Friday, August 18, 2023

A Commentary on Women's Health and Sexual Education for Adolescents

 This was originally published in Maeflowers on Medium Aug. 4, 2023


Women's Health Means Adolescents, Too

Preventing sexual health education leads to ignorance about bodies

This particular topic is one that seems academic but actually hits close to home. In this politically rife time of book banning and abstinence-only approaches to education crossing swords with hot-headed discussions about abortion, maternity care, and birth control, it seems we’ve completely lost the plot. Let me tell you a story…

Step back 30 years

Fifth grade was my first year in public school. I had gone to a small church-affiliated school up until that point. We had a very small library of approved books. I had advanced through the curricula for math and reading so I’d go to the older kids’ classrooms for those subjects. We had a full hour of “Religion” every morning and Chapel on Wednesdays. I had never heard of “Health class”. There were 3–5 kids in my class depending on which year it was. It seemed perfectly normal.

I transferred to public school and there were five classrooms of 20 kids each in my grade. We moved between remedial, normal, and gifted classrooms for different subjects and if you needed to be moved up or down you missed what you missed. It was chaotic and inefficient compared to where I had come from. But one day, early in that first semester, they divided the girls and boys into two different classrooms and gave a health presentation about our bodies. I learned about menstruation for the first time — I had my first period just a couple weeks later.

If it hadn’t been for that health presentation about my body in public school, I would’ve woken up one morning thinking I had been mauled in my sleep. As it was I was shocked that it was actually happening. How traumatic to not know what you’re own body is capable of!

I was staying at an older cousin’s house — so she had the supplies I needed and it was all normal to her. I thought I’d have to explain it to my mom because it had never been spoken of — instead she had a party waiting for me to welcome me to womanhood. I was mortified and so very very confused. If it’s such a huge thing, why didn’t I know about it?

The point

Too often we leave young people out of topics that affect them. Under a misguided attempt to shield some mythical concept of innocence, they are left vulnerable to fear, misinformation, and unintended consequences.

Everyone deserves to know about their body so they can make decisions about their health. Despite the stigma that sex ed introduces children to sex (a natural part of life they’re going to see, hear, talk about, and experience eventually anyway), such programs may be the only information an adolescent receives about a major event in their physiological (and psychological) development. Everyone should be armed with factual information about pain, bloating, mood swings, fertility, and cancer, among others.

Adolescents go through major changes, and sometimes they can lead to life-altering shifts. Menstruation should not be a mystical “welcome to womanhood” surprise. Pregnancy should not be a mystical “you’ll feel better once the baby comes” experience. Menopause should not be dismissed as the end of a woman’s worth or hysteria.

Just this year (2023), Washington, DC became the first education jurisdiction in the United States to have specific menstrual health education standards. The. First. Welcome to the 21st century.

Til death are you dismissed

It’s not just the young who are ignored. Last year, a clinician at the MayoClinic stepped up to start working on menopause awareness. Not only should women going through “the change” know what to expect and what needs a doctor’s keen eye, there are treatments to make the transition easier and help adjust risk. This is important not just for comfort, but for health and quality of life as the hormones that cause menstruation and menopause have varying associations with cancer. Birth control also plays a role in this risk, with newer versions (progesterone-based) offering protection against uterine cancer but potentially increasing breast cancer. Genetics likely plays a role, which means research is needed. But we’ve traditionally struggled to have female cohorts in studies, now we want them to focus on female-only disorders?! Yes, it’s going to be an uphill battle.

The North American Menopause Society can be a starting point for anyone looking for a doctor or treatment for their hormonal transition.

Sex ed is necessary

We need sex ed — the children need it. Right now, schools are the best way to reach a large swath of the population at the right age to ensure that puberty and its ramifications don’t surprise anyone. But I’d suggest classes in communities for adults as well. Maybe at hospitals, like the classes for expecting parents, only it’s basic anatomy and hygiene. “Human Body 101”. We all have a body, even as children. We need to learn how to live with it. Why it’s so shameful to recognize that is beyond me.

If you’re looking for more information, I highly recommend the books written by OB/GYN Dr. Jen Gunter, particularly The Vagina Bible and Menopause Manifesto.

Also see the statistics on the harm of abstinence-only education at the Guttmacher Institute and the School of Public Health at Columbia

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