I wake up in the middle of the night, sobbing and with little choice but to tell my boyfriend, "I'm having some female problems."
He drags me to the Stanford University emergency room where the two of us listen to a beleaguered medical resident say things like "urinary tract infection," "bacterial culture," and "E. coli."
I'm wincing now. And it's not so much the pain in my bladder as it is the humiliation. Well, I thought to myself, nothing boosts my sexual appeal quite like my boyfriend imagining E. coli -- best known as a toxic contaminant -- nestling itself into my female parts.
"This is just a bladder infection, and it's very common," said the bleary-eyed doctor. "If urination is difficult, some patients find it helpful to relieve themselves in a warm bath."
"The only thing that'll relieve me of is my dignity," I snap. My boyfriend laughs about that one all the way home.
Now, it's years later and I still recall that moment as one of absolute relief. That boyfriend is long gone, but I still appreciate his level of comfort with the female body. Not only was he at ease, he was fascinated, taking the time to ask the doctor questions and even look up information online.
It may not be what you want to discuss with a romantic partner, but the reality of being female is not the glossy, perfectly waxed, problem-free genitalia of a centerfold. The female reproductive system is a complex one, rife with the possibility of malfunctions. There will be bladder and yeast infections, quite possibly warts or ovarian cysts, everything that goes with pregnancy and childbirth, not to mention menopause with its accompanying constellation of symptoms.
And if you're lucky enough to avoid any of the above problems, or those increasingly common pesky venereal diseases such as chlamydia and herpes, you're going to have to menstruate. Unless you're a world-class gymnast or a cast member of "Ally McBeal," you will bleed every month, and your period becomes part of your relationship, like it or not.
It's the rare prince who skips down to the corner store to buy your tampons for you. Most guys would rather not hear about blood or cramps or bloating or spotting or any of those other things we women deal with every month.
Ironically, although men are often loath to consider what's going on with us downstairs, it is sexual relations with men that are responsible for a lot of our vaginal troubles. In Natalie Angier's book, "Woman: An Intimate Geography," she writes that male seminal fluids change the pH balance of the vagina, making women much more susceptible to various infections and diseases. You guys are alkaline, we're acidic, and the two just don't mix sometimes.
Since that unfortunate emergency-room visit, I've had boyfriends with varying degrees of squeamishness about this subject. Somehow, I've always drawn a correlation between men who are intrigued by the female body and men who really love women. If a guy can't deal with some talk about the machinery of a woman's reproductive system, he probably can't deal with women. If the sight of that baby-blue Tampax box freaks him out, you should be freaked out by him.
According to my religious tutor, no one knows her body better than an Orthodox Jew. Family purity laws require women to know exactly when their periods begin and end so that they can refrain from physical contact with their husbands during that time and for seven days after. According to her, this time of separation sanctifies the sexual act, elevating sexual pleasure and the chance of procreation to remind us that these are God-given gifts that should be cherished.
But for those of us who don't follow these laws, who don't mark the end of our menstrual cycle with a prayer of thanks and a ritual bath, we've got to find our own way to feel holy about the workings of our bodies. And a partner who can do the same.
To me, there is nothing sexier than a man who wants to know how the whole thing works, warts and all.
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal. Her one-woman show, "The Life and Death of Stars," appears at the McCadden Place Theatre (323-463-2942) Oct. 2, 9 and 16.
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