Chronic Pain and Gendered Justice

Chronic Pain and Gendered Justice

Grace Feeney is a PhD Student at the University of Toronto, Department for the Study of Religion. Her research deals with the role of embodiment in ethical subjectivity and its gendered implications. She works for AIMA Inc. as a grant writer and communications specialist. 

Includes a brief literature review of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain

How does chronic pain affect the sense of self? When we are in pain, your relation to yourself changes. You understand yourself differently, because your body becomes hostile to your inhabitancy. This places limitations on the way we interact with the world around us, as well as the way we connect and communicate with others. 

The theorist Elaine Scarry explores the role of pain in personal identity in her 1987 text The Body in Pain. Most central to her investigation of the philosophical and political implications of physical pain is its inherent potential to rupture one’s self-conception. She finds this potential to stem primarily from the inexpressibility of pain, as the impossibility of linguistically integrating the experience of pain into one’s understanding of their experience of the world creates a break in the continuity and stability of identity. Lacking the capacity to communicate one’s pain to another person with words, one becomes excluded from the mutual understanding with others that we depend on to forge the relationships that contribute to our identity within the web of human connections.

The relation between enduring physical pain and the continuous integration of one’s experiences into a narrative that can be spoken, shared, and understood by both one’s own self and others is a central question for theorists of the metaphysics of pain. The fundamental premise of Scarry’s work is that there is an element of inexpressibility in pain, which is ineradicable, as pain’s “resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental attributes but is essential to what it is” (5). As working-through one’s experience of the world is primarily through the medium of language, this is what allows you to express and disclose yourself to others.

We craft our identity in relation to other people, even linguistically - the self is reflectively understood in terms of a story that is possible to be shared with others. For example, Scarry suggests that to take an inventory of all possible interior states, such as emotions, affects, and physical sensations, would produce an annotated list that constitutes “a consistent affirmation of the human being’s capacity to move out beyond the boundaries of his or her own body into the external sharable world” until some barrier is met (5). Such a barrier might be the experience of physical pain, which “has no referential content […] [it] resists objectification in language” (Scarry 5). This has major implications on the capacity to form and maintain a strong sense of self in the face of the challenge of chronic pain.

Why is this important to consider, especially in the context of the women’s health and the gender pain gap? 

Firstly, keeping in mind the difficulty of expressing one’s own experiences of physical suffering when conversing with someone who lives with chronic pain helps us to understand what it is that we can’t understand about the embodied lives of others. 

Knowing that the pain experienced by women is often downplayed and considered less serious than that of men also allows more thorough interrogation of the factors that lead to gendered differences in experiences in the healthcare system. For example, hundreds of women who underwent egg retrieval at a Yale fertility clinic received a saline solution instead of anaesthesia, experiencing pain comparable to torture, and the agony was ignored by the medical team during the procedure and after inquiries and complaints were made. Once the theft of the anaesthesia was uncovered and the unusual reports of pain understood, the victims of the crime were assured that “there’s no reason to believe that this event has had any negative effect on your health or the outcome of the care you received”.

Not only limited to the analysis of medical outcomes, these questions help us to think through matters of gender justice and global equality. 

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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