Breaking the Silence on Vulval Pain

“Well, you need to have sex, if you don’t it will only make things worse,” the gynaecologist told me.

At the time, I was a single woman at the age of 24. For lots of people, being told to have sex wouldn’t be much of an issue, but when you experience pain during sex like I do, those are hardly the words of comfort you want to hear.

Since the age of 18, sex has been a problem for me.

As a young girl, sex education didn’t teach me which feelings are normal and which aren’t, and I never learnt anything about issues or difficulties I might face in the future. As a result, for years I thought painful was how sex was supposed to feel – other women must experience this pain and just get on with it, right?

But from the way everyone else spoke about sex, I felt confused. It didn’t match up with my own experience. I felt lonely, isolated and upset, so I turned to a doctor for help.

I visited my university doctor 12 times over the 4 years I was studying.

“Maybe it’s this…”
“Maybe it’s that…” 
“Can you test me for this..?”
“Can you do a swab for that..?”

I went back time and time again with my own internet-researched-suggestions of what might be causing the pain I was experiencing and what the solution could be. During each appointment I was examined, assured that physically I was fine, and told it’s all in your head”.

Being told a problem is ‘in your head’ is never easy to hear. At the time, I understood it to mean that there was no solution available to me and I would need to work this one out on my own. Did I need to be more relaxed? Was I too tense?

I was young and clueless and I had no guidance whatsoever. It wasn’t until I eventually opened up to my mum that I realised I wasn’t being proactive enough. Yes, I was doing all of the research I could do on my own but I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I didn’t even know at this point that I could request a referral to a gynaecologist myself.

Years passed by, and I visited the hospital every 4 months in the hopes my next NHS appointment would shed some light on what was happening to me, but the process moved slowly. Each scan ruled out another potential cause of my symptoms, which I knew was a positive thing – but with each month that passed, the experience began to take its toll on my mental wellbeing.

I started to fill the gaps between these appointments any alternative method I could think of – Acupuncture, Hypnotherapy, Psychosexual Counselling… Each new option gave me a glimmer of hope, but time and time again I had no luck.

I felt let down by my doctors. I felt as though no one was taking me seriously. I’ve cried in medical appointments more times than I’d care to admit and each referral to a different department left me feeling abandoned – as though no one was willing to take the time to learn about the pain I’d been experiencing for years.

I was the one coming up with potential solutions and offering ideas to my doctors, but every suggestion I made was cast aside. I even had one Gynaecologist laugh and shrug while casually asking me, oh, what are we going to do with you?!, trivialising what I was going through even further.

According to the NHS, vulval pain affects women of all ages, although symptoms often begin before the age of 25. A study on almost 5000 women in America showed 1 in 6 women experienced the symptoms of vulval pain for 3 months or longer, with 60% of women visiting more than 3 doctors, many of whom provided no diagnosis.

How is it that so many women are experiencing the same problem, yet so much of the medical world is completely oblivious to our pain? Instead of being supported, we’re being made to feel like we’re ‘crazy’. I believed something was really wrong with me until one day, I found an online forum that changed everything.

All of a sudden, I found a group of women from all around the world providing support and advice for each other. It was unlike anything I’d experienced anywhere else. It was the conversations I had in the forum that led me to find a doctor in the UK who sounded as though she had not only heard of, but actually treated, many people in my position.

After all that time, all it took was a 15 minute appointment to lead to the diagnosis I’d been searching for. It may have taken me 8 years to get here, but I can finally say it;
I have Vestibulodynia.

Lessons from the UK’s First Period Conference

Last week, Justine Greening MP, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, stated that period poverty was the responsibility of schools and parents. As a period poverty activist I was infuriated by this statement and the lack of knowledge which underpinned it.

So, when I attended the UK’s first period conference two days later, I thought it would be a great idea to share my learning with Justine Greening. Below are a list of the key takeaways from the conference so everyone, including the UK Minister for Women and Equalities, can understand how we can improve the lives of those who menstruate:

1. Period poverty is a reality

The conference brought together organisations from all over the UK to share their experiences of period poverty and period taboos, and to develop a manifesto to tackle these issues.

I met with organisations from a number of sectors, and almost every part of the UK. Their experiences of working to alleviate period poverty are enough evidence that it exists.

During the conference, Hannah from Period Potential shared her experience of period poverty. She told her heartbreaking story of growing up without lack of access to products. She said that sometimes she “would save money for sanitary products instead of eating”.

Hannah’s story is not unique. According to Precious Stars 57% of people have used toilet roll or something else to absorb their blood whilst on their period. And, Plan UK’s research showed that 16% of girls’ families in their survey struggled to afford sanitary items.

2. Period poverty is about more than unaffordable products

If we are going to tackle period poverty we need to tackle the bigger picture. Period poverty isn’t just about being unable to afford products, it’s also a deep rooted societal issue. It’s the ingrained taboos and stigma which stop people from asking for help.

We need to create an honest and open culture around menstruation, so that people feel comfortable to speak out about their experiences. In doing so we need to be explicit in our conversations about periods and not be ashamed by our natural bodily process.

Photo by Terri Harris

3. We need to reform the UK education system

We need to completely reform the way we teach sexual education in UK schools because the current curriculum reinforces menstrual taboos and stigma.

Boys and girls are separated from the moment they begin sex education. This needs to change. Menstruation is a bodily process that both sexes need to understand in order to eradicate the idea that periods are unclean.

Period product brands play too large a role in the education system. Pupils are being advertised to rather than educated. These are the brands that made us believe periods are blue, and that we’re unclean during menstruation. We need an open dialogue which includes reusable products, and doesn’t exclude pupils by focusing on expensive name-brand products.

4. We need to understand menstruation better

Sally King, from Menstrual Matters, shared her experience in which her PMS vomiting was misdiagnosed as anxiety because there wasn’t enough research on how menstruation affects the body. 

There’s a huge data gap. Due to many social, economic and political factors there is an inadequate diagnosis process to differentiate between health issues and those heightened or, caused by the menstrual cycle. There needs to be more medical and scientific research into how menstruation affects our bodies.

There has also been no national or regional survey about period poverty. And, that means we have no idea what the extent of the issue is, or who is tackling it. We need to work together to commission research, so we have hard evidence to lobby the government with.

5. We need to be more inclusive

There is a need to understand menstruation beyond the lens of a white, able-bodied cis-female. Menstruation intersects culture, sexuality, disabilities and religion. Therefore we must work to acknowledge the differences in people’s experiences of menstruation.

As, Mandu Reid from the Cup Effect noted, “making assumptions is one of the most dangerous things we can do”. It is important that we ask individuals how they need to be supported, and work with them to change the lives of their communities.

Saturday’s event focused on breaking the barriers of menstruation, and it did just that. Whilst Justine Greening may be able to overlook the issues of period poverty and period education, the menstrual queens I met at the conference will not. This marks the beginning of a national effort to change the way we view periods, reduce shame and tackle period poverty once and for all.

POWER TO THE PERIODS!

Does it Actually Matter if Shoes are Sexist?

British footwear company Clarks has been exposed, not for the first time, as being openly sexist and discriminatory in its product range and branding. This time, the company has been called out for a dubbing a range of girls’ school shoes ‘Dolly Babe‘, while the boys’ equivalent range is called ‘Leader‘.

I am sure that many people would hope or believe that the reasons this is problematic are self-evident, and that the reasons it’s unacceptable are patently obvious. I certainly did at first, but now I’m starting to think again.

These shoes have sat, and continue to sit, both on shop shelves on and website pages. (Clarks claims to have pulled ‘Dolly Babe’ shoes, but ‘Leader’ shoes remain on sale and a quick Google search shows me that I could easily buy a pair of ‘Dolly Babe’ girls’ shoes right now from a selection of other websites like Amazon).

Parents have taken home shoeboxes with those names written on the sides. The woman who posted a complaint about the difference in quality between shoes for girls and shoes for boys on Clarks’ Facebook page last year attracted considerable trolling about the frivolity of her argument. A group of functioning adults have, in the recent past, sat in a meeting room in an office and nodded their heads in agreement that ‘Dolly Babe’ was a great piece of branding. I’m starting to wonder if we need to start spelling things out.

A doll is a small model of a human figure.

A dolly is a inanimate toy for children to play with.

A dolly is a term used informally to describe a young woman who is perceived to be sexy but unintelligent.

A babe is a physically attractive person.

A babe is a term used informally to describe or address a person you find sexually attractive.

Calling shoes for female children Dolly Babe is not merely silly. It’s not merely offensive or outdated or misguided. It is a double whammy of dehumanisation and sexualisation of children that is revolting.

Calling shoes for male children Leader is damaging too. Boxing all small boys into hyper-masculinity is as problematic as boxing all small girls into hyper-femininity. The dichotomy does as much of a disservice to our boys as it does to our girls.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, described the situation as “almost beyond belief” in 2017.

According to the BBC, Clarks has removed the ‘Dolly Babe’ range from its website following “customer feedback” about the name. They said, “We are working hard to ensure our ranges reflect our gender-neutral ethos“, and “We apologise for any unintended offence caused“.

We read the articles, we tut and shake our heads and say, “isn’t that shocking. In 2017!”. We turn the page of our paper. And we wonder why change happens so painfully slowly. Yes, it’s a great step that this kind of gender discrimination is being called out on social media, and it’s great that it makes it into the newspapers, but it’s not enough anymore to be shocked, or offended, or incredulous.

At a moment like this, a company like Clarks has an incredible opportunity to push forward genuine change. To be real leaders themselves. What if, instead of stiffly saying that they are “sorry for any offence caused” and crossing their fingers that the British public will soon find something else to talk about, they came forward and said “there’s a real problem here with the gender biases we impose on 3 and 4 year old children, and the impact this has on society as a whole shouldn’t be underestimated”?

What if they were transparent and said, “we don’t have all the answers but we’re working hard to make sure that we are neither creating nor enforcing any discriminatory stereotypes through our products”? What if they used the media attention they’re receiving to be bold? What if they launched a new range, for all children, designed for running and jumping and keeping small toes dry?

So ok, I’ll admit, this is hardly a life-or-death situation. There is plenty else going on in the world today deserving of our attention, worry and brainpower. But the problems we face on a global scale require a generation of smart, strong, confident, thoughtful and inclusive young people to solve them. A generation split into Dolly Babes and Leaders from the age of 4 aren’t going to be up to that task. The branding of these school shoes matters, because the ideas we plant into children’s brains directly determine the kind of people they grow to be. And the kind of people who make up the world really, really matters.

Celebrating Youth Day 2017

Youth For Change is a global network of youth activists working in partnership with organisations and governments to tackle gender-based violence and create positive change for girls, boys, young women and young men.

In celebration of International Youth Day 2017, Girls’ Globe had the chance to chat with the newest and youngest member of the Youth For Change UK team – Katrina – who’s 16 and lives in Scotland.

How did you first get involved in advocacy?

“I’m the Scottish Girl Guiding Delegate on the British Youth Council, which that means I have the chance to speak about policy and get involved in Girl Guiding’s campaigns. I saw an advert on Facebook about Youth For Change and I thought to myself,”this is WAY over my head“, but I just went for it because you never know!”

Are many other young people you know engaged in issues like gender equality and gender based violence?

“I think lots of young people are engaged in lots of issues, but I know that in my friendship group I’m the only one who is so heavily involved in advocacy. I think it can be quite daunting as a younger person – I’ve just done my first set of exams and I think for lots of people it seems a bit terrifying to do other things on top of school. It’s a shame because I think lots of young people do care about many different issues, they just don’t know what outlets are available.”

What advice would you give to young people who want to make change happen, but don’t know where to start?

“Start talking about it, whether it’s with friends or on social media or with parents or teachers. Start actually voicing your opinions. And keep your eyes open for opportunities, there are loads of things when you start looking. There’s lots you can do at a community level, too. There is always a network out there you just need to work out how to tap into that network.”

Young people are more politically engaged than ever before. Why do you think that is?

“I think there’s a growing realisation that young people are the ones being affected by decisions. An obvious example is the UK General Election, and the realisation that decisions are being made that are going to affect our generation because we’re going to have to grow up with the results. With social media young people are more aware of what’s out there and how things affect them so they’re more likely to try and make change from a younger age.”

And what holds young people back?

“There can be a stigma around listening to young people – the whole children should be seen and not heard thing – governments or decision makers don’t want to listen to young people because they think we’re not educated enough or experienced enough or don’t have enough of an opinion yet. When you get involved with something you can feel like you’re constantly hitting your head against a brick wall and that no one wants to speak to you, but you just have to push past that because when there’s a big enough force behind something you see that governments are FORCED to listen to young people. We’re seeing that more and more, political parties are forced to be more aware of how they are impacting young people’s lives.

What’s next for Youth For Change?

“We’re hoping to start focusing more on the idea of sexual consent. It’s so prevalent in the UK that young people find themselves in a situation where they are doing things they don’t feel comfortable with, and we think there aren’t enough support mechanisms in place. We’d love to conduct an outreach programme where we could talk to other young people face to face about consent so that they can feel confident in their own bodies and making their own decisions.”

And what’s next for you?

“Next year I’m going to be doing my Highers (school leaving exams), but I’d also like to start developing my personal skills. I’d like to get even more stuck into advocacy, into developing campaigns and strategies.

I tell my friends as a joke that I just want to fix everything. Actually, my general motto in life is that I want to take the world and all it’s problems and all it’s issues and then just fix them all. I just need to figure out exactly how. I guess I’m in the process of doing that and this is how I’m starting. I’m going to see how it goes…!

For those based in the United Kingdom: teachers and students can take part in our 2 min survey to have your say on sex and relationships education.