Vaginal mesh scandal: women donât need body-shaming on top of their pain
The ongoing vaginal mesh implant scandal is a complex affair, with group lawsuits erupting all around the world, including the US, the UK and Australia. Last week, Johnson & Johnson’s Ethicon unit was ordered to pay a record $57m in damages to a woman called Ella Ebaugh. The J&J implant, launched without a clinical trial, is still marketed, often in cases involving traumatic births, years after it was known to cause appalling problems to women such as Ebaugh, including intense pelvic pain and torn bladders and vaginas, leading to agonising sex and incontinence.
While many women don’t have problems with vaginal meshes, those who do suffer horribly.
If that’s not bad enough, emails showed J&J staff bantering about a spouse’s observation that having sex with them was akin to “screwing a wire brush”. A male Ethicon medical director replied: “I’ve never tried the wire brush thing so I won’t comment”. For me, this was one of the points where the red mist descended – it was just the sheer lack of basic human respect shown towards women going through every shade of hell and humiliation, some of them for years on end.
The time factor is an issue in itself. With other types of meshes still being used, questions need to be asked. Why have women taken so long to come forward with problems, while others have been so quickly browbeaten into accepting, first, terrible treatment and advice and then condescension when meshes fail? It seems to me that some of it could be due to the culture of systemic female body-shaming, the only difference being that, this time, the body-shaming is all on the inside.
Most people, especially women, know about “regular” (external) body-shaming – too fat, too thin, too young, too old, too dark, too pale, etc, etc… We all know the drill by now. Throughout her life, the average woman finds herself routinely judged on her outward appearance (and usually found wanting) as surely as a reluctant hound dragged around the ring at Crufts.
Internal body-shaming is different but just as complicated. While some women are naturally modest and reserved about certain parts of their body (vaginas, bladders, bowels), when something goes wrong, this swiftly mutates into intense shame and humiliation. Sadly, too often, this can lead to problems being overlooked and sidelined, with women suffering in silence for much longer than they would with, say, a sore arm or back.
In this context, sexual problems are embarrassing enough, but if symptoms include incontinence women may feel that they’re disgusting and expect others to be disgusted by them too. This is the battered, unsure, despairing self-image and inner monologue that these women would have to carry into consulting rooms, both for the treatment and resulting problems. Adding this psychological dimension, it’s hardly surprising some of the mesh-sufferers haven’t always been in the most assertive of moods when they have been fobbed off, sidelined and patronised about their symptoms.
Of course, in a feminist utopia, it wouldn’t be like this – all women would feel that they could loudly, proudly own, name, examine and fight for every last inch of their bodies. They would realise that it’s nonsensical to feel ashamed of a particular ailment just because it relates to a certain part of their anatomy. In the real world, it doesn’t always work out like this. Nor is it a form of weakness. Some experiences are so horrible that they can effectively disable and muzzle the strongest-minded of women.
I’m not arguing that all women are actively engaged in an old Les Dawson-style sketch, awkwardly miming to each other about their “down-belows”. However, I do wonder how much of this inbuilt shame played a part in the vaginal mesh scandal.
I also wonder, with rising anger, how much their intrinsic sense of embarrassment could be used against vulnerable women – intimidating and silencing them, when they are at their lowest ebbs.