Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Getting Technical

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.

Posted in sexual health

Alienation and lip gloss free with every issue.

My friend M and I were reminiscing about the ‘Just-17’ magazine era of our lives recently.   I say ‘reminiscing’, but ‘looking back with discomfort and some introspection’ might be more apt.  We had just attended a volunteer training day with the lovely people at Sexplain – an organisation that provides inclusive sex education.  As part of this, we had been asked to reflect on messages we had picked up about sex when we were younger.   M and I went to school together in the 90s.  This was when the likes of Bliss, Sugar and Cosmo-Girl were the height of sophistication for an adolescent girl.   Contained within their pages were a mixture of fashion, make-up tips, celebrity gossip and relationship advice – with the edgier ones including advice on ACTUAL SEX.  They often came with free lip gloss.

Ostensibly, sounds great – a place to get informal and confidential information on sex.  However sometimes the tone and implicit assumptions of these magazines were what I would now describe as ‘problematic’.   There was very much a dominant, heteronormative view of relationships.  There was an implicit assumption – within advice pieces on how to give a good blow-job, for example – that being anything other than straight just wasn’t an option.  Advice on how to deal with your boyfriend came in many guises, but never what to do if you might want a girlfriend, or something else.  Sex was defined very narrowly as penis-in-vagina penetrative sex.  In addition, the endless parade of smiling, white, stick-thin celebrities and models did nothing good for my self-esteem.  All of that said, before the unfettered internet access of today, this was one of the few places that talked about sex.  Every week.  With an opportunity to write in and ask anonymous questions.

I used to buy the magazine during my trips accompanying my Mum to the supermarket on a Saturday.  I  was interested in them from the ages of about 11 – 14 years (i.e. a fair while before I was going to have sex).  There was a real gap of sources of information for curious teenagers wanting to know more about sex and relationships.   Even if they didn’t do it as deftly as you might hope, they did fill a niche in a way other sources didn’t.  Sex Ed classes at school were too staid and delivered by a deeply out of reach authority figure.   My parents were well meaning, but I think honestly relieved to just get over ‘the talk’.   My friends generally knew as little as I did.

As I’ve said, I was reading the likes of Just-17, Bliss, Sugar, and Cosmo-girl well before I was actually having sex.  By thta time the internet had come along and I could rely on a dubious combination of the world wide web and rumours spread amongst my (now slightly more experienced) peers.  The magazines I remember are now defunct, having died along with much of print media.   Teen Vogue, established in 2003, seems to be the contemporary thing anything like the mags of my youth.  Thankfully, it is somewhat different in content as well as form (online only since 2017).  It contains a ‘news and politics’ section.  It is queer friendly and controversial with it – it first came to my attention during the furore over their publication of an anal sex guide.   I thought a guide to bra fittings was pretty revolutionary in my adolescence – this puts it in to a whole different perspective.  And in an age of sexting, online grooming and internet pornography ‘desensitising’, I see this as a hugely welcome step.   Technology it seems has opened the flood gates on some pretty scary things, but also allowed in a new perspective on sex and relationships.  And I never really liked the lip balm anyway…

Posted in contraception, reproductive rights

Contraception Top Trumps!

Here’s a round-up of contraception methods, envisaged as the childhood game ‘top trumps’. If you feel I’ve left important pros/ cons or pieces of information out, please tweet me @SquiSquaSque !

I’ll try to update daily with a new card everyday for the next fortnight or so.

Hoping and praying: *for various reasons (lack of knowledge or planning, inability to negotiate) sometimes people do! ** This is an estimate based on the statistic that 80%trying to get pregnant do so within a year.

Fallopian Tube Sterilisation: either clips can be put on to block the Fallopian tubes, or they can be surgically dissectedclosed off. I’ve seen this performed a few times at elective Caesarian section, on request. It isn’t very common in the UK where contraception is widely available. I’ve been told by an Obstetrician that in his home country (a developing nation) it is much more popular for financial and cultural reasons.

Progesterone Pill: a.k.a the mini pill. Take it continuously, so no need to remember when to stop and rest as with the combined pill. As with all progesterone based hormonal methods, this stops your ovaries from ovulating (releasing eggs) and also helps to create a mucus plug in the cervix.

Contraceptive Patch: Works in a similar way to nicotine patches- sticks on to the skin and delivers a substance to your blood stream. I’m not convinced that they are very readily available as I’ve only ever seen them on Sex Ed leaflets.

Mirena: Progesterone based, fitted in to the womb.

Progesterone Depo: A twist on a classic- this injection delivers the hormone progesterone subcutaneously, where it slowly releases in to your body. This suppresses ovulation and thickens cervical mucus. Usually given every 8 weeks. A new preparation is available that is given every 13 weeks and can be self-administered at home. A terrible idea for anyone afraid of needles.

The Combined Pill: Tablet containing the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. This helps to stop ovulation (release of an egg for fertilisation). It is taken for 21 days, with a gap of a week, during which a ‘withdrawal bleed’ takes place. In the UK GP services seem fairly well placed to deliver fairly easy access to the pill, at least compared to other forms of contraception (I’m a bit bitter- I’m currently in the midst of a six week wait to get my contraceptive implant sorted). The main difficulty seems to be remembering to take it. Some people have lifestyles and personalities that are more amenable to this than others.

The Diaphragm:  Fits over the cervix, acting as a barrier to sperm.  Unlike true ‘barrier’ methods like the condom and femidom however, sperm is allowed to enter the vagina, so this method does not offer protection against STIs.   There seems to be some belief that only people who have already given birth can have them.  This isn’t true, but anecdotally I’ve heard from friends that some health care professionals can be reluctant to giving nulliparous people some methods (such as this and the copper coil).  So there may be some truth in this!

Natural Fertility Awareness: I’ve never seriously considered this as an option. It relies on a lot of organisation and not having sex some of the time. However, the real reason is that I didn’t think it was actually any good. My gut reaction is not to believe this ludicrously high effectiveness rate* but that may just be a hangover from sex Ed indoctrination. This figure is quoted from NHS choices who probably have less of an axe to grind than my old PRSE teacher.

Femidoms: work in a similar way to condoms, in that they are made of latex and work as a barrier. They sit in the vagina however, rather than over a penis. For some reason, they never seem to have become as commonplace as condoms, therefore seem much less widely available.

The implant: roughly the size of a match. This sits in your upper arm for up to three years, slowly releasing progesterone to suppress ovulation and thicken mucus at the cervix (entrance to the womb in The vagina). Needs to be fitted by someone with training, e.g. nurse or doctor at a GP or sexual health clinic. Waiting for this can make it a bit trickier to get one inserted, but once it’s in place you’re good to go for three years. Has a very low failure rate and fertility returns very quickly once removed.

The Copper Coil: inserted in to the uterus through the vagina, using a special device. The copper helps thicken the mucus at the cervix (entrance to the womb) to stop sperm from entering. It can also help stop a fertilised egg from implanting into the womb. Because of this theoretically it can be fitted a number of days after sex and act as emergency contraception. However, it needs to be fitted by a professional and this often takes time to arrange. For this reason it doesn’t often seem to be used in this manner, at least not in the UK.

Condoms: Widely available in good (and bad) shops everywhere, as well as some loo vending machines. Generally very cheap (I’ve seen packets for sale in Pound shops). Therefore financial limit to access is fairly small, if still present. However there are some schemes in the UK to get free condoms to particular groups. Red-faced teens in chemists up and down the country show that there’s also a social barrier to obtaining them too. Non-contraceptive uses: good for preventing diseases in penile penetrative sex (e.g. penis to anus).

*Lower efficacy rates been reported (e.g 82%). Lower effectiveness is generally linked to inexperience in using them.

References:

BPAS, accessed Friday 23rd February 2018 at {https://www.bpas.org/more-services-information/contraception/for-men/}

NHS choices, accessed Friday 23rd February 2018 at {https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/contraception/}

Posted in Uncategorized

A Century On…

Today is the 100th anniversary of the UK’s ‘Representation of the People Act’, which gave (some) women (over 30 and living in their own home) the right to vote.  It also extended the franchise to a wider group of men.

Now in the UK, any woman over the age of 18  has the right to vote.  We have a female  head of state and Prime Minister.  However, we also live in a country where women are under-represented in most other positions of power.  This ranges from parliament to the boardroom.   There is also growing recognition that gender equality is a wider issue and that the efforts of  privileged white women is only part of the story, even if it is acknowledged as important.  Let’s remember and celebrate that things got better 100 years ago, but not forget that we still have a way to go.

Posted in body positivity

Hardline feminist?

 

‘Hardline feminist?

Resister of of society’s preconceptions of femininity?

Or just a human without a razor?’

Recently a group of the Midwives were scandalised by a woman who arrived on to labour ward with proudly hair legs.  I laughed and smiled when they told me how ‘unkempt’ she was – unknown to them, I too had a pretty good going leg thatch, hidden beneath my theatre scrubs.  This tends to change as the weather heats up and I start to don Summer dresses and skirts.  It’s not necessarily that I like smoother legs, I just have a feeling it would be unseemly to show off the lovely down that keeps me warm over winter.

Posted in Uncategorized

International Women’s Day 2017

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On 8th March be the best woman you can, however you choose to define it.

The broadcaster and journalist Jenni Murray recently wrote an article in the Sunday Times about trans women.  The original article is behind a paywall, but it has been widely re-reported elsewhere, with the heading ‘Trans women shouldn’t call themselves real women’.  I came across it because it was widely discussed in forums that I’m part of.  As I say, I haven’t seen the original piece and can’t comment on Murray’s original intent and context.  However, I do have some thoughts on how people (many of whom similarly didn’t read it) responded.

The first is that this discussion seemed to be very removed from personal experience and unconscious of this.  People made statements that seem ‘obvious’ to them.  Common themes I’ve seen include: it takes more to put on a dress to be a woman; sex = gender and is a biological fact; surgically altering genitals is not sufficient to alter gender; and that the ways that trans women go about creating a female identity shows an oppressive and patriarch bias.  I understand why people think these things.  As I say, this things seem ‘obvious’ to them and consistent with their experiences.   A few years ago I had thoughts not dissimilar to these.  They were fairly unexamined and based on my experiences and innate sense of being a woman.  What challenged this and changed my mind however, was when someone I knew transitioned.   I’m a polite person, I didn’t voice these opinions.  I supported my friend because she was my friend.  Having a window on to her experiences and engaging and reflecting was what changed my mind.   I learnt a whole new vocabulary, and began to see myself as a ‘ciswoman‘.    I learnt that attitudes towards gender reassignment surgery are not uniform and that some transwomen also believe that removing male organs will not make them women, so don’t.   I thought about things from a completely different perspective.  I began to see that gender was complex.  I had taken my own gender as an article of faith and had very little idea of what it meant to me or why I thought that way, until then.    However, I did have a very clear idea that I had a gender and that I was a woman.    As did my friend.  We both identified as women, but that meant different things to us.

A worry about Murray’s article is it’s potential to harm.    I came across it in an online forum – being debated in a feminist Facebook group.  I think the original poster’s aim was to stimulate debate and conversation.  Ostensibly, an admirable goal.  However, I thought this as someone who didn’t have a personal stake in it.   It struck me that to a transgender woman reading this, it read very differently.  Questioning my very existence and entitlement to thoughts and feelings could only come across as hostile.  Something is personal if it relates to you personally.   Whilst I think it’s okay to questions about issues, I think there are ways and ways of doing so.  Compare, 1. ‘A man chopping off a penis doesn’t make him a woman’  to 2. ‘Biological signs of sex, such as genitals, are fundamental to my understanding of gender.  Why do some people seem to think differently?’.

My views reflect my experiences.  As such I have all sorts of biases and I don’t know what it’s like to be anything other than cisgender.   There are some excellent people out there who do and make great work about it.  My favourite so far are Robot Hugs and Sophie Labelle with Assigned Male.

Happy International Women’s Day.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Naked!

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I go to life drawing classes once a week.  The first couple of times was an odd experience – I’ve never been in an environment before where nudity isn’t very directly linked with sexuality.   My ultimate body-positive goal would be able to model myself but I’m not quite there yet.

Posted in Uncategorized

Feminism Back By Popular Demand… Women’s March on London.

Attended the Women’s March London yesterday- one of the sister marches to the Women’s March on Washington. This comes the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President. A big cross section of issues were represented, but this was billed as a women-led event given the context of the things Trump had said and done regarding women, including his opponent.  Great, if chilly, day. Most of these pictures were taken in Grosvenor Square, where the American embassy stands.