Phantom Itch: Scabies, Stigma, and Parasitic Revelations – Mark Ambrose Harris

I don’t recall there being any mention of pleasure during the sex ed segment of my “moral and religious education” class in high school. However, I remember being overcome by a distinct revulsion when learning about a sexually transmitted disease – in the 90s, “infection” had yet to replace “disease” – involving an arthropod that travels beneath the skin. The human itch mite, otherwise known as scabies, is a pernicious little parasite. In the realm of harmful fauna, this mite is quite benign if discovered early enough – treatment is quick and relatively painless. Yet, since sexual contact is a frequent route of transmission for scabies, the creature carries its own distinct currency of shame. One of the itch mite’s signature characteristics is that it burrows into human skin, and while the animal itself is microscopic, the fleshy tunnels it digs are visible to the naked eye. If the incessant itching – caused by an allergic reaction to the animal’s eggs and feces – isn’t enough to derail your quotidian concentration, the burrow lines are a sobering visual reminder: something is living inside of you.

The mystique of apex predators is rooted somewhere in the humbling realization that for large carnivores, the human body is just another form of meat. As David Quammen states in the brilliant Monster of God, “[t]hroughout the course of the human story, one reminder of our earthly status has been that, at some times, in some landscapes, we have served as an intermediate link in the food chain” (13). Though the author’s refusal to tease apart the gendered nature of the term “man-eater” misses the mark – he suggests “semantic arguments” be left to “semanticians” (3–4) – his analysis of why large, predatory animals lurk in our psyche is complex yet blunt. Regardless of our hubris, we, too, can be reduced to food.

But what of our relationship with parasites? Rosemary Drisdelle writes in Parasites: Tales of Humanity’s Most Unwelcome Guests that “[i]n a medical sense, at least, parasites include protozoa, worms, and certain things with legs, such as mites and insects – but only those that must spend at least part of their lives in or on the tissues of other living things” (1–2). These biological entities use our bodies as mere vessels for their own greater good. A tiger or a crocodile inflicts profound damage or devours all evidence of life entirely, but the parasite does its work while leaving our husks largely intact. The host is used but kept healthy enough to be an ongoing source of nourishment or a haven for reproduction. As for the human itch mite and its ilk, a personal experience gives me pause to think about the physical transgression of the parasite, the ramifications for the host, and the various sociological aspects of shame that accompany these creatures.

It seems fitting that the mite that once inspired such terror in me long ago would eventually work its way into my body. What’s of greater note is how the brain attempts to rationalize and sanitize symptoms that we know are indicative of something more lurid. Two years ago, a desire to scratch overpowered me. Being accustom to a number of skin-related ailments, I assumed that my body was reacting to a change in laundry detergent. When reverting back to my old soap failed, I performed a furious cleaning underneath my bed, hoping to flush out some hypothetical rogue spider. Working in the shipping department of a bookstore at the time, I was certain that the preliminary white trail on one of my knuckles was the remnants of a paper cut—a common occupational hazard for anyone who handles so many books and cardboard boxes. Soon, it was impossible to ignore the geography of my symptoms: rosy dots on the tip of my penis, itchy asshole, burning wrists and the telltale sign of scarlet welts encircling tiny burrow lines on my fingers. After a visit to my doctor and the pharmacy, I administered one single head-to-toe application of ointment for scabies, washed my sheets, and vanquished the parasites.

The torture was not quite over. Perhaps a side effect of the medication or the natural process of my body ridding itself of the mites, their eggs, and their waste, but I would sporadically feel as though something was gnawing at my skin. Furthermore, I’d experience an increase in post-remedy stinging just after having sex. In granting the mite too much space in my thoughts, was I inducing the sensation of “new” bites? Was my shame surrounding the parasite’s mode of transmission – and its habit of using my body as a living toilet – invoking a psychosomatic phantom itch?

Parasites feed on the human psyche. Take note of the endless supply of botfly extraction videos on YouTube as an exercise in macabre fascination. Though the fish parasite cymothoa exigua – an animal that latches on to the muscles in a fish’s mouth to literally become a new, living tongue – recently inspired the eco-horror flick The Bay, its first pop-culture reference appears to be the maw-within-a-maw of Ridley Scott’s Alien. In fact, Scott’s monster, designed by H.R. Giger, is emblematic of a transformative life cycle shared by many parasites. The monster lays its eggs. The eggs hatch and a larva emerges – in this case, a highly aggressive spiderling facehugger. However, the larva then needs a host so that it may change again and reach maturity. Scott plays with our fear of parasitic invasion to the extreme as the facehugger violently deposits its own egg sack within a human esophagus. Before long, the life cycle is complete, and the gestating monster erupts from the host’s ribcage, greeting the world with a flash of blood and a frigid reptilian gaze. We’re afraid of how parasites will invade our carnal veneer, but not as much as we fear their escape plan.

Parasites lend to a sort of equalization. They do not discriminate. They dismantle the illusion that we are impermeable. Wherever they can find a viable host, they’ll do so regardless of the host’s socio-economic background. Of course, this is only true in theory. Anyone who has the luxury of clean drinking water, the advantage of living where there is enough land to keep farm animals away from human waste, or the privilege of healthcare will avoid a grand swath of parasites that flourish where these conditions are denied. Nonetheless, it is difficult to categorize bedbugs as a litmus of squalor when the insects are able to infiltrate the United Nations (Gay n.p.). Parasites also disrupt our chosen place within the supposed hierarchy of the natural world via inter-species contagion. For example, “we can comfortably share several worms with pigs . . . This means that from a worm’s perspective, humans and pigs are similar and more or less equally desirable” (Grice 226).

I believe one element that feeds our revulsion of parasites is the idea of control: self-control or lack thereof. As I write this essay, I’m dealing with the repercussion of a weekend spent outdoors two hours north of Montreal: over forty mosquito and black fly bites. Between bouts of typing, I take a moment to scratch. Yet, this discomfort is nothing compared to my experience with scabies. After all, as Bill Schutt notes in Dark Banquet, “[t]he word scabies comes from the Latin scabere, ‘to scratch’” (245). I remember being unable to resist clawing at my wrists. It required meditation to refrain from any furious scratching of my genitals. Regardless of how I wanted to maintain some social decorum, the critters mining tunnels and shitting in my skin detracted from my ability to control my bodily movements. It was indeed maddening to know that something I could not see, something measuring about a third of a millimetre, could have such an imperious affect on my body.

A parasite’s ability to command its host often relates to its need to propagate. Drisdelle provides a particularly horrifying explanation of the guinea worm. Once inside a human body, the worm creates painful, burning sores to ensure that it can lay eggs in a body of water. As Drisdelle explains, the worm

leads a host to water like a head cold steers us to the tissue box; the difference is that the worm needs water even more than the host does. Although people often immerse extremities in water anyway, the worm’s ability to incite a host to ease the lesion in the nearest pond is greatly to its advantage. (107)

Such loss of autonomy is more pronounced for insects. For example, Amy Stewart writes about the larva of the hairworm waiting in water, hoping “to be swallowed by a grasshopper taking a drink” (Stewart 244). Once consumed, the hairworm must to return to its home. “To accomplish this, it takes control of the grasshopper’s brain . . . and convinces its host to commit suicide by jumping into the nearest body of water” (244).

The social stigma that can accompany sexually transmitted infections stems from a perception that one acquires such infections precisely because they have no self-control – one of the many purported symptoms of being slutty. Though we are surrounded by quasi socially acceptable images of non-monogamous sex – in porn and elsewhere – for some of us, it is difficult to ignore the fact that we live in a neo-puritanical culture where any autonomous deviation from the monogamous hetero/homonormative paired unit is considered strange at best, villainous at worst. Following this skewed line of thinking, individuals who transgress these norms are understood as doing so out of a lack of restraint, and their bodies are therefore breached by debilitating pathogens.

The shame/shaming that STIs incur is a means of social control that relies on silence in order to function. It’s much easier to believe that these ailments are a form of punishment – rather than a complex web of various ingenious organisms – if there’s no discussion about the fundamental biology of these parasites. In calling bullshit on the belief that some matters of physical and emotional health are forms of biological retribution, I’m not arguing anything new. This collapsing of organic symptoms into questions of morality is a vitriolic and lethal narrative that infests the past and present of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

As Michel Foucault remarks in The History of Sexuality, “[t]here is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses” (27). Though my high school sex ed lacked the fun aspects of sex, I’m thankful that I was taught anything at all. While discussing preliminary ideas about this essay, I was surprised when one friend didn’t know what scabies was and another thought my description of their burrows was the fodder of urban legend. Furthermore, some of the sources I used for research sidestep or cushion the issue of sex. Though Schutt mentions that scabies used to be thought of as belonging to “the poor, the unwashed, and the sexually promiscuous” (246), Stewart lists “skin-to-skin contact” as the primary mode of transmission (221). Drisdelle notes that “prisons, crowded slums, extended-care institutions, armies, and even hospital wards” (136) are susceptible to scabies outbreaks, but there is no mention of sex. In addition, though Drisdelle’s writing is expansive and engaging, I couldn’t help but notice a second, perhaps more glaring, sexual oversight. Her book is peppered with references to the transmission of certain parasitic worms that occurs when food encounters trace amounts of fecal matter on unwashed hands. For a sexually adventurous individual like myself who has a broad palette of proclivities, it seems odd that rimming doesn’t make its way into the aforementioned discussion.

Healthcare professionals also play a role in employing silence(s) and instigating shame. Once, when dealing with a “mysterious” skin affliction – which my own physician later diagnosed as tinea barbae, a benign skin condition – I went to the emergency room of a hospital where the doctor on duty asked me in a terse tone if, as a man who has sex with men, I might have reason to suspect that my immune system could be compromised. Not only could he not ask outright about my HIV status, his serophobia – and in this case, his obvious homophobia – functioned as a tactic of shame that permeated the remainder of our interaction.

I understand that the books I reference are scientific or historical examinations of the creatures in question – they aren’t instructive sexual health manuals. Nonetheless, how can we better demystify, manage, or avoid such parasites if those who study them have trouble mentioning intimate routes of transmission? How can we further cultivate a healthcare system that is free of judgemental and bigoted “professionals”? How does one make peace with the fact that we, as a species, are finite bodies and that our capacity for infection or parasitism is a universal trait and not the moral defect of a select few? Hefty questions from such a miniscule mite.


References

Drisdelle, Rosemary. Parasites: Tales of Humanity’s Most Unwelcome Guests. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. 1976. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1990.

Gay, Mara. “UN Problems: Sudan, Gaza Flotilla … Bedbugs.” AOLNews. October 28, 2010. Web. 8 July, 2013.

Quammen, David. Monster of God. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Schutt, Bill. Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures. New York: Harmony Books, 2008.

Stewart, Amy. Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects. London: Timber Press, 2011.

Mark Ambrose Harris lives and writes in Montreal. His work often deals with the meeting of music, identity, and sexuality. His essay “Beautiful Books,” which is featured in both Ribbon Pig Vol. 1 and the Lethe Press anthology Best Gay Stories 2012, received the Songe-de-Poliphile award from l’Académie de la vie littéraire au tournant du 21e siècle. His essay on the audible body in gay porn, “The Signal is Jammed: A Confession,” is part of the Arsenal Pulp Press anthology I Like it Like That. The forthcoming Cleis Press anthology Men on the Make will include his essay “Nipples Are the New Dick.”

As someone who is fascinated by animals, Harris is equally interested in writing about fauna and our own animalistic attributes. Most recently, his essay on body hair and gender identity “Otter Lust” appeared on Revolver. “Heart the Size of a Small Car” recounts an encounter with a blue whale and will be part of the forthcoming anthology Animal Kin: Extraordinary Encounters with Animals. 

His arts and culture/nightlife work appears in Lickety Split, 2B Magazine, Nightlife Magazine, Subversions, Empty Mirror Books, Xtra, The Lost Boys, and Cornershopstudios. He is a teacher, a copy editor, and a crafter of blurbs for film festival programs. He posts witty things on Twitter @homosonic and on markambroseharris.com.




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