Posted in puberty

The trouble with a textbook example…

A really common idea is that men and women are just fundamentally ‘biologically different’. Perhaps so common that it can lead us as a society to mentally overwrite objectively known facts.

The idea that gender itself is not necessarily related to biological traits is easy enough to recognise and call out. In most countries in the world, genital presentation at birth is how people are assigned a sex of either ‘male’ or ‘female’ – i.e. a penis for a boy, a vulva for a girl. But many of us seem comfortable enough with the idea that gender identity can be separate from the sex someone was assigned at birth. There even appears to be growing recognition that gender identities exist beyond the Western-centric binary standards of ‘man’ and ‘women’ only. In other words, that non-binary people exist.

Even where the above is generally accepted though, the idea persists that there are only two biological sexes and they are enduring different from each other. There is an assumption that everyone can be divided in to one of two groups: people with a penis and people with a vulva. Furthermore, we are taught that these two groups are mutual exclusive – someone can’t fit in to both categories.

Why is this a problem? Well, for a start it isn’t true.

There are a whole range of ways in which some people are born with physical, biological traits that don’t fit neatly in to a binary ‘male’ or ‘female’ presentation. This includes being born with genitals which are not typically or just either a vulva or a penis.

Sometimes when someone is born this way, the term intersex is used – although it might be considered problematic to define people in relation to what they are not. Other phrases like variations in sex characteristics might be more accurate and less emotionally loaded.

The existence of people whose natural biology defies the way in which we commonly define biological sex – as a society, but also in law. Very few countries in the world recognise any sex designation other than male or female in official spaces, like birth certificates or passports. This means that when someone is born with biology that doesn’t conform to our notion of the binary of male/female, we usually simply ignore it. This surely has huge implications for how valid or accepted people feel in bodies not conforming to this binary.

It’s hard to say how common it is for people to naturally not fit in a binary sex category – precisely because most societies pretend that it doesn’t happen. The United Nations say that it may be as much as 1.7% of all people born – which they also note is a similar figure for the percentage of people around the world born with red hair. So while it may not be common, it certainly seems a significant amount!

Other challenges to the binary notion of sex characteristics are very common. Many of these relate specifically to something called secondary sexual characteristics. These are the changes that generally occur during puberty.

A biology textbook-type explanation of these would be something like:

  • Secondary sexual characteristics are some of the changes that occur during puberty because of hormones.
  • People with testicles produce the hormone testosterone, which causes changes in puberty like facial hair to grow, the voice getting suddenly much deeper (‘breaking’) and the body to get muscular.
  • People with ovaries produce the hormone oestrogen, which causes changes like breasts to develop and hips to get wider.

I said this was a ‘biology textbook-type’ explanation. In fact, this is identical in terms of factual content to the BBC Bitesize GCSE biology revision page. Except that I used the phrase ‘people with testicles’ instead of the word ‘boys’ and ‘people with ovaries’ instead of ‘girls’, because I understand the difference between anatomy and gender!

Like a lot of school science, this is a simplified version of what is actually known about biology. And in some ways, this makes sense in the context. However, I would argue that it’s an oversimplification… and a socially damaging one at that.

This explanation gives the impression of a firm dichotomy of biological sex. Biological males make testosterone, which is produced in the testicles and this produces masculine physical characteristics. On the other hand, biological females produce oestrogen because they have ovaries and this leads to well recognised feminine characteristics. This is a neat, comprehensible explanation of biological sexual characteristic traits.

It’s also wrong. For a start, it ignores the fact that oestrogen and androgen hormones (testosterone is a type of androgen) are both made by people with ovaries and by people with testicles – just usually in different amounts. It’s therefore possible for someone with one set of anatomy to show the physical traits that we overwhelmingly associate with the other.

A very common example of this is someone with testicles producing enough oestrogen to develop breast tissue. The medical word for this is gynaecomastia (pronounced guy-nah-coh-mast-ee-ah). It’s reported to be experienced by up to 70% of people with testicles undergoing puberty, exactly because this is a time of hormonal changes within the body.

Despite this meaning that gynaecomastia is very normal and frequently experienced by people with a penis in puberty, it is often described as a medical condition (for which, read: problem) or a hormonal imbalance (for which, read: your body isn’t working properly).

So fixed are our notions of binary sexual male and female characteristics, that it leads us to recognise a common bodily change as a medical condition – to label the majority of peoples’ experiences as abnormal.

Another reasonably common example of this phenomenon is hirsutism. This is when a person with a womb and ovaries has facial hair. The most common reason for this is for someone to have Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). PCOS in itself is not at all rare, with one in ten people who has a womb and menstruates having it. But according to our oversimplified biology textbook definition, beards and moustaches are solidly masculine traits.

Can you imagine learning biology in a way that invalidates your physical experiences and makes your healthy, biologically non-binary body feel like it’s actually a freak of nature? Well, it turns out a lot of us don’t have to imagine, as this is what school curriculums are already teaching many of us!

Further Reading…

Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010) is a hefty but excellent book on how science research is influenced by our social constructions of sex.

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Self-Isolation and Masturbation…

In these uncertain times, one thing seems sure… we’ll all been getting a *lot* more time to ourselves and our bodies. Given this, a lot of us will be turning to masturbation.

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Taboo and misinformation surrounds masturbation – genital stimulation for sexual pleasure. However, it is a very natural and health thing to do… So  much so that it is rife in the animal kingdom!

Furthermore, we often assume that it’s not something people with vulvas do. This is simply not true.

People with vulvas do masturbate – for example the vagina, clitoris or anus can be stimulated with fingers or a sex toy.

A pdf with lyrics and (ukulele) chords to this video are available to all subscribers on my Patreon!

Posted in Uncategorized

About Me

Emma Chan works as a Facilitator for The School of Sexuality Education, delivering inclusive and sex-positive sex and relationship workshops, mostly to secondary aged children, across the UK.

They qualified as a doctor (BMBS) in 2015 from the University of Nottingham, going on to begin speciality training in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 2017. They previously studied Psychology (BSc), also gained at The University of Nottingham. They are currently working towards an MSc in Reproductive and Sexual Health Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Emma is a member of The Candid Collective, regularly helping to run ‘Genital Making Magnets’ workshops.  She has been interviewed about topics relating to sexual health by The Independent Online, Cosmopolitan Online, Ask Ella and even BBC Radio Devon! She has appeared as a guest speaker at UCL’s Institute of Education, on the ‘Gender, Sex and Education’ MSc module.

Emma’s pronouns are she/her or they/their. They are comfortable with the gender label ‘woman’. However, she is conscious of this having been strongly ‘externally’ imposed through a life-time of social conditioning. For example, Emma attended an all-girls secondary school in North London and still has the pink baby name band she was given at birth. If they had grown up in the fearless post-feminist, gender-stereotype-free utopia they would like to try to bring about, maybe this label would not be so appropriate…

Posted in Anatomy, Genitals: A User's Guide

Rubber Band Theory…

In schools at least, some variation of this question is reasonably common – people worry either that a vagina isn’t big enough to accommodate a penis/sex toy/ tampon, or that it will become stretched out of shape by any of those things.

The vagina is a tube, about 8cm long. It isn’t quite hollow – but it can stretch a lot. To make space for a baby’s head, for example – which is much  bigger than pretty much any penis.

The vagina might change shape after childbirth (after any number of children). But the idea of it becoming ‘baggy’ is probably more of an exaggeration.

 

 

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Just Add Water…

There are a vast array of sprays, wipes, lotions and potions to clean the vagina on sale. They are often sold under the umbrella of ‘feminine hygiene products’. But remember…

Unusual discharge (i.e. in smell, colour or consistency) can be a sign that something isn’t right. However, it is a normal function of the vagina to produce secretions…

See here for more details.

Posted in Anatomy, SRE

Lark in A Park

As well as facilitating Sex Ed workshops in schools for the last month, I’ve been involved in a few events aimed exclusively at adults.  Although the style of presentation has been different, these have all involved using an arts & crafts or D.I.Y approach.  These events reaffirmed my belief in this as a particularly good medium for exploring personal issues in a fun, engaging and accessible way.

The first was a ‘genital making’ workshop, hosted by the Candid Collective.  Adapted from an activity used to teach children about anatomy, puberty and health, this saw us showing adults how to make vulvas and penises with air drying clay to then be turned in to fridge magnets!  Held in a cosy upstairs room of a pub in South London, it had a very different feel to the classroom and was lots of fun.

The second was a talk for the antiuniversity lecture series – in which a group of us took to a local park to talk about arts and craft as a medium for discussing bodies and our own experiences of sex ed.  This culminated in making a ‘zine page about some of the issues that had been brought up.

There are a couple of future crafting themed sex and relationship events (in London) for adults that you may be interested in:

Thanks to Lisa, Leah, Adam and Bel for the images!

 

 

 

Posted in Genitals: A User's Guide

Hidden Depths

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:

2019-03-21 18.07.16
The structure of the clitoris, showing its relation to the urethra and vaginal opening (After Drake  et al., 2010).

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.

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3D printed, scale-sized model of the clitoris

 

References:

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}

 

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!