Sometimes being a facilitator for Sexplain involves attempting to hold the attention of young people through wit, honesty and sheer confidence as you explain a specific curriculum point as your unembarrassable self. At other times it involves asking questions your audience may not have considered before and standing back whilst a tide of answers hits you.
“Can anyone name any sexually transmitted infections?” My colleague asked of a group of year 10 students just outside of London. Three off us were delivering a workshop on sexual health. This was definitely going to be one of the latter type of encounters. Luckily, this group wasn’t a shy one and answers came flooding forward.
“Chlamydia”, “syphillis”, and “gonorrhea” were proffered. All good answers and affirmed as such.
“Mono” was suggested, the infection also going by the name of ‘mononucleosis’ or ‘glandular fever’ – the ‘kissing disease’. By our extremely wide definition of ‘sex’ (any behaviour that someone finds arousing) completely valid and a good opportunity to bring this in.
“HIV” was another suggestion, to me offered surprisingly late. Once seen as the sexually transmitted infection in the UK, hopefully this reflects a reduction in stigma and fear around this disease as treatment and prevention becomes so incredibly effective.
“Crabs” one pupil proffered- a nice segue in to talking about parasites. Another good talking point.
And then it came. The complete surprise.
“Blue waffle” one student called out.
This caught me by surprise a little. I had heard of this before, but only come across it in training and never actually in the classroom before.
If you haven’t come across it before, blue waffle is a fictional STI. It was something that Amelia and Hazel, Sexplain’s Founders had come across when talking to children in their research original work. The story doing the rounds at the time was that blue waffle was a disease contracted by women who had had a large number of sexual partners. At the time a google image search would return pictures of vulvas covered in lesions- very nasty looking lumps and bumps. To my clinical eye, some of the images looked to be lesions caused by genital warts. Others looked like erosion and growths caused by vulval cancers. Interestingly (and perhaps not surprisingly) the rumour ran that it was transmitted to people with vulvas and did not trouble penises at all. Even though this is how the disease was said to be spread. Turns out misogyny can be a powerful vehicle for keeping a lie alive – who’d have thought it!
This turned out to be the case for the young person who had introduced it in to the classroom in this instance. He was quite resistant to my telling him that it was a made-up thing.
“But Miss, if you look on Google, there are pictures!”
I tried to gently unpack this, explaining what I thought these images were actually of. It was a nice opportunity for a discussion about being critical of sources, particularly those on the internet. However, I left with the distinct impression that I had only created an aura of doubt in this person’s mind. I had not completely convinced him it was a total urban myth and an element of belief in blue waffle remained.
**TW: mentions of rape**
There are a wealth of products designed specifically for genitals. Some for aesthetics, some for convenience, some for hygiene, some for pleasure. It’s certainly true that there needs to be less stigma around products to help with basic bodily functions and/or sexual pleasure. Take the stigma surrounding period products for example – literally decades of advertising aimed at showing us how unacceptable and dirty periods are. However, not all products are equal. Some things that are sold to help your genitals are unnecessary or problematic. Here are four of (what I think are) the worst!
Femfresh (other brands exist).
Femfresh is a range of products for ‘feminine hygiene’ – e.g. washes and scented wipes. The vagina is self cleaning and the only thing you need to use to keep a vulva clean is warm water and unscented soap. However Femfresh and its ilk push an agenda that they are vital, with their vagina friendly pH balance giving them the edge over soap (which is the same for water, which is free and comes out of the tap). The Femfresh website promotes the products using a smiling face of a gynaecologist, ‘Dr Sara’, with a list of advice on how to ‘care for down there’. Much like the period adverts, euphemisms abound – the implication being that your vulva is smelly and dirty and only buying this type of product can fix that. The branding is phenomenally successful. As a facilitator for Sex Ed classes to young people, I am often asked about this product, by name. It can be quite difficult to assert that it is unnecessary and a person’s genitals are completely normal and healthy in the face of such advertising and branding.
Like Femfresh, but super-charged! Vaginal douches are devices and products that ‘flush out’ the vagina – unfortunately taking all of the natural bugs and secretions that keep the vagina health with them. Just say no!
The Consent Condom
This is definitely one from the ‘road to hell is paved with good intentions’ department. Sold with the tagline ‘consent is the most important thing in sex’, this is a condom that requires two people (or at least four hands working together) to open the packet. It received quite a backlash when it came out. People were quick to point out that flaws – such as rapists not necessarily caring about using condoms, or having the ability to work in pairs. The consent condom also implicitly buys in to the idea of consent as a single moment of ‘yes’/ ‘no’. Consent should be reversible and always up for discussion. Even if you’re in a long term relationship and sex is something you do regularly. Even if you said ‘yes’ at first and then changed your mind. Even if you helped someone open a condom packet holding two of the four pressure points.
This is underwear marketed as only being able to be removed by the wearer. It is reinforced to prevent cutting and tearing off by an attacker. Originally designed and crowdfunded by a victim of sexual assault, this is probably again something made and marketed with noble intentions in mind as well as profit margins. Given the state of the world, fear of sexual assault is very understandable. However, I just don’t want to live in a society we focus our efforts on designing things to make people less rapeable. We need social and structural change, not ‘rape-proof’ clothing. Additionally, anti-rape wear reinforces the idea that sexual attacks are committed by strangers when a person is out and about in the world. In fact, most victims of sexual assault know their attacker – be it a family member, friend or partner. It is hard to see how anti-rape wear will be of much use unless it is worn at all times and in all places – except for those brief moments when you need to either pee or have penetrative sex with someone and definitely won’t change your mind at any point (which we’ve already established you have a complete right to do).
These are my four. Tweet me if you think of any more or disagree – @squisquasque…