Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Blue Waffle with a Side of Misogyny…

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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.

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Trouble Down Below

**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!

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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.

 

Vaginal Douches

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.

 

Anti-Rape Wear

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…

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Dare to Hair

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!

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

A Cock and Bull Story…

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Rounding off the year, let’s have a look at penises!  We (the societal ‘we’) tend to be a bit more familiar with the constituent parts than we are with vulvas…

Glans: This is the tip or ‘head’ of the penis.

Foreskin: This is a fold of skin that covers the glans of the penis.  It can be removed, either at birth or later in life, for either medical or cultural reasons in a process called circumcision.  Rates of this practice vary across the world and it isn’t as common in the UK as in other parts of the world.

Urethra: The opening of the penis.  Semen, urine and discharge can leave the body here.  As with discharge from the vagina, this can be normal.  Changes in the discharge (e.g. smell or colour), especially when accompanied by other symptoms (pain, itchiness) can however indicate something’s not quite right and might need checking out.

Shaft: This is the main bit of the penis.  Internally are found the tubes that carry urine and semen out of the body, as well as blood vessels supplying the penis – this is part of the mechanism that causes the penis to become hard and bigger during an erection.

The average penis size is 9 cm when not erect, although there is a fairly large and health variation in this.

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Unwelcome Visitors: Thrush

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Thrush is one of the causes of unusual vaginal discharge. Usually not ‘offensive’ smelling, it is often described as ‘cottage cheese’ – it has that kind of lumpy and white quality.  Or like the chest of the bird thrush, which is speckled and light compared to the rest of its body!

Unlike other causes of abnormal discharge, it is not a sexually transmitted infection.  STIs are spread from person to person, through direct contact such as skin-to-skin or bodily fluids (saliva, mucous, semen, blood, etc).  Thrush however, is an overgrowth of a type of fungal yeast (candida albicans) that ordinarily lives in other parts of the body, without causing an infection.

As well as the discharge, it is usually accompanied by an itching feeling.  Thrush proliferates in damp parts of the body.  As well as being able to cause infection in the vagina, in can therefore cultivate under the foreskin of the penis, or in skin folds around the rest of the body.

Vaginal thrush is treated with a cream, a pessary (i.e. a ‘tablet’ that comes with a device to be put straight in to the vagina), an oral tablet or combinations of these.  In the UK, this treatment is available ‘over the counter’ – you can go to a pharmacy and get it without a prescription.  However, it’s a good idea to go to your GP if it’s the first time you’ve had thrush.  They can then check that this is what it is.  It’s important to get further medical help if you’ve had regular infections or tried the treatment before and it isn’t working.  You may also need to see your doctor if you have other medical complications as well.

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References:

NHS, ‘Thrush in Men and Women’, accessed 14.11.2018.

Wikipedia, ‘Candida Albicans’, accessed online 14.11.2018.

Centre for Disease Control and Protection, ‘Candidiasis’, accessed 15.11.2018.

EMC, ‘Canestan Duo Patient Information Leaflet’, accessed online 15.11.2018.

 

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Your Whostsaname

Genitals.  Everyone has them.  Sometimes they have weird and wonderful bits.  Do you know where to find a raphe of a penis?  How about the bartholin’s glands?  Occasionally we don’t seem to know how to use them, or what they are for.  Sometimes they go wrong.  Ever feel like we should be handed a manual?  You know – ‘Genitals: A User’s Guide.’  Maybe it could be issued sometime before puberty.  That’s what I’d like to create over the next few months – ‘Genital’s: A User’s Manual’.   With words and pictures.

Let’s start with the basics.  The external genitalia.  For a lot of people there are two basic flavours:  the penis ( and it’s sidekick the scrotum or testicles) or the vulva get up. Note that I don’t (and won’t) use the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ to delineate these two.  Chromosomal and genetic sex is separate from gender identity – people of both and any gender can have either genitalia.  Also, it is possible for people to be born with genitalia that do not fit in to this penis/ vagina divide – again, more on that later.

We tend to be pretty familiar with the basic components of penises – the pole and two balls, depicted for generations on the walls of public loos.  A little more mysterious seems to be the vulva.  People often refer to this as a ‘vagina’.  Technically though, vagina is the name for the hole bit – the bit that connects the outside world to the inside (more detail on that next week). The vulva is the word used to describe all of the external parts.

Here are a very small collection of words that we use for genitals in English.  I think it’s important to have the vocabulary to describe genitals if we’re going to talk about them in more detail.  Enjoy – and let me know (@SquiSquaSque) if you’ve got any favourite words for ‘down there’ that I haven’t included.

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Does My Labia Majora Look Big In This?

Today I was at a teaching session for trainee Obstetrician/Gynaecologists.  At one point, these words were uttered:

“If a woman’s been told by her boyfriend that her vulva looks abnormal, it’s YOUR job, especially YOU [points to the two men in the room] to say that you’ve seen far more than him & it ISN’T.”

Insecurities about genitals is the idea behind The Great Wall of Vagina (dull accuracy announcement: it’s actually vulvas, not vaginas, but still great).

There is a huge amount of variation in how external genitalia look.  Humans have a great variety in height, build and skin tone.  We are all so different that we find it remarkable when we find someone whose face is a little like ours.  Why would this be any different in your nether regions?