For women, so many sexual encounters are ruined by that not-so-little voice from down below, asking, begging, pleading: will it work? will it hurt? And if it doesn’t work, and if it does hurt, will he force it? Why is it so hard to have successful, painless sex? We know our sex drives, we know what we want, we know we aren’t being pushed into anything. Maybe we’re just picking the completely wrong people to have sex with, or maybe there just something wrong with us. Am I gay? Asexual? Broken?
Since the age of 11, my life has revolved around my vagina. I seem borderline fixated on it. This fixation, however, was never something I felt comfortable expressing aloud, to family members, friends, even sexual partners. I was obsessed with something I couldn’t talk to anyone about, out of sheer embarrassment.
And it’s not just me; women everywhere experience discomfort surrounding their sexual and reproductive health, it just isn’t something we discuss. After reading Lili Loofbourow’s ‘The Female Price of Male Pleasure’, I decided to join the conversation. Since my life started to hone in on my reproductive area, I’ve struggled to go about everyday life for at least a week a month, when my body decides its only function is to shed every ounce of blood it can find, and allow me to do very, very little else. Four years of gynaecologists later, and I’m finally having a diagnostic laparoscopy for endometriosis. That’s four years of ignoring warning signs, toned-down red flags, and doctors quite frankly not wanting to put energy into diagnosing me accurately. On average, it takes about 7.5 years for endometriosis to be diagnosed, and I was ‘lucky’ to have it in my family, as it halved my waiting time. Female reproductive health heavily impacts women’s daily lives, whether that be in relation to actual, physical pain, or in relation to how this can effect intimate sexual relationships.
Loofbourow talks about the discrepancies in research surrounding female sexual pain, compared to that surrounding erectile dysfunction, which led me to think about lube. Lube is often used as a ‘treatment’ for vaginal dryness, but doesn’t this just validate the school of thought that argues that sex is about male pleasure? Yes, using lube may aid penetration, but using lube does not address the cause, whether that be vaginismus, vulvodynia, complications associated with endometriosis, or any other intimate illness associated with the vagina. Why is it that society feels that penetration is such a right that women must find ways around their pain and discomfort?
I want to know why there is nobody out there educating young women on our bodies. I want to know why, at the age of 20, my concerns are only just being taken seriously, despite the countless things I have missed out on due to my periods, over almost ten years.
And here’s the answer: because female sexual health is taboo. It’s 2018, and it is still taboo to the point that we gloss over it in school, with a brief science lesson on the menstrual cycle, rushed along so boys would stop taking the piss, and irritating the teacher, or a vague ten minutes in a PHSE lesson where the girls are taken aside and, without actual representation of vaginal insertion, shown how to pull the string out of an applicator tampon. It is taboo to the point that young girls worry that they might ‘lose their virginity’ to a tampon, because they don’t understand their own anatomy. It is taboo to the point that the research on female sexual pain is so minimal that most doctors don’t know the signs to look for, or ignore them when presented in pubescent woman, because ‘all periods are different’. And all periods are different, because all women are different, and yet they are all treated with the same contempt.
To state the obvious, this is not okay. Though the conversation is, painfully slowly, beginning to unravel, we need more; we need to arrive at a place in which young girls can openly discuss their reproductive health, and know when they should and shouldn’t be concerned about themselves, and each other. In an ideal 21st century world, we should be in a position where both the menstrual cycle, and safe, comfortable, consensual, pleasurable sex education can be taught in a classroom full of 13-year-old boys and girls without the precocious presumptions from Jack the Lad that because Sarah has tits already, she’ll definitely know what a tampon is.
This kind of open sex education is something that has trickled in and out of public discourse, over the last ten years. A particular hero in this arena is Channel 4. From 2008-2011, Channel 4’s Anna Richardson ran ‘The Sex Education Show’, in which she taught teenagers about their own sexual health. An episode I personally recall, is one in which Richardson hung pictures of different kinds of healthy vaginal discharge, on a washing line, and discussed them with the teenage girls. I remember covertly discussing this episode with friends at the time, as, even though the show was directed at teens our age, we felt that it was almost rebellious of us to be watching it. Without this episode, I would never have seen or understood so many depictions of what different women’s bodies can and do produce. This is the same with the multiple images depicting vaginas, shown on a classroom wall in Goedele Liekens’s ‘Sex in Class’, also on Channel 4 (2015). Both TV representations of how different people’s personal, healthy norms can be, enabled audiences to develop their understanding of their own bodies. This perhaps also developed desires to explore our bodies – one of her assignments being getting the girls to take a mirror to their vaginas, to the outrage of many medieval parents. Why is it so many fathers are so preoccupied with their daughters keeping their virginities, and their sons losing them?
Such representations within mainstream media are absolutely crucial in developing not only public understanding, but public acceptance of rhetoric surrounding female sexual health. Such rhetoric should be able to be publically explored not only in factual form, but also in satire – wouldn’t it be refreshing to regularly see female masturbation joked about and represented in the same way that ‘The Inbetweeners’ pelts its audience with images of pubescent male life?
Is there anything you can actually do to help us get to the point where we can openly talk about female sexual and reproductive health, without being sneered at, laughed at, or told we’re giving out ‘too much information’? Endometriosis UK have a petition you can sign to try to get Menstrual Wellbeing onto the Relationships and Sexual Education curriculum (https://www.endometriosis-uk.org/stop-treating-periods-dirty-secret-teach-menstrual-wellbeing), to try and prevent young girls from suffering in silence. It’s time to speak up when we are suffering, and it’s time stop worrying about whether we are making people uncomfortable in any attempt to force them to listen.