March 4th, 2007

The Scrotum Controversy and Related Matters

So Susan Patron’s middle grade novel The Higher Power of Lucky serves up the word “scrotum” on page one. It’s not a matter of sexuality so much as a matter of specificity: that’s where the dog was bitten by the snake.


But the ensuing uproar has gotten me thinking about other words and topics that can be problematic.


As the executive editor of FibromyalgiaAWARE and the editor of the National Fibromyalgia Association’s e-newsletter, I often cover sensitive topics. One of the first issues I did of the newsletter addressed the subject of sexuality and chronic pain, which I revisited for an issue of the print magazine.


As usual, when I’m hunting for great anecdotes to include in a fibromyalgia story, I had put out a call in the newsletter. If anyone had a story they wanted to share, I wrote, please email me.


And I did get a couple of emails. They were all from women, and they all contained questions they hoped my story would answer.


Okay, I wasn’t really surprised at the lack of response. (Well, I was, actually, just a little. You’d be surprised at the number of people who do want to talk to me about their sex lives—especially when the interview is supposed to be about something else altogether, like a start-up business or academic scholarships.) So I got a friend to talk to me about the issues she and her husband faced. She wanted a pseudonym, and she got one. But I still had a problem: I didn’t have a single male patient’s perspective for the story.


At my boss’s suggestion, I made a call—and the guy readily agreed to talk to me about sex after fibromyalgia. He even wanted to do the interview in person. (Some people are like that—it’s easier to talk to a person they can see than a voice over the phone.) I was discreet in my questions, and he was open in his answers. It took about a week, but I finally stopped blushing. Then the story came out, and the reader responses made me turn practically purple all over again.


More recently I had a similar problem. I put out a call in the newsletter for people who also have irritable bowel syndrome, a gastrointestinal disorder every bit as fun as you might think. Oddly, no one responded to that call, either. At last I discovered that a friendly contributing writer has IBS as well as fibromyalgia—and she was willing to write about it—and she didn’t even want a pseudonym.


“I’ll talk about anything,” she emailed me. “Heck, I’ll even say the word ‘penis’ and throw them all into conniptions.”


Which brings me back to the trouble with words.


I don’t remember when I learned what the word “scrotum” means. Other words I have very strong memories of, like “menstruation.” Thank Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret for that eye-opener.


Actually, Judy Blume is responsible for a lot of my youthful eye-opening. After a few conversations my mother had evidently not expected me to initiate at age 9, she asked me (read: commanded) to hold off on any more Judy Blume books till I was older. And so I learned: any word I didn’t recognize that ended in “ation,” I had to look up at the public library. (Not the school library—those dictionaries were not nearly as informative.)


But still, there was plenty of confusion to be had. Deenie—another Judy Blume book—gave me the most trouble. I remember very little about it, except the title character had scoliosis—or was afraid she did—and she was fond of long baths and a particular facecloth. How many times, I wonder, did I re-read that book before I realized that the “special place” that gave her such feelings of contentment while in the tub was not, for instance, a secret hiding place behind a bath tile? I just couldn’t figure it out, so I kept giving the book another chance and another chance until one day I read it, and the passage seemed suddenly clear. And totally shocking. And that was with two words that I used all the time—“special” and “place”—as opposed to that rarely-trotted-out specimen, “scrotum.”


As I see it, “scrotum”s greatest sin is its awful sound. It is not a pleasant word to listen to or to say.  But there’s plenty of those out there. I have a friend whose favorite expletive is “piss,” which I can’t stand: it not only starts with that dangerous P, so easy to accidentally spit out, but it ends in the sibilant S. My expletive of choice—so much more shocking to general society—rhymes with “bucket,” and I approve of it because it sounds clean and sharp. It makes its point.


Honestly, I don’t understand The Scrotum Controversy. Kids don’t need books to learn about genitalia and assorted topics; any one of them who’s had a dog—or even just seen one—will have made certain observations and, I imagine, broached certain topics with trusted, informed, and hopefully informative adults. (I remember I did—my poor lonely dog. My poor patient mother.) I mean, half the world has a scrotum—what’s the big deal?

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