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…
A message we all seem to consistently pick up in Sex Ed and elsewhere is “you have unprotected sex, you get pregnant”. However, if we think about this, we know that it isn’t quite the whole truth. An often quoted statistic is that around 84% of couples trying to get conceive and having sex twice or more a week will get pregnant in a year (e.g. NHS, 2019). If you do the sums, you can see that that’s an awful lot of sex not resulting in a pregnancy!
So, why not? Well, pregnancy relies on four conditions that need to be met (Impey and Child, 2012):
Firstly, an egg must be produced. An egg is produced by the ovaries once every cycle and is only viable (capable of being fertilised) for a few days. Sex outside of this time is less likely to result in pregnancy – remember though that sperm can live inside the vagina for up to seven days. This means that penis-in-vagina sex that happens up to seven days before this ‘fertile window’ can still result in pregnancy!
Secondly, adequate sperm must be released. ‘Adequate’ means that the number and quality of the sperm in ejaculate must be sufficient to fertilise an egg.
Thirdly, sperm must reach the egg. Lots of contraceptive methods work on this part of the process – for example from preventing sperm from entering the vagina and the womb (condoms) or by preventing the egg from travelling from where it is produced in the ovaries to the womb, via the fallopian tubes (tubal ligation, sometimes called ‘female sterilisation’).
And lastly, the embryo (i.e. an egg fertilised by a sperm) must implant in to the lining of the womb. This allows the embryo to survive and develop. Again, some contraceptive methods work partly by altering this process (e.g. the copper coil or the ‘morning after’ pill).
So, all of these four factors need to align to result in pregnancy!
Impey., and T. Child., (2012) Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Fourth Edition. Wiley-Blackwell: Electronic Copy.
NHS online, Overview Infertility, (Accessed online 2nd April 2019).
The clitoris used to be represented and thought of as a small ‘pea’ like structure, sitting above the urethra (Enright, 2019). It wasn’t until relatively recently when Professor Helen O’Connell fully investigated and modelled the full extent of the clitoris in 1998 (Fyfe, 2018). O’Connell is a Urologist (a type of doctor, who specialises in surgery in areas of the body including the bladder and urethra). She used cadavers to map fully map out the clitoris, demonstrating that it was a much bigger structure. Like this:
It includes structures that are hidden deep to other tissue, such as the corpus cavernosum and the bulbs of the clitoris. As you can see from the diagram the bulbs of the clitoris are very close to the vagina – even more so when a person is aroused, as they become swollen and more erect by blood being diverted to them, just as the penis does (Drake et al. 2010).
There is an excellent and short French cartoon about the structure, function and history of ‘Le Clitoris’- the only organ that is just for pleasure – here.
Drake, R. L., Vogl, A. W. & Mitchell, A. W. M. (2010) Gray’s Anatomy for Students. Second Edition. Canada: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
Enright, L. (2019) Vagina a Re-Education. Croydon: Allen & Unwin.
Fyfe, M. (October 2018) Get Clitorate: how a Melbourne doctor is redefining sexuality. The Sunday Morning Herald. Accessed online on 21.03.2019 at [https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellness/get-cliterate-how-a-melbourne-doctor-is-redefining-female-sexuality-20181203-p50jvv.html}
Ever heard the term ‘designer vagina’? This generally refers to a certain type of cosmetic surgery, not to the vagina itself but to the ‘inner lips’ (or labia minora) of the vulva. Surgery here involves removing tissue from and reshaping the appearance of the labia minora- in other words to ‘trim’ it. Many people with vulvas have a labia minora that protrudes so that it appears visible – therefore however large this is it is likely to be ‘normal’. Additionally, in young people biological changes occur during puberty that can change the appearance of the inner labia. For this reason it is often recommended by the NHS that those under 18 do not get this type of surgery. However, there seem to cases of children having labiaplasties. According to one report over 200 people received labiaplasty procedures funded by the NHS in 2015-2016. We know that people with visible labia are more likely to think that their genitals look ‘abnormal’ than those without, even though both are equally common (Lykkebo et al, 2017). Some accounts have blamed this on the prevalence of seeing only vulva with neat and invisible labia minora. Whatever the cause, the desire to have this type of surgery seems increasingly common with a 45% rise seen in labiaplasty numbers worldwide between 2015 and 2016.
Pubic hair and body positivity can be a tricky issue. On the one hand, people absolutely have the right to cut, shape, dye, remove or in any other way sculpt their own personal body space! I get how it can be liberating and a way of taking control of your own body and quite literally shaping your intimate identity.
On the other hand, there seems to be a growing repulsion for body hair that isn’t manicured. A dislike for ‘natural’ hair, particularly (but not exclusively) when it comes to vulvas. Some people specifically find it ‘unhygienic‘. This despite the fact that pubic hair, like the hair on your head, has specifically protective functions.
So trim and go as bare as you dare around your nether regions if you want to. But maybe think about why your doing it!
‘Labia Minora’ is latin for ‘smaller lips’. It’s the word used to describe the flaps of tissue that sit inside the larger labia majora (‘large lips’) and surround the innermost structures of the vulva – like the clitoris and the vagina.
Exactly what an individual’s labia minora look like in terms of shape and size vary hugely. Some have fairly minimal tissue, which doesn’t tend to be visible unless the labia majora are spread (i.e. legs akimbo!). Some people have much larger amounts of tissue. When people talk about having cosmetic surgery to the vulva, they often call it a ‘designer vagina’. However, it is surgery to the labia minora (a ‘labiaplasty’ or ‘vulval surgery’) that they are in fact referring to, not surgery to the vagina itself. Some people feel that this type of surgery is almost always unnecessary and related to unfounded fears that people have about larger labia minoras being ‘abnormal’.
This week, artist Laura Dodsworth’s latest piece hit the news. This is a collection of photographs of 100 vulvas. One of the reasons this is great is that it taps into and challenges taboos around vulval genitalia. One of the misconceptions very publicly elicited was the language and terms use- Dodsworth correctly uses ‘vulva’ to refer to the externally visible parts of this type of genitalia:
That ignorance around this exists became very evident, very quickly. One twitterer tried to ‘correct’ it. I’m doing so, he used the term ‘vagina’ which, although a common mistake, refers to the passage between the cervix (entrance of the womb) and outside of the body. These bits can be photographed, but it’s rather tricky and involves specialist equipment!
Professional and amateur vulva and vagina owners alike were swift to correct him. I really recommend reading this link, with popcorn.