All I remember is seeing blood. My heart beat faster as I tried to figure out what was wrong. Did I cut myself? Were my insides disintegrating? Tears started to fill my eyes as I did the only thing I could think of: shoving toilet paper into my underwear in the hopes it would stop the bleeding. Fifteen minutes had passed since I excused myself from a large state-wide standardized test due to intense pain. My guts felt like they’d been flipped to the outside and ravaged by a pair of garden shears. Shaking like a leaf, I managed to pull myself together and schlep myself back into my seat to make it through the rest of the test and the remainder of the school day. It wasn’t until days later that I was told that I had my first period at nine years old.
As a fourth-grader, there were a lot of things about my body that I didn’t know or couldn’t explain, but the truth is, there are many women – decades older – who still don’t understand their body. From hormonal breakouts to intense chronic pain, women experience a whole gamut of ailments. While some can be directed back to identified causes like menstruation, we as a human race have just begun scratching at the surface of female healthcare. As it stands right now, female healthcare can be compared to the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. While there is a portion of it that we can truly understand and put into practice, the vast majority of what we need to know lies veiled underneath the murky surface.
But why is the sea that surrounds the iceberg so murky? The answer to that is complex. Female health has been a point of contention for centuries. Sexism, gender bias, and insufficient education have contributed to the meager development of female healthcare. To empower women to become advocates for their health and well-being, we must stress the importance of sexual education to our society and do more to ensure conscientious doctors.
Where the Hyster-y Begins
Before the days of women’s suffrage and the recognition that women were in fact, not property, the female body was not studied with the same intensity as the male counterpart. This left women to deal with whatever cards they were dealt, and hope that they didn’t drop dead. Due to this lack of fundamental research, female illnesses were often given a “wastebasket diagnosis” like wandering womb. From as early as 1900 BC to the 1950s, wandering womb – or hysteria, as it is more commonly known today – was considered to be the root of female illness. It was thought that when women were in distress, the womb would literally move around the body causing physical and mental ailments. The cure? To have procreative sex.
If you gagged slightly after reading that, I’m right there with you. While female healthcare has undeniably improved in the last 100 years, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. In her HuffPost article “Medicine Has A Sexist Problem, And It’s Making Women Sicker,” author Maya Dusenbery describes how women were underrepresented in crucial clinical drug trials. The female body was considered unfit for trials due to its various hormonal states and cyles as it would be difficult to tell if a drug was actually working. If that weren’t enough, the female body also metabolizes drugs differently and diseases manifest themselves differently in women. Not to mention the potential permanent damage it could do to a woman’s reproductive system. The researchers’ excuse for excluding women was the very reason why they SHOULD be including them.
In 1993, Congress passed a federal law requiring all National Institutes of Health-funded clinical research to include women. That’s only two years before I was born. Working in the pharmaceutical field myself, I know how long it takes for research or a product to make it to the public. It takes an average of 15 to 20 years to finally see the impact of new contributions. When these contributions finally make it to the outside world, there are numerous amounts of roadblocks hindering it. In regards to female health, there are a slew of unique issues that prevent specialized medicine and procedures to be normalized, with the root of many of these issues stemming from insufficient sexual education.
Going Down on Sex Ed
For many in America, sex ed was a health course that somehow was taught by gym teachers or anxious school faculty. My first sex ed course was in the fifth grade – a year too late to be useful to me. During these classes, boys and girls were separated (mistake #1) and made to watch various outdated videos from the 80s about puberty. Instructors often avoided eye contact and the room’s energy was awkward, to say the least. It wasn’t until middle school that we began to learn about the opposite sex’s body. Then came the portion about the actual act of sex. This unit was largely glossed over – with the exception of explaining the horrors of STDs/STIs – and was completely oriented towards heterosexual sex (mistake #2). Basically, the aroused penis was inserted into the vagina and ejaculation just “happened.” There was no mention of the various forms of pleasurable stimulation there were or acknowledgment that orgasms existed because framing sex as healthy and satisfying was the exact opposite of the classroom goal. The pregnancy unit was the quote-unquote finale, topped off by a graphic birth film infamously known in our school as “Sally’s Baby.” After nearly 8 years of these district-mandated classes, I was left with the impression that a penis was the equivalent of a weapon and that the uterus was essentially the Bermuda Triangle.
“Since most parents are reluctant to talk about sex, schools have tried to fill the gap. In America, when we decide to ignore a subject, our favorite form of denial is to teach it incompetently. Familiarity without true understanding is not only the basis of our families but of our educational system as well.”
– Bob Smith
As of November 2019, the Guttmacher Institute reports that only 39 states and the District of Columbia mandate sexual education and/or HIV education. Of those 39 states, 30 and DC mandate that those educational programs must meet certain general requirements. Here is where things go south. Only 17 of those 30 states require their sexual and HIV education to be medically accurate. That means only 34% of America’s student population is receiving accurate information regarding sex ed subjects. How can a sexual education course even be taught if it is not medically accurate? The answer to that is by not making it about a discussion about the body, but instead turning it into a social, moral – and sometimes even religious – debate.
Abstinence-only or abstinence-stressed education is a popular way to negate the “icky” and controversial conversations around the human body. If you’re my age, Coach Carr’s health class scene from Mean Girls might pop into your head. While abstinence is 100% effective at preventing pregnancy and sexual diseases, it isn’t at all effective at preparing students for puberty or any additional sexual/reproductive system-related issues they might run into as they get older.
Legitimately Raping Female Rights
The early teenage years are critical for a person’s development. Each experience is extremely formative as one bad moment can make them close the proverbial curtains. This is especially true for young women as they go through puberty. Many try to put on a happy face, but in reality, a lot of girls feel humiliated by this growing up process. Sprouting body hair, acne, and even breasts, are perceived as issues – not as normal. Parents often play a role in intensifying these feelings. Growing up, many girls I knew had parents that tried to “push them through puberty” by introducing shaving razors, prescription treatments, and even extreme dieting before the age of 14. Instead of embracing and understanding this natural change, girls were taught that their bodies were problems that need to be solved in order to be deemed ‘acceptable’ by society.
It was normal for girls not to ask questions, and it was normal for boys to think that girls were gross, until a switch flipped in their heads. They now wanted something. But due to the lack of those critical sex ed classes, most boys didn’t know anything about the female body besides the fact it had tantalizing holes. To learn more, they turned to porn. According to a 2008 study, 93% of boys have viewed online pornography before turning 18. While pornography is a great tool, it cannot be taken as truth. Adult actors sensationalize scenes because viewers want the fantasy. Teenage boys, who often have sex after consuming porn content, do not have the discerning lens to realize what they’ve been using as a reference is actually a parody when compared to the real thing. The female body became established as a pleasure palace for boys, and the humiliation – both psychologically and sexually – continued for teenage girls.
When transitioning into adulthood, this issue doesn’t dissipate. With many convinced they know all they need to know about the female body, society begins to seep misconceptions, biases and lies into important fields like healthcare and legislation. One shocking example of this was when Missouri Representative Todd Akin, a six-term member of Congress, stated that the female body had the ability to somehow block an unwanted pregnancy from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape,” he says, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Reread that quote again. Maybe even show it to a friend. Is this the quality of government official we want representing the American people? Better yet, is this the type of government official we want making decisions about women’s rights and healthcare? Luckily, this quote cost Akin his election – ending his Congressional career in 2012 – but there are still many uneducated men and women in government spouting falsities, and using religion or personal beliefs as an excuse to enforce biased healthcare legislation. While some like Dr. Jen Gunter are fighting for Congress to “read up” on the female body, society once again reminds us that we value organs and their functions over the people who own them.
Women on Top
This notion was extremely prevalent during the latter part of the 2010s when #MeToo became a global movement. Birthed from the outrage and solidarity of those who were sexually harassed or assaulted, this movement aimed to hold people accountable for their unacceptable actions and inspire change for the future. National media coverage started to shift. On-air reporters were saying anatomically accurate words like “vulva” and “labia.” Parents became more concerned about how to protect their children from sexual assault. Teenagers became empowered to ask questions and search for answers. Sentiments around the once-taboo were turning.
“I think more people are starting to ask questions. More people are starting to think, ‘Who should I consider as an expert on a subject?’ And, ‘What does this person have to gain by giving me information?’ I do think this has always been a constant in society. The difference is, we’re becoming more aware of it now. And I think we’re close to breaking through.”
– Dr. Jen Gunter
And with the #MeToo movement, something unintended happened. Sexual education classes began to change – even in conservative states. In this year alone, 79 bills in 32 state legislatures were introduced aiming to expand youth education around healthy sexuality, sexual violence awareness, and prioritizing medically accurate information. These first steps are exactly what we need in order to shed light on the current status of female healthcare and teach the next generation how to embrace the powers of choice, knowledge, and acceptance.
While these strides are great, female health is a multifaceted issue that is difficult to immediately solve. We first must realize that this issue is completely intersectional. An older Caucasian woman living in a suburb and a young Hispanic woman living in the inner city have two completely different experiences. While their needs are different, they share the right to access sufficient healthcare and education. We must become champions for ourselves and other women – and inspire men to do the same. Starting with our children, we must teach them about their bodies. With our doctors, we need to speak up and assert ourselves. With our government officials, we need to ensure that only relevant and accurate information makes it to the floor.
We can only do this together. Whether that means donating to Planned Parenthood or becoming a person in science looking for the cure to female cancers, there is so much we each can contribute. I look forward to the day when a young girl gets her period and isn’t blindsided by it. I look forward to the day when a sorority sister has great safe sex with her significant other because they understand each other’s bodies. I look forward to the day when a grieving couple can mourn the loss of an unborn child without legislature dictating the process. This isn’t a dream, but a nearing future – and with this piece, I hope to have helped create a positive welcoming reception for its big debut.