Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

The State of Sex Ed in America

April 28th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jennifer Aldoretta

The things that consume my time are many and varied, but one of the most rewarding as of late has been volunteering for a local organization that aims to empower young women as they work through the many hardships of adolescence. Every Thursday for the past few months, I’ve spent the afternoon at a local high school with an incredible group of young women. The program focuses on healthy ways to manage the stresses of young adulthood, but the conversations often strayed towards topics like relationships, dating, sex, and even menstruation. Naturally, they were interested in these topics and seemed eager to get the opinions and advice of adult women who have undoubtedly had similar experiences.

During one meeting that I will likely not forget, the conversation made its way to—you guessed it—periods. The group was particularly fascinated by my current career path, and I was happy to discuss it with them. I imagine it’s not every day that one encounters someone like myself who is so invested in vaginas and other lady parts. Questions about Groove started flowing: how does the app work?, what made me decide to start a business?, what is menstrual cycle tracking?, and how does menstruation actually work?

Something that quickly became apparent to me was how little these young women knew about their bodies. I’ve known for quite some time that sex ed in the United States isn’t the greatest, because I was once a 16-year-old. But when questions like what is ovulation? and what are ovaries? arose, the pitfalls of our current sex education curriculums became overwhelmingly obvious. And I became increasingly angry—not angry with this group of completely amazing young women, of course, but angry at a system that is so blatantly failing them. Unfortunately, since we were on school property, there was only so much that I was allowed to tell this group of inquisitive young women about their bodies (though I have to admit that I knowingly pushed these limits).

The birth rate among teenagers in the United States is higher than in any other developed nation. We belong to a system in which our young people are not being provided even the most basic information about their bodies—have you seen the hilariously pathetic results of adults attempting to label the male and female reproductive systems? Despite our lacking curriculums, we (for some reason) still like to place blame for risky sexual behavior, spreading of STIs, and teen pregnancies entirely on the shoulders of our young people. This seems like an obvious question, but how does this make any sense? We should instead be focusing on how we can improve the current system to prevent these things in the first place. It seems so obvious, yet the concept seems to be lost on those who create these education standards.

Let us properly educate our nation’s young people and then we can point figures and engage in discussions about ways to lower teen pregnancy rates and the spread of STIs—though I have a hunch the conversation might be moot at that point. A single (and far too basic) sex education class cannot possibly create an informed generation. It’s ridiculous to blame an individual for being misinformed in a system that does not inform. It’s ridiculous that our system, in many cases, does not allow (or require) educators to provide direct answers to direct questions. Only 19 of the 51 states in the US require that information provided in sex ed classes be medically, factually, or technically accurate. That’s less than 40%! And still, there are questions being asked and fingers being pointed as though teenagers have all the information they need to make informed choices. Is it a coincidence that nations with more comprehensive sex education programs tend to have lower teen pregnancy rates? I think not! Take a gander at the stats of our northern neighbors.

Sex education and teen pregnancy are not mutually exclusive (sorry, politicians). I’m not advocating for contraceptive education in schools—because that’s a battle for another day—but information about the male and female reproductive systems (which is vital for maintaining good bodily health) is not something that should be glossed over.

Footloose and Pharmaceutical-Free?

October 26th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Holly Grigg-Spall, Sweetening the Pill

At the West Coast Catalyst Convention for sex-positive sex-educators I was listening to a talk on definitions of sexual health when the birth control pill was brought up. I’d spent much of the event feeling desperately vanilla and so was pleased to be discussing something other than strap-ons and lube. The most popular forms of contraception – the hormonal kind – had been notably absent from all discussion that weekend.

Toys in Babeland window display, Photo by Joaquin Uy // CC 2.0

The speaker told the group that the pill is the leading cause of low libido and pelvic pain. She explained that studies had suggested the impact on libido could be permanent. The reaction of the audience was immediate and urgent – questions were fired out and it became clear that this information was news to most. A number of audience members seemed genuinely shocked. “What’s the science behind that?” one woman asked, but the speaker said she didn’t know.

Although the convention’s attendees had an intimidating level of knowledge when it came to sexual technique and sex toys, I discovered that once I mentioned I was there to develop a book and a documentary on hormonal contraceptives, many repeated the usual disinformation about birth control methods.

The speaker was right – the birth control pill is a leading cause of lowered sexual desire and pelvic pain. It’s also known to cause loss of lubrication, vaginitis, and vulvodynia. Other hormonal contraceptives such as the Depo Provera injection, implant, ring and Mirena IUD have been seen to have similar consequences. In fact, Dr. Andrew Goldstein, director of the U.S.-based Centers for Vulvovaginal Disorders and one of the foremost vulvodynia experts in North America, blames an increase in complaints of this kind on third generation low-dose pills.

The study the speaker referred to was conducted by Dr. Claudia Panzer of Boston University and it did suggest some women may see a permanent effect on their testosterone levels, and so their level of desire. There have also been studies on these methods impact on frequency and intensity of orgasm, showing both to be decreased. Not to mention the 50% of women who will experience general negative mood effects that surely impact on their interest in sex. Many, many other studies have shown a clear negative effect on libido whilst using hormonal contraceptives. So many that it’s become something of a joke to roll eyes over the “irony” of prescribing a pill for pregnancy prevention that stops you wanting to have sex anyway.

At a convention dedicated to the celebration of sexual pleasure, I was surprised to see this information received with such confusion. A sex-positive attitude is becoming synonymous with “set it and forget it” long acting hormonal methods of contraception. But it struck me that sex-positive advocates should be the biggest fans of fertility awareness methods. Here’s why:

“It means there’s blood flowing out of my uterus!”

November 4th, 2011 by Elizabeth Kissling

So says 15-year-old Judy to her boyfriend Johnny on the occasion of her first period, in this vintage film about menstruation, Linda’s Film About Menstruation. This 18-minute treasure was produced in 1974 by the Creative Artists Public Service Program of the New York State Council of the Arts (CAPS), a program that ran from 1970 to 1981.

Would that cities and states still had arts budgets for these kinds of projects!

Golly! Molly is growing up.

February 14th, 2011 by Elizabeth Kissling

Molly Grows Up _ screenshotPreparing for class discussions this week about sex education policy in the U.S. found me flipping through the Prelinger Archives, where I found this gem: Molly Grows Up. It’s a menstrual education film apparently intended for girls in about the sixth grade, made in 1953. Along with a basic explanation of the physiology of menstruation and puberty, the school nurse assures the girls that no one can tell when they are menstruating. But then she offers them this advice visible in this screen shot — and recommends the girls wear their best dresses and take extra care with “hygiene”.

You can view the film here.

It’s OK to Talk to My Daughter about Sex, but Don’t Tell Her about her Vulva!

June 15th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

In Therese Shechter’s guest-post about the German teen magazine feature article, “Every Vulva Is Different”, she noted that we’re unlikely to see such an explicit, body-positive article in a U.S. teen magazine. Therese, as usual, knows what she’s talking about. In this just-released video clip from her forthcoming documentary How to Lose Your Virginity, Susan Schulz, the Editor-in-Chief of CosmoGirl! magazine, tells viewers about the time CosmoGirl! ran an article titled “Vulva Love”, which included a cartoon drawing of vulvar anatomy and some basic, age-appropriate physiological and health information about vulvas. It was the most complained about article ever published by the magazine. The complaints were not from the magazine readers, however: the grievances were filed by the mothers of subscribers. Parents thought it was inappropriate material for their teen daughters.

After you watch the clip, consider throwing a few bucks Trixie’s way so she can complete the film – the project needs another $3585 pledged by July 1 to receive the $10,000 they’re trying to raise.

The Eco-Vag: Natural Lubricant with Umbra

February 12th, 2010 by Giovanna Chesler

Umbra Fisk is a character developed at Grist TV (and performed by Jennifer Prediger) who brings a surprising smile to a movement more familiar with a Green grimace. Her Ask Umbra videos appear often enough to remind us how to bike to work safely or enlighten us on growing food in your apartment.  In her latest video, she describes how to make lube from flax seed. As she explains, personal lubricants are loaded with petrochemicals that one might otherwise find in brake fluid and antifreeze. The recipe is as quick and easy as her messages and welcome humor. Thanks Umbra for bringing on the Omega 3′s and helping us all avoid “Toxic Hoo-Ha Syndrome.”

Every Vulva Is Different

December 19th, 2009 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Therese Shechter, filmmaker (Trixie Films)

Alert: Links are Not Safe for Work
Photo of woman wearing only underpants, superimposed with words, "Jede Vulva ist Anders" (Deutsch for "every vulva is different")German teen magazine Bravo, known for it’s explicit information on sexuality and sexual health has done it again with their feature: Vulva-Galerie: Schau, welche Unterschiede es gibt! which according to my Google translator means”Vulva Gallery: Look, what are the differences?”

The text says: The vulva is the externally visible part of the vagina. Do you want to finally know what it looks like on other girls? We show you the variations! If you click on Hier siehst du, welche Vulva-Variationen es gibt! (Here are the vulva variations!), you get a gallery of photographs of female genitals, photographed from the front. Some are pierced, some are hairy, some are shaved, some have larger labia…but unfortunately, they’re all white and none of the women seem to be on the larger side.

That’s too bad, because the underlying message is a good one: Stop comparing your ladyparts to women in mainstream porn. This is what we look like when we’re not being seen through the male gaze. Every vulva is different and special in its own way. Again, I wish there had been some diversity in race and size. Is Germany really such a homogeneous society? I don’t think so. The photo series ends with a more explicit photo of the inner vulva, complete with labels.

Not only would this never fly in the US, it reminds me of an interview we did with CosmoGirl! editor Susan Schulz who told us about an illustration of a vulva they commissioned in order to acquaint their readers with their own ladyparts. The title was ‘Vulva Love’ and it was done in a fun folksy way and totally non-pervy. Susan told us they got more hate mail from parents about that item than anything else they ever ran. The illustrator didn’t even want their name on the piece. I’ve searched online for the image but can’t find it, so I’ll post it and our interview with Susan in when I’m back in the USA.

By the way, the Bravo vulva item is part of a regular feature called Dr. Sommer which includes topics for teen boys and girls like vaginal health, penile pain, “Are You Really Ready for Sex?” and “Love School”(if you are ready, I guess). My knowledge of the German language is now exhausted, but if anyone wants to translate other items, please leave it in the comments!

Cross-posted at The American Virgin.

Recognizing the Vaginal Corona

December 8th, 2009 by Elizabeth Kissling

Vaginal_coronaVia the fabulous Scarleteen (best sex education resource on the web), I’ve just learned of the English translation of a remarkable booklet from Swedish Association for Sexuality Education: Vaginal corona: Myths surrounding virginity – your questions answered.

The mythical status of the hymen has caused far too much harm for far too long. Last spring, RFSU published an information booklet in Swedish intended to dispel some of the myths surrounding the hymen and virginity.

The booklet describes what the female genitals look like and what the vaginal corona actually is. It also dispels many of the myths surrounding female sexuality and the misconceptions concerning the hymen and virginity. Etymologically, the term hymen comes from the Greek word for membrane. In Swedish, the hymen used to be called mödomshinna, which translates literally as “virginity membrane.” In fact, there is no brittle membrane, but rather multiple folds of mucous membrane. A vaginal corona, in other words.

“The vaginal corona is a permanent part of a woman’s body throughout her life. It doesn’t disappear after she first has sexual intercourse, and most women don’t bleed the first time,” said Ms Regnér.

This is important work, and should be widely disseminated. At the link above, you can download the booklet in PDF form in Arabic, English, and Sorani, or order a print copy via email.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.