The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is one of my favorite books of all time. Usually, I only read a book once, even for a book I enjoy. But a book that I can’t get enough of: that’s one I read multiple times.
That is how good this book is.
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who grew up in the South in the 1920s and 30s. Her life was nothing out of the ordinary for a woman during that time. As a Southern African-American woman, her opportunities for advancement in any arena were, sadly, few and far between. She was married as a teenager, had five children, and lived through the Great Depression and a world war at a poverty level that was lower than most, even for back then. However, she was devoted to her family and recognized that she was capable of making her life as interesting as she wanted it to be.
Sadly, she died from cervical cancer at the age of 31. She had gone to Johns Hopkins for surgery and treatment, and one of the doctors took some of the cancer cells and sent them to Dr. George Gey, a cell biologist who had been trying to create a cell line with little success. With Henrietta’s cells, though, Dr. Gey was able to create the first immortal cell line called HeLa (for Henrietta Lacks). From this line, the polio vaccine was created, AIDS and cancer research have advanced, and observations of how human cells behave outside Earth’s atmosphere have helped propel NASA into space.
But here’s an interesting fact: Henrietta never consented to having her cells used for research.
Back in the 1950s, doctors didn’t need to ask for consent to conduct medical research on tissues removed from patients. This was also back in the day when doctors weren’t obligated to fully disclose the extent of someone’s illness to a patient. With the HeLa cell line, these practices have come under attack and sparked some intense court cases that have put into law specific guidelines for patient consent in cell/tissue/organ removal and medical research. Before the laws were put in place regarding consent practices, the justification was that once cells had been removed from your body, they were no longer a part of you and doctors could do whatever they wanted with them.
Does this sound familiar at all?
Does it remind you of the persistent rape culture in our society?
A woman is drunk and will say yes to just about anything and that’s all that’s needed to take advantage of her, right?
But even if she says no, how is she going to stop anyone?
Really, she doesn’t even need to be drunk. She’s a woman, they’re usually weaker than men (especially a group of men), and since she can’t physically resist, she’s fair game.
This all sounds ridiculous, right?
I sure hope you said yes to that question. Otherwise, seek help immediately, you misogynist.
Why do we side with rapists, the villains themselves, over the victims? Why is it that the questions that are asked when a woman is raped is, “What was she wearing?”, “Why was she out so late at night?”, “Why was she drinking?”, “What was she doing there?”, “Doesn’t she know that’s exactly the type of place where these things happen?”
Yeah, these things happen at those places because WE DON’T PUNISH THE PEOPLE WHO COMMIT THE CRIME! Why should they bother stopping when they know there won’t be a penalty?
She was dressed up; she was asking for it.
She wanted to hang out with her friends and they were out after midnight; she was begging for it.
She had a couple drinks; heck, at this point, she was practically planning it.
She wanted to check out the party and see some of her other friends; she was practically forcing their hand.
She thought she could trust the people she was with; well forget them raping her; she was pushing herself onto them.
Again, does this sound stupid and outrageous to you? Because it should.
Remember Brock Turner, the rapist who was only sentenced to six months in jail after raping a woman behind a dumpster? Do you remember his father’s letter to the judge? He is such a great guy, a good Stanford student, an excellent swimmer, an amazing friend who made one stupid mistake that his father didn’t want to see ruin his son’s life.
Oh. Well I never thought about it that way. You’re right. Poor Brock. After all, he’s just a kid. All college boys make dumb choices; he was just sowing his wild oats. Isn’t that a rite of passage for young men?
What about the girl he raped? That “stupid mistake” he made changed her life forever. People who have been robbed say that they no longer feel safe in their own homes. Imagine not feeling safe in your own body. Imagine being used in the most debased way and not having any control over it.
Now imagine the people who were charged with protecting you siding with the person who treated you like an animal and sweeping your “problem” under the rug.
Since when is it ok to villainize victims? Why are women, who are the targets, immediately blamed for what happened?
Do I believe in exercising good judgment? Yes. Do I think it’s necessary to take extra precautions if you’re going to be in a vulnerable situation? Absolutely.
The sad thing is though that I, and other women, shouldn’t have to worry about avoiding those situations. We shouldn’t be the ones held responsible.
Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, was asked if women should be put under curfew following an increase in rape across the country.
Her response (paraphrased): “The men are the rapists. Let them stay at home. Why punish the women?”
You go, girl.
We need to stop holding women accountable for everything. We are not the guardians of sex; we will not be confined to “submissive roles”; and we will not allow a man’s perspective of us determine our realities.
And you know what, dudes? This change in attitude would have a positive outcome for you too. No longer would you be viewed as nothing more than a wild animal who’s not in control of his urges. No longer would you be seen as an insecure, spineless bully who has to exert his authority over us “helpless” females just to make you feel secure in your masculinity. Now you can be seen as real men, the kind who take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for their own actions.
All relationships are based on everyone giving and taking.
But that doesn’t mean you can take against someone’s will.
Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,
Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak