On sexual health…

I have mixed feelings about prefacing this with a TMI warning.  On one hand, it’s weird to talk about sexual health on a personal blog, especially because I draw some of my opinions from personal experience (i.e. I want to discuss my personal experiences to back my ideas).  On the other hand, I don’t think talking about sex and sexual health should be as big of an issue as it is.  Sex is a very normal part of most people’s lives, and almost everyone (except for rare genetic anomalies) have sexual organs.  And those sexual organs probably have some issues from time to time.  If this were a post about dental health, it wouldn’t be a big deal.  But because I’m going to talk about vaginas (read:  MY vagina), it might get weird.  But I don’t think it should be weird.  So here goes.

About 2 years ago, I went to see a doctor to ask about pain I experienced during sex.  The gynecologist was friendly and made me feel super comfortable during examination (read:  as comfortable as I could be with a cold, metal speculum shoved up my vagina).  However, I was surprised when he told me that he didn’t see anything wrong.  I knew 100% that something was wrong.  I had been dating my partner for almost 2 years, and the sex had only recently begun to feel uncomfortable.  But alas, according to the self-proclaimed expert (ok, med school also had proclaimed him an expert), I was fine.  “Did you know that women require more “time” before sex?” he asked me, as if a 20 year old in a long term relationship hadn’t discovered foreplay.  “Maybe try using lube.”  Way ahead of you, sir.  I’m not an idiot.  I had to practically beg him to test me for anything (STDs, infections, etc), and the whole time he swabbed me, he went on about how he thought the tests would be useless.

Guess what?  I had an infection.  it wasn’t contagious, nor was it serious, but it was something.

I tell this story for 2 reasons:  to address the issue of doctors ignoring women’s pain, and to ask questions about why sex is such a taboo subject, even in medical terms.

I recently watched this video by Buzzfeed that featured several women discussing their experiences with doctors who downplayed the pain they experienced, resulting in incredibly delayed medical treatment.  Some of the issues involved reproductive organs, while others were unrelated.  For example, one woman experienced rare occurrences of blinding pain, and the doctor attributed it to PMS.  In reality, this woman had endometriosis and ovarian cysts; because these cysts went unexamined and untreated, they grew until they burst, causing the immense pain.  Another woman underwent jaw surgery, and after the surgery, lost all feeling in her lower face.  She complained about this several days later, and the doctor told her the anesthesia was still wearing off.  She complained again six months later about the continuing numbness, and then a year later, and was given the same prognosis.  When she finally saw a competent doctor, she was informed that the first doctor had conducted a risky procedure and had severed one of the cranial nerves innervating her face.

There are countless stories like this.  Here’s one about a woman rushed to the emergency room with ovarian torsion due to growing cysts, and was negligently diagnosed with a kidney stone.  The doctor was so sure she had a kidney stone that he never actually followed through with the result of her CT, and because the condition was left untreated for so many hours, she ended up losing her ovary.

This article titled, “The Girl Who Cried Pain,” discusses something similar, but in a more objective sense.  It explores whether women experience pain differently than man, why this may be, and how these women are then treated.  But regardless, the statistics the article presents demonstrate that no matter the cause, there IS a discrepancy in the way we are treated.  I was really, really lucky that my infection was easily treatable.  I was even luckier that I could get the doctor to test me, even though he didn’t want to.  But a lot of people, like the woman with the severed facial nerve and the woman who lost her ovary, are not as lucky.

This brings me back to the second reason why I told my weird vagina story.  I knew that sharing my opinions on this matter would involve me sharing my personal experience with a doctor ignoring my pain.  And that made me nervous!  Here I am, talking about my vagina on the internet.  From a young age, women are taught to be secretive about their sexual organs.  And, to a lesser degree, men are as well.  They’re called “private parts” for a reason, right?

Wrong.  Although modern social conventions require the covering of our genitals (and female breasts, but that’s a whole different can of worms), and also I think I would be really cold and uncomfortable if I didn’t cover myself up, I really believe that we’d be a lot happier and healthier if we normalized discussion of these parts of our bodies.  I cannot believe how many times my male friends have been grossed out by the idea of a period.  Even my dad doesn’t like seeing menstrual products lying around, and he has a wife and two daughters!  I’m sure there many people out there who think it’s hilarious when people with penises get smacked in the crotch, but it’s a serious issue and it really hurts!  If someone gets hit in the face, nobody laughs, but because it’s a penis-thing, it becomes funny.

But shame and offensive humor revolving around certain body parts can have a lot of negative consequences.  People are less likely to seek treatment for conditions affecting these organs because they’re embarrassed to speak up about it.  I was, too, but I’m so glad that I did, because I was able to figure out what was wrong with me and get treatment before I suffered from anything severe.  Further, this shame can intensify (especially for women) if they believe that, if/when they do seek treatment, no one will believe they’re in pain.

So to all you premed students, future doctors, and current practitioners out there who read my blog because I guilted you into subscribing, PLEASE, for the love of all things good, LISTEN to your patients.  You may be the doctor, but it’s their body, and they might just know it best.

One thought on “On sexual health…

  1. This is so true. dead at the foreplay comment. also, flashback to when I was having panic attacks and my doctor tried to convince me I was just stressed about exams and then asked if I was pregnant. Doctors don’t take female-presenting people seriously. Cool post k-larz!


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