Porn and sex ed

Listening to CBC’s The Current this morning I had a flashback to one of my earliest experiences teaching a puberty class, some time in the 1980s.

I was answering their written questions, when I came across one about a woman and a horse.  In those days, kids’ access to porn was through magazines and videotapes – you know, those things that were  supposed to be locked up in the cabinet?  If memory serves, I answered the best I could without being too graphic.  I let them know that sexual activities with a person and an animal is called bestiality, which is illegal, because it exploits the animal.  And although some adults like to watch those videos, they are not for children.

I am not sure how I made through the rest of the day.

The introductory lesson we used in puberty classes for 10 and 11 year olds included asking where they got their information about puberty and sexuality.  I began to ask classes whether they had computers at home and if they had access to the Internet.  Then I asked whether they had ever come across images that upset, frightened or grossed them out.  Inevitably, at least half of the hands would go up.

I wanted to know how they handled it.

Most of them said they would “exit” or shut off the computer.  I also suggested that they tell an adult that they had come across these images so that they could deal with their feelings and have their questions answered.  Hopefully the adult(s) at home could prevent any inadvertent re-appearance of porn sites.

Their admission gave me the opportunity to tell them this was adult entertainment, that it was not a typical representation of how people were intimate with each other; and that it was not helpful for them to continue looking at it at their age.

Back in the 1987, York University’s Dr. James Check said 12 – 17 year olds were the primary consumers of pornography (address at Humber College conference, “Sexuality ’87: Male Sexuality” April 23-24, 1987).  In the age of the Internet, it is safe to say that children and adolescents have free access to explicit sexual images (as well as some very useful information if they know where to find it).  Some kids will seek out pornographic images out of curiosity and/or because they want to masturbate to these images.

Is pornography harmful?

The adolescent/adult use and misuse of pornography has been a pretty hot topic these past few decades.  Feminists, academics (feminist or not) sex educators and religious critics have weighed in on the potential ill effects; e.g., the porn driven sexual scripts adopted by young people, the unrealistic expectations raised by perfect bodies, huge penises and never ending streams of ejaculate, the need for increased jolts upping the ante in visual violence; and the normalization of sexual activities which, although considered repugnant by some, may become an inevitable expectation.

While some adults choose the erotica or pornography with which they feel comfortable, others have become increasingly dependent on it, disturbed by their inability to relate intimately with real, live lovers.  However, while there is plenty of ink spilled on these issues, the academic literature is far from definitive.

We do not yet know for certain the effect of these images on children and adolescents.  “Not helpful” is a safe guess.

Consent and choice

Guiding principles for sexual health education include comprehensiveness.  Talking with children and adolescents about porn is part of sex education.  The cornerstone of teaching about sexual activity is, as always, consent.

When friends encourage them to watch porn, when they are asked to send sexual images of themselves or when their images are sent on for the entertainment of others there is a clear lack of consent.  Talking with older adolescents about pornographic scenarios and the portrayed lack of consent as well as the normalization of violence is critical to their understanding of how damaging some of these scenarios may be to their sexual development.

People who are raising children – and their allies in the classroom – need to face reality: children and adolescents are exposed to images which we do not feel are appropriate for their age.  Frank discussions about the reasons why they should wait until they are older to make these decisions are a critical component of comprehensive sexual health education.  We do not need to be judgmental or prescriptive; but we do need to try to dissuade them from using porn while they are children.

I look forward to the day when erotica and pornography for adults will be like fair trade coffee or chocolate: made by participants who have a stake in the game; enjoyed by people who savour what they have chosen.

In the meantime, this does not include our children.

 

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Good sex, forced sex and points in between

Before you click away from one more article on sexual misconduct, what do you think of this: gadgets as the answer to sexual violence?  The article details a number of ingenious repellants to rape.  My first thought was, while a gadget might prevent vaginal rape, the resulting rage may very well provoke physical injury or death.  Surely the answer lies elsewhere.

The article reminded me of the teaching tool I used in high schools – the continuum of consent.  I would draw a line on the board.  At the right end of the continuum, I wrote violent sexual assault.  Starting at the left side of the continuum, I wrote mutual consent, then playful seduction, coercion and so on back in the direction of forcible sex.  The current tsunami of sexual misconduct allegations lives here in the centre of the continuum: coercion due to male entitlement and power.

On a call-in show today, I heard the phrase “feminist agenda” regarding the latest misconduct allegations against local politicians.  The caller blamed media’s political leanings and feminists for ruining careers.  Callers also wanted to know why women do not just walk away from a bad situation.  “She was of age”, is the argument.  Susan Cole writes, “…women tend to want to ‘solve’ the situation rather than remove themselves”.  She adds, “How about talking?  Ask a woman what she wants and when she answers, take her seriously”.

But even mutual consent on the left of the continuum is not always straightforward.

After an early dismissal from jury selection the other day, a young woman recognized me from puberty classes I had taught about two decades before.  She said she had thought of me lately as she was trying to figure out what consent means. To celebrate this unexpected gift of time, we decided to continue to chat over coffee.

She believes one should ask for consent every time.  I asked her, “every time what?  Every time you kiss, every time you seem to be heading towards intercourse?”  She is married and said that her husband knows her so well that consent for any intimate activity is unspoken.

As an educator, my question is, how do we promote affirmative, ongoing consent for adolescents, for adults who have just met, and, yes, even for couples that have been together for years? How do we engage all genders to desire true intimacy and the communication skills to find it?

People who were brought up in a society where rape culture is prevalent may experience misguided expectations leading to miscommunication: mixed signals coupled with a lack of self awareness and clarity.  Even if one has overtly agreed to a particular form of sexual intimacy, there may still be discomfort, distaste or regret during the act – or afterwards.

Zosia Bielski quotes Karen B. K. Chan, a Toronto-based sex and emotional-literacy educator. “We have been saying for a while now that consent is a low bar. It is the lowest bar there is. After that, we need to talk about sexual pleasure and good sex – sex that you actually want to have…” .  Her article raises the notion of good sex .

Lili Loufbourow takes up the issue writing about pain during vaginal sex.

Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and ‘large proportions’ don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.”

During classes on sexual assault I would pose the following question: Is it OK to say no at any time?  In other words, is it ever OK to interrupt sexual activity once it has started?  Most students were ready to acknowledge that one could.  The question remains, do we actually do this?

While there may not be pain during a sexual activity, there may not be pleasure either; for example, it may be boring.  If it is not pleasurable, what is the point of continuing?  We agree to sexual activities for a variety of reasons; and we may not be proud of all of them.  We may acquiesce because it is expected, or because of our partner’s needs; we may not want to hurt their feelings; we may not want to jeopardize the relationship; we may hope that it will start to feel better soon – as it sometimes does.  While we may have progressed beyond the Victorian dictum “close your eyes and think of England”, we want a great deal more.  Why should we have to work ourselves into a state of desire with a partner who is unaware of its absence?

I remember an incident with a long-term partner.  I had lost interest in the proceedings and told him so.  He got very angry, sat up in bed and said in a menacing voice, “But I want to”.  That incident could have ended up quite differently than our turning away from each other in distress and anger.

The WHO definition of sexual health includes “the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence”.   No gadget will get you there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Vagina does not Need Feminine High Jinx Products to Stay Healthy

Lolling in front of the TV one evening, I sat bolt upright when a commercial for a “vaginal wash” appeared on the screen.   The product contains “LactoPrebiotic” to “help maintain a healthy pH balance to fortify natural defenses”. They recommend women “use it every day as an important step towards good feminine health”.  Shades of perfumed, daily panty liners, here we go again.  A healthy vagina should have a “light and fresh scent”.

I assumed LactoPrebiotic was an invented term.  But no, there is such an animal.  WebMD explains,

“Probiotics are “good” bacteria that help keep your digestive system (my emphasis) healthy by controlling growth of harmful bacteria. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that cannot be digested by the human body….The primary benefit of probiotics and prebiotics appears to be helping you maintain a healthy digestive system (again, my emphasis).”

Their marketers have extrapolated benefits from one body system to another.

I found an article examining one of these “daily care for intimate skin” products, including a detailed examination of the ingredients.

I am horrified that these products continue to find a place on the market.

We know how to look after our vaginas; and countless articles have been written about maintaining good vaginal health.  Even this recent article mentions avoiding douching; but it neglects to warn women away from other vaginal cleansing products.  There is plenty of good advice, but also some missed opportunities.

Normal Vaginal Fluids

Vaginal fluids are normal.  Mucus produced in the cervix comes out through the vagina throughout the menstrual cycle indicating the most and the least fertile times in the cycle.  Vaginal lubrication is produced by the Bartholin glands.  Female ejaculate, a clear fluid that is projected from the urethra, is not strictly speaking vaginal but may be perceived as such.

Women who are aware of their normal vaginal fluids will likely be aware when these fluids look, smell or feel different.  Over the counter (OTC) products encourage women to self treat when there is a perceived problem.  I often see ads for OTC yeast treatments; and recently one for Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) came across my TV screen.  The latter surprised me, because the treatment for symptomatic BV is antibiotics.

The other issue I have with self treating is that there are several Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) that produce similar symptoms, like irritation and unusual discharge.  If a woman has had unprotected sex with a new partner, male or female, she would be well advised to have a swab taken to diagnose the problem.  If she has chlamydia or gonorrhea, she will need to take antibiotics.  Her partner(s) should also be treated.  Untreated chlamydia or gonorrhea can result in Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) and eventual infertility or ectopic pregnancy.

I acknowledge that a woman who has had yeast infections in the past and is well aware of the symptoms may choose an OTC medication; but symptomatic BV requires an antibiotic.  It has also been linked to PID.

Bayer has a product that claims it can “permanently beat Bacterial Vaginosis”.

They say it restores the pH balance in the vagina.

There is no guaranteed prevention for BV.

Women coming to the sexual health clinic where I worked would frequently return with symptoms of BV.  I followed the research closely for years as scientists looked for a way to encourage and maintain the vaginal production of the necessary lactobacilli.  They did, however, discover some reasons why women may produce fewer of these bacteria critical to vaginal health.

“Vaginal douching or other washing practices are frequently cited as a cause of disturbance of the vaginal flora leading to the onset of BV. In a prospective study, douching was associated with loss of protective H2O2-producing lactobacilli and acquisition of BV. A case-control study…investigated associations between vulval washing, vaginal washing, and douching and BV… Use of bubble bath, antiseptic solution, and douching was more common in women with BV…”

Vaginas should smell like vaginas

Lysol was once used as birth control (nope, didn’t work) but also to help women practise “complete feminine hygiene”.  For decades, women were told they needed to stay fresh, clean and essentially cover up their natural odours.  But being aware of our personal odour is what helps us to monitor our vaginal health.  My feminist cohorts were railing about this issue from the early 1970s.  Have we come a long way, or are we still stuck in the rose bushes hoping we’ll smell like one?

 

Teaching consent

Sexual health educators have been teaching about consensual and non-consensual sexual activity for decades.  Despite gains made by the women’s movement since the late 1960s, sexism is far from eradicated.  Rape culture, although under scrutiny and challenge, is still the norm.  Sexual harassment and assault are as common as dirt.  How can we make a fundamental change in our society through education?

If all genders are not on board with the concept that consensual sexual activity is enjoyable and fulfilling, we will not make any headway.  If boys and men in particular are not included as allies in this struggle, classroom education will remain no more than an exercise.

I created a lesson plan about sexual assault at least 20 years ago which continues to be used by former colleagues.  It is a two part activity.  In the first part, the facilitator reads a series of statements and asks students to agree, disagree or indicate that they are not sure; in the second part, students work in small groups and read through two scenarios, one told from a girl’s point of view where it is clear there was no consent; and the other from the boy’s.  Then they answer questions on the board which are later discussed by the whole group.

One of the statements in the first part, “It is OK to say no at any time” (during sexual activity) provoked a grade 8 boy to insist that once you had initiated sexual activity, you couldn’t stop.  I asked the class why someone might want to stop (fear, pain, flashback, changed their mind etc.), but this kid wasn’t budging.  So I said, “Suppose you’re on top of her and you can see that she is in pain”.  He said, “Turn her face away”.

That is an unusual response from a 12 year old, but indicative of the far end of the consent spectrum; viz., a total lack of empathy and clear exercise of power.

After each group reads their story, I read them both out loud, where it becomes clear that what happened was not consensual.  I remind them that there are medical issues that need to be explored (Emergency Contraception, Sexually Transmitted Infection testing) psychological/emotional issues (the need for counselling since most people blame themselves after an assault) and legal issues.  Because the stories are written in a way that demonstrate a miscommunication based on the popular cultural ideas we explored earlier, exacerbated by alcohol, I suggest that if the police came to this boy’s door and said they were investigating a sexual assault, he would probably say, “Who got raped?”  We end the class by brainstorming how it could have been prevented.

Gray zone

Girls and women are still seen as gatekeepers in heterosexual relationships.  In spite of the current support for affirmative, ongoing consent, it continues to be difficult for a girl/woman to live this new norm.  Societal ambivalence rules: is it really OK for women to want sexual activity and say yes to it?

I remember teaching that to say no, it is important that tone and body language be congruent; i.e., to say no in a way that is clear and unequivocal.  But no to what?  No means no to a particular sexual activity at a particular moment in time.

People are complicated and so are their desires – they can change during the course of any sexual encounter.

In a more sophisticated discussion with older students, this can be illustrated with a continuum: from enthusiastic mutual consent to playful seduction; to giving in; to coercion; and to forced sexual contact.

People may move back and forth along the continuum from mutual consent to playful seduction during a single or multiple encounters.  One may not initially want to engage in a particular sexual activity, but could become interested.  There is a difference between talking someone into it and turning them on.

There is also a difference between hearing no and ignoring it.  We are familiar with the power dynamic and the culture that facilitates this crime.

For boys/men, saying no to sexual activity with girls/women may be difficult for other reasons.  Society tells them never to refuse what is handed to them on a silver platter.  Women who sexually assault men are more likely to use shame and coercion than force for obvious reasons.

Same gender assault involves many of these same dynamics.

Politics and pedagogy

We want affirmative, ongoing consent to become the norm.

We detest rape culture and want it eradicated.  We are appalled when images and videos of assaults are posted as entertainment.  Good pedagogy includes teaching empathy for survivors in order to eliminate this ghoulish feasting on others’ misery.

While it is useful to explore the underlying ideas that lead to assumptions, miscommunication and/or predation – a simple unpacking may be preferable to political rhetoric.

In their fervour to drive home the harmful outcomes of rape culture, some educators are using materials that are more likely to alienate the boys and young men in the classroom than to enlist them as allies.  We want them to accept the premise that there is an advantage to mutuality in relationships.  I read recently that consent culture is a resistance movement to rape culture.  It is a lot to ask for young men to see themselves as freedom fighters against rape culture and sexual assault.

I think Wiseguyz is on the right track in the way they address young men directly.  There are also some excellent public campaigns like the one from Norway “Dear Daddy” and New Zealand’s “Who are You?” that bring home these messages in a simple, clear and direct manner that appeal to the positives.

Because good lessons on consent and sexual assault are so hard to come by, well thought out print materials can play a role.  I would love to see a good pamphlet which includes the language of consent and refusal as a guide for young people to take home.

There is work to be done.

 

Birth Control: is it in you?

At a recent meeting of the Sexual Health Network of Ontario, health care providers came together to examine and extol the virtues of the Intra Uterine Device (IUD).  The IUD is a plastic device wrapped with copper that is inserted into the uterus.  I have always been a proponent of this method of birth control, especially for women looking for an alternative to hormonal methods.

The IUD had to overcome a terrible reputation from the bad old days of the Dalkon Shield.

I remember the Shield well.  I was a very young married woman when I had one inserted.  I complained to my gynecologist that I had ongoing pain on one side which lasted several days a month.  It felt like there was a plumb line attached to my ovary.  It wasn’t until returning from overseas that I had it taken out – or rather dug out – because that’s what it felt like.  The little claws were embedded in my uterus.

It was a deadly device.  The Dalkon Shield’s strings acted like a wick, drawing bacteria into the uterus, causing infections – and in nearly two dozen cases in the US – death.  The deaths in developing countries continued as “developed” countries offloaded their products abroad.

However, in the early 1980s, long after the discredited Shield had tarnished the reputation of all IUDs, new research indicated that the newer copper IUDs were both safe and effective and, in particular, did not cause ectopic pregnancies.  It also became clear that they functioned as a true contraceptive by creating an unfriendly environment in the uterus which repelled sperm.  This opened the door to women who had worried it was an abortifacient.

Copper IUDs

Dr. Sarah Warden from the Bay Centre for Birth Control updated our information on IUDs.  Copper IUDs are 99 – 99.8% effective.  In those rare cases where pregnancy occurs with an IUD in place, the pregnancy can continue as long as it is not ectopic.  Statistically, pregnancy outside the uterus is more likely with an IUD; but given its high effectiveness rate, the risk is very low.  A copper IUD can usually be removed if there is a pregnancy; but that would increase the risk of miscarriage.

A woman with average or no cramps and average bleeding is a good candidate.  She can expect a 10 -20% increase in cramping and bleeding with a copper IUD.  Counselling has changed over the years with regard to multiple partners.  Health care providers were concerned about untreated Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) causing Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) with an IUD in place.  However, now STIs can be treated without removing the IUD; although, clearly, a woman with more than one partner is encouraged to use condoms.

Adolescents and women who have not been pregnant can also use the IUD.

Copper IUDs can also be used as emergency contraception up to seven days after unprotected intercourse.

There were a number of questions asked during the presentation; for example, the reason why some IUDs can stay inside the uterus longer than others.  Copper IUDs vary in the number of years they can stay in place: 3, 5 or 10 years.  The main difference between one copper IUD and another is the quantity of copper used.  Although Nova-T is a five year IUD, one practitioner said that they do not use it beyond 30 months because, after that point, they have found an increased risk of pregnancy.  10 year IUDs are larger and more difficult to insert and may cause more cramping on insertion.

The only contraindications to the use of a copper IUD include allergy to copper or other components of the IUD, pregnancy, endometriosis, an abnormally shaped uterus, very heavy bleeding or cramping; or active Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. There are a few risk factors, like perforation of the uterus with insertion, but perforation is rare and the uterus often repairs itself.

Intra Uterine System (IUS)

This progestin-releasing device can assist women with severely heavy bleeding as well as women with endometriosis .  By three to six months, most women who use Mirena (the first IUS on the market) experience dramatically reduced bleeding.  About one third of women will stop having periods after 12 months.

Because it uses the synthetic progestin levonorgestrel, it causes similar effects to Depo Provera which also uses a synthetic progestin; i.e., changes in the cervical mucus and uterine lining, making it harder for sperm to reach the uterus.  And similar to Depo Provera, there may be side effects, including:

  • bleeding and spotting between periods
  • heavier bleeding during the first few weeks after device insertion
  • headache/migraine
  • nausea
  • bloating
  • breast tenderness or pain
  • weight gain
  • changes in hair growth
  • acne
  • depression
  • changes in mood

As always, it is important that health care providers explain fully what a woman may expect.

I learned about some newer IUS devices aside from the more commonly known Mirena: Jaydess, a smaller, low-dose version, good for three years; and Kyleena, which releases the lowest dose of hormones for the longest amount of time.  Mirena has the highest dose of progestin of the three and is approved for five years, although data indicate it is effective up to seven.

The IUS can cause spotting for two to six months.  During the presentation, I had noticed two Orthodox Jewish women and a Muslim woman in attendance.  I made a comment about my birth control counselling at clinic regarding spotting.  Because there may be religious strictures about having intercourse in the presence of blood, I always made sure that women for whom this was an issue were well informed.

Speaking of blood, there was an interesting discussion around using a menstrual cup with the IUD.  Because of the suction on the vaginal walls with a cup, to avoid expulsion it is best to gently break the suction before removing the cup.  Another precaution would be not to use a menstrual cup for two months after an IUD insertion because the risk of expulsion is highest in those first two months.

The copper IUD is an excellent choice for women who want long-term, safe and effective contraception, but prefer not to use hormones.  Make sure that your health care provider has plenty of experience with insertion.

 

 

 

 

 

Women in Lust – The Sex Goddess Project

In April of this year, I attended the Toronto International Porn Festival.  I spent a few hours watching films – and clips of films – curated from the last ten years of feminist pornography.  I am not a consumer, but I figured any sex educator worth her salt should dip in every now and again.  I’m glad I did: There was fun; there was joy; and consent was the order of the day.

My views of pornography had evolved over the years.  Consumer prevalence remains high.  An article in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality reports that, when asked about their recent online solitary arousal experiences, 91.7% of the men interviewed said they had watched sexually explicit videos involving men and women; and 47.4% of the women.  The sample: 239 young adults at a Canadian university.  Current mainstream heterosexual pornography, where the scenes are rough and misogynistic, appeals particularly to young adult males.  While they work for self-pleasuring, they are not so good at helping men figure out how to be good lovers.

There is quite a difference between what one considers to be great sex and popular depictions of sex aside from pornography.  On TV doc-and-police shows, the scene goes straight from the mutual recognition that two people want to get it on, to ripping off each other’s clothes at the nearest opportunity.  No slow build and little context.  And standard, gorgeous bodies.

In the new TV series, The Good Fight, so far, there is only one loving, ongoing intimate relationship – Maia and her wife – and sadly, their sexual intimacy gets splashed all over the Internet in retaliation for her father’s Ponzi scheme.  Maia’s mother has a long-term adulterous relationship with her brother-in-law.  Lucca the lawyer, (remember her from The Good Wife?) seems to be as cold blooded as The Good Wife’s Kalinda.  Diane Lockhart sleeps with her ex-husband, which she says the next morning, was nice, but then refuses to renew their relationship beyond friendship.

Perhaps the lack of relatable intimate relationships is a metaphor for the series’ theme of whom to trust.  After all, trust is the hallmark of a positive relationship.  And from vanilla to kink, consent needs to be the order of the day.

Enter Ricardo Scipio

Ricardo contacted me about his newest book, “The Sex Goddess Project”.  Huffington Post recently interviewed him about it and  included some of his photos.  I liked what I saw and willingly posted excerpts from his press release on my professional Facebook page.

Says Scipio,

“If sexual images were food, people would be inundated with cheap junk food. I wanted to create a body of work that offers something more nutritious and satisfying for the health conscious, more discerning palette.”

He sent me a preview of photos from his latest book.  Lucky me: I had the opportunity to peruse dozens of images of women having a lusty old time doing all kinds of sexual activities in a variety of positions with a variety of partners.  These images reminded me of those I had seen at the porn festival – except they are not porn.

Scipio is not producing porn, which he doesn’t watch and whose messages he abhors.

“I’m a lover of all things authentic, and porn isn’t authentic.”

“Women have for too long, and in too many cultures, had their sexuality suppressed – only to be pseudo-released within the stiflingly unkind world of porn. I’m extremely humbled and proud to provide a vehicle for women to unapologetically express themselves with love and authenticity; something porn cannot offer. Sex is way too important to leave in the hands of pornographers.”

His photos portray real people of all body types, skin tones, genders and orientations. One of his models said,

“This was important.  It was a chance to be an activist in the sensual world. To reclaim sex for the othered bodies. The fatties, the people of color. To call bullshit on the ones who say ‘we’ don’t do this simply because they had never seen it done.”

Many of the women in his photos are looking straight at the camera with a huge smile on their face.  It is not the come-on of porn: It’s “Look at me; I am having such a good time”.  Most of the focus is on their pleasure.

To be honest, I did not get a buzz from the photos; my pleasure as a viewer was aesthetic and political.

His models understand this:

“Let’s just say that the bloom is beginning to fade. I’m a 51-year old woman who is 150 lbs overweight…  After Ricardo asked if I would be photographed for his Sex Goddess book, I realized that showing the inner me – the one who loves sex and feels that it is her special, healing gift – should be shown in full daylight. Yes, I’m fat. Yes, I’m older. However, I don’t want to be shamed into feeling badly about my body because our culture deems it ‘ugly’ or ‘gross’ to be sexual if you’re of a certain age and size…”

I am looking forward to seeing the rest of the collection.  The book is not available to the general public – just to Scipio’s supporters and those who collect his work. However, in order to showcase the “ethos” of the project, he is planning an invitation-only online gallery screening for Canadians on May 20 and 21. Anyone can request an invitation.  I recommend that you do.

 

 

Dealing with Aunt Flow

I haven’t had to deal with so-called feminine hygiene products AKA blood catchers for about 20 years.  I generally only take an interest when it comes to safety and environmental issues, like dioxins in tampons.

So when I was contacted by a journalist at CBC about Mensez Feminine lipstick I thought the product was a (bad) joke.  This guy wants women to glue their labia shut so they can let out their blood when they pee out their urine.  She sent me a few links to articles that methodically shredded this ridiculous (patented!) invention bit by unsavoury bit.

During the interview, she asked me for my first impressions.  What immediately came to mind was infibulation the most dramatic form of Female Genital Cutting, where the exposed part of a woman’s clitoris is removed, as well as her labia; and the remaining tissue is sewn together, leaving a small opening for urine and menses.  One of the results is back-up flow which can cause infection, especially when there are clots of blood that cannot pass through the opening.

Labiaplasty also crossed my mind – this cosmetic fiddling with women’s anatomy which sometimes results in loss of sensation due to scar tissue.  “Labiaplasty involves reducing or removing the labia minora—or inner lips—of the vulva.”

The journalist also asked me about available products and potential problems with them.  She wanted to know, for example, if girls were still frightened of using tampons.  We talked about how some moms worried about their daughters’ losing their virginity (tearing the hymen, that is, as opposed to having sex with a tampon) and Toxic Shock Syndrome.  We’ve known about dangers associated with tampons for nearly 40 years.

I told her that starting from the 1990s, we were bringing more environmentally friendly, reusable products into the classroom.

I started to wonder: aside from menstrual cups is there anything new in the world of blood catchers?  I found several web-sites with information on alternative products.  This one was particularly enlightening regarding “dirty cotton”.

Rachel Krantz’ personalized review of some natural products is a hoot.  Reading her account reminded me of my friend’s injunction not to wash your menstrual cup out in a public washroom (“It looked like I had killed a chicken”).

In the “old country”, my mother washed out bits of cloth.  I guess it was progress when I first got my period in grade 8, (1961) and we learned how to attach a pad to a sanitary belt .  I still remember the sensation of walking around listing from side to side because I couldn’t keep my legs together.

There are many areas around the world where menstrual hygiene is still a challenge.  But when I read about campaigns that help girls and women deal with their periods, I sometimes worry about pad and tampon companies profiting through NGOs’ distribution of their products.

So I was pleased to come across this refreshing innovation:

“To ensure girls get the protection they need, and don’t have to miss school just because they have their periods, Femme International provides kits to girls in East Africa that equip them with all the supplies they need. Each kit contains a menstrual cup or reusable pads, a bowl for washing the reusable cup, a small towel, a bar of soap and a handheld mirror.”

Here in Canada, it is a struggle for women in the North as well as poor and homeless women in the South.  When we make decisions about our own blood catchers, let’s also be conscious of the products that we give or send to our sisters.  We all have the same needs for comfort and safety.  And that means, no labia lipstick, unless they are seriously looking for some vajazzling.