, and the intersection of medical misogyny and racism are to blame for appalling and inexcusable maternal mortality rates for Black women in this country. Trans women, too, face sometimes insurmountable barriers to accessing basic medical care, in addition to the transphobic gatekeeping frequently propagated by medical professionals.

Every woman I know has been in pain. It seems like pain is an unnecessarily innate part of the human experience for women. This phenomenon also permeates the reality of nonbinary people or trans men, who often grow up around gender violence and face higher rates of sexual violence or other dangers as members of the trans community. Many trans and gender nonconforming people also feel disempowered to speak out about their trauma because of the gendered confines we put on who can and can’t be a victim. Some parts of these experiences are painful in personal ways, the private traumas we carry with us every day. Others are manifestations of collective trauma, like the stomachache all of my friends and I walked around with the week of Christine Blasey Ford’s hearing. Some forms of pain are unavoidable, contingent only on the human condition. But so much of our pain is senselessly exacerbated or caused by the violent patriarchy we live in that devalues our autonomy and humanity.

Consider how journalist Casey Johnston reported on the excruciating pain of the intrauterine device (IUD) insertion process, arguing that if men had to undergo such a procedure they would be given “epidurals and a hospital stay.”

“Research shows doctors have historically had poor perception of how bad IUD insertion hurts,” she writes, “because women are socialized to downplay their pain.”

Then there’s Lili Loofbourow’s piece from January on the “female price of male pleasure,” in which she notes the rate at which women experience pain with sex; the relatively few studies done on the subject, Loofbourow points out, have found that some 30 percent of women experience pain with vaginal sex and over 70 perent do with anal sex, and many are not telling their partners. She points out that while men measure “good sex” by satisfaction and pleasure, women consider whether or not the experience was painful or harmful. And the societal response tells a parallel story to that of Johnston’s IUD report—one of acute apathy.

Because some of these pains are the result of choices we make—choices to have sex, to use birth control—it’s easy to feel like they are our fault. I know too many chronic illness patients who feel guilty lamenting their inability to enjoy intimacy. They feel that in wanting pain-free, pleasurable sex they’re being indulgent and asking for too much, a sentiment buried under centuries of toxic notions about who is allowed to want and enjoy sex. Meanwhile, we also struggle with pain we have no say in, like sexual violence or chronic disease. The inescapability of these traumas can make the pain of something like the inability to enjoy sex even more felt; life’s innate or simple pleasures that should be a refuge are made to feel like luxuries. And all of this pain—the feelings of guilt for wanting pain-free sex, the choice to have an IUD, an endometriosis diagnosis—is exacerbated by systemic and rampant misogyny.

No woman I know is suffering in just one way. Conversations about how we are sick with rage, anxious, and depressed about the news then turn to the other pains in our lives, the ones that were there all along. These maladies would be there regardless of the news, but are often complicated by a health-care system that debases us: excruciating period cramps, ulcerative colitis, a heart condition. We talk about the pain of living with sexual violence, abuse, or other trauma. We talk about the amount of pain we walk around with every day, how the profound and inescapable discomfort imbued in living in a feminine body is exacerbated by systemic misogyny. We talk about how we are being forced to confront and bear even more pain as our country bends under the misogynist will of a tyrannical government.

It feels like a national re-victimization; the acute and ubiquitous pain we endure often simply for not being cis men is then compounded by our nation’s failure to respond or treat us with humanity. And it has made me think about how much of the female experience in our country revolves, seemingly necessarily, around pain—how large pain looms in the day-to-day existence of the women in my life.

We mine our trauma for the greater good, turning it into art or political activism. But for what? We lay bare our most personal and painful experiences, and much of it is met with progress and solidarity. Lawmakers propose bills, and sponsor initiatives; the national dialogue around sexual violence changes and we see powerful men being held accountable in ways we arguably have never seen before. It’s a catharsis.

But then there’s those of us who face the brutal reality of the utilization of our pain being met with even more cruelty or indifference, including by other women. Earlier this month, news broke that Ford is still receiving threats and cannot return to the normal and safe life she had before accusing Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her. Or consider the midterm results, which saw white women continuously voting for the GOP even as women of color supported progressive candidates and achieved historic firsts.

Regardless of the result, on the other side of sharing our pain, many of us are still hurting—hurting from the pain itself and the innate trauma in retelling and reliving some of our worst experiences, even for the best of causes.

My relationship with my own pain is always changing. Some days I’m proud of what I’ve been through, and I wear it like a badge. Other days, I’m depressed, and it feels like a ghastly figure that stands over me wherever I go, unrelenting and limitless. I’m glad I’ve written about my pain; it has helped me find meaning in it all. But sometimes I want to be unmoored from the darkness that has enveloped so much of my life.

And so, it is both inspiring and dispiriting to see lawmakers, journalists, and even advocates treating pain as a commodity for change. Its amplification is desperately needed, but there is something cynically ironic about the sharing of female pain as a means of fighting the systems that necessitate it in the first place. Our stories have power, and we are right to use them. But sometimes it feels like the only way to safeguard ourselves from more pain is to rehash our trauma in hopes that the right person listens and understands. That is not, by any means, to say it is not crucial, brave, and beyond admirable to mobilize one’s suffering in this way—but instead simply to observe how it seems the only answer to female pain is more of it. We owe it to ourselves to acknowledge the ways in which we are suffering and to do so not only as a means to an end, but because it is our right. And we shouldn’t be suffering in the first place.

We can and should speak loudly about our pain not just to effect change, but because we hurt—and that is worthy of an uprising in and of itself.

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