Last week, I heard a panel of women speak in a Lower East Side bar. They each had three things in common: They were magazine-cover gorgeous, had enough combined graduate degrees to create a new department at M.I.T., and every one of them had sold her eggs.
The evening's objective was simple: Discuss egg selling. So, for the first 40 minutes, each panelist offered witty, clinical, and articulate breakdowns of her experience, from the initial process of applying with an agency to "bartering" with couples on price to the rigid schedule of self-injected hormones. They ran us through the logistics (donors are offered up to potential buyers in a catalog that includes pictures, SAT scores, and academic degrees), the fuzzy legal issues (in the U.S. it's illegal to "sell" eggs, so the handover is labeled a "donation" followed by a sizable monetary compensation for your "time and energy"), and the lexicon (anonymous donors are often referred to by a number, while the purchasers are called "IM" or "Intended Mother").
But when it came to the messy internal aspects -- whether or not it felt exploitative to sell a piece of their genetic material, whether or not it was humiliating, frightening, or painful to manipulate their bodies with constant drugs and surgeries, whether or not it bothered them to produce genetic offspring that they'd never know or raise -- there was nary a word. Instead, glib comments ruled the day whenever a gray area came up. One woman, when asked how she felt about a child (or two, or three) made from her eggs existing unknown to her, joked that she liked the idea of climbing a mountain in 18 years and "summoning my dark army." Except for the final panelist, who looked visibly uncomfortable the whole time and admitted that the experience had been "the most horrible pain of my life," the overarching sense was: It was really no big deal.
Around the one hour mark, gory details started to emerge that revealed a different picture. The panelists described injecting themselves in the abdomen with three different hormones a day, signing contracts to refrain from all sex and exercise for weeks, submitting to rigorous and stressful DNA testing for genetic abnormalities (are you a carrier for Fragile X, the gene that causes mental retardation? If yes, you'll get a brusque e-mail informing you so) and going through a harvesting procedure that brings a decent-sized risk of permanent damage to your health and reproductive system. The room went silent when one woman admitted the gynecologist performing the surgery had told her, 'Whatever they're paying you, it's not enough," because the risks were so high.
More than one listener flinched as the speakers described having needles stuck through their vaginas into their uteruses, to aspirate their eggs and package them off to conceive a child that the women had (possibly illegally) contracted away their right to ever see or contact. All for somewhere between $10,000 to $30,000.
But the panelists? They just smiled and cracked another joke.
We've reached a funny point in the whole feminism game. The new card to play is honesty, where taboos and dirty little secrets about sex, fertility, selling eggs, rape, abortion, etc. are no longer whispered behind closed doors or screamed through a bullhorn in front of 500 other protesters. Now, you chat about them as commonplace occurrences, blog about them, discuss them at panels in bars.
But somehow, all the cultural openness has taken an ironic twist. In this age of "oversharing," where women are permitted, even encouraged to publicly document their bouts of gonorrhea and use their abortions as comedy material, it's still somehow unacceptable to acknowledge the feelings and emotions that inevitably accompany these things. As with the "Thinking and Drinking" debacle, women are displaying an unrealistic and dangerous rush to stamp out all those pesky emotions, toss a few gallons of denial on top, and cover the whole thing up with a joke. We bring "issues" like rape and abortion to the forefront in a show of power, but then shield ourselves in deadpan nihilism to avoid looking weak, even when we're writing or speaking about how we were date raped, or sexually abused, or had our eggs sucked out through a needle.
It's true that there's no one way to react to these traumas -- yes, having your eggs harvested counts as trauma, all rapier wit aside -- and you can't slap a label on them classifying the damage. Rape doesn't automatically make you a victim for life, an abortion doesn't make you anything other than a woman who has had an abortion, and selling your eggs doesn't dump you into some bin full of "permanently exploited" women. But each of these events/actions will incite feelings and emotions (oh no, the horror!) that occur as a physiological by-product of being human. Having your body invaded, your sense of control and power eliminated, is traumatic regardless of gender. If you voluntarily submitted to the process, be it to avoid pregnancy or to create someone else's pregnancy and collect a hefty fee, that doesn't cancel out the emotional response.
Humor can be invaluable in all of this. There's no reason that selling your eggs, or having an abortion, or even suffering a traumatic sexual experience can't be funny -- that is, when the joke is a sign of mental distance from the event after the emotional flood has been acknowledged and dealt with. But there's a huge distinction between laughing at your abortion and laughing off your abortion, and the discrepancy can be the difference between regaining power versus a life sentence of buried self-negation.
Am I suggesting the panel should have been a weepy confessional followed by a group hug and a few trust circles? Of course not. But it sure would have been comforting if at least one of these brilliant, self-possessed women had admitted, "Yeah, I've been conflicted. I've had strong feelings, and sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing. But I chose it, and that was my choice, so if I burst into tears at the memory of the pain, or the thought that my child could be walking around the world never knowing me, well, I deal with it. And I find a way to laugh."
Then, maybe the rest of us would have been laughing along with them.