A while back one of my fellow humourless killjoy feminist friends came up with the idea of a list of “Things we wished people spoke more openly about”.
The conversation that ensued lead to several revelations amongst the group and numerous exclamations of “I am SO glad we’re talking about this” and “OMG I thought this was just me” and “why don’t we talk about this stuff? This is GREAT.”
So this is part three of my ongoing but irregular series – “Things we wish were talked about more openly.”
Just like last time, I am going to add a lengthy content warning, mainly for the benefit of my family who might not want to read about my intimate shizzle.
This blog, and indeed probably the whole series, will feature talk of things like sexual acts, body parts, bodily functions and fluids and other things that often make people (right across the gender spectrum) feel uncomfortable. It’s almost certainly going to make my family feel uncomfortable, so if you’re related to me, you might want to stop right here.
I am going to say, straight up, that a lot of the things that are likely to come up are things that I personally find really difficult to talk about. I spent a lot of time hating my body and not really wanting to look at it, feeling awkward and anxious about sexual acts, being ashamed and scared of things my body did and generally feeling unable to talk about it. So just as you might be leaving your comfort zone to read this, I am going out of my comfort zone to write it. So we’re on this journey together.
I wish we spoke more openly about…Sexual Health
I received some excellent news in the post this weekend – my cervix appears normal. Hear my battle cry: “MY CERVIX APPEARS NORMAL”.
TMI you might say – but why? It shouldn’t be TMI to talk about cancers that affect our reproductive organs and genitals. It should be crucial to talk about it. We should be able to hold open discussions about our sexual health in the same way we talk about problems that affect any other part of our body.
Cervical, breast, testicle and prostate cancers affect too many people, when regular testing and early diagnosis can literally be the difference between life and death. But we don’t talk about it, because it affects the parts of us that we feel are too intimate to talk about – “embarrassing” bits of our body. Discussing our sexual organs and erogenous zones is done in whispered tones, using cheeky euphemisms as if saying the word “vulvla” or “penis” will cause people’s ears to explode in shame and embarrassment.
Our reticence to talk about – or even think about – our sexual parts could actually be damaging our health. Out of a fear to talk about problems with anyone, even medical professionals, too many people avoid checking themselves or getting a check up and end up living with discomfort or fear. I’ve heard women say they avoid their smear tests because they are “uncomfortable”. You know what? they are. The whole thing is uncomfortable. Sexual health checks ups, where you lie with your knees to the sky while someone pokes and prods you and occasionally inserts cold things up you are not pleasant. But they are a damn sight better than an undiagnosed or treated sexual health problem.
Advertising for STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) isn’t amazingly helpful either. STD adverts often are similar to horror films, warning of the horrible symptoms or consequences and aiming to scare young people into being checked. All this does in increase people’s fear and shame over potentially having something wrong with them. STDs shouldn’t be something we can’t discuss because everyone is too ashamed to talk about them – the best way to get people to seek help is to make people feel that it’s a catching illness, like any other, which can be treated as long as you get a diagnoses and get some help. That’s not to say everyone should just stop wearing condoms and go “woooo yeah, STDs are normal, no condoms for me” because, seriously, that’s just daft. But accidents happen, STDs happen, and getting treatment shouldn’t be prevented because people are too embarrassed or scared to seek help.
I’ve had some awkward sexual health experiences. My habit of fainting at bloodtests is always fun, for example. Or there was that time the Dr was male, and he had a male student with him, and out of a sense of duty (student doctors gotta learn sometime, on someone…) I said the student could stay, subsequently discovering that he’d never used a speculum before. Or this other time at a smear test where the speculum hadn’t properly locked open and it PINGED out of me with a comedy sound and shot towards the nurse at alarming speed. Or the time I had my IUD fitted, and there was a TV screen on the ceiling to keep you distracted; but just at the point where she started the procedure the show on the screen was ‘Deal or No Deal’ and I said “oh god please turn it over, I don’t want to associate Noel Edmunds with vaginal exams for the rest of my life” but the damage had already been done and now whenever I have a vaginal exam I think of Noel Edmunds and that isn’t something I would wish on anyone.
So yeah, I get it. Sexual health checks are Not Fun. They can be awkward, scary, upsetting, uncomfortable and difficult – even if you don’t have Noel Edmunds leaping unbidden into your brain at inopportune moments. But they are absolutely necessary. And here in the UK (for now at least…) they are free. There are NHS clinics all over the UK, many offering a fantastic service where you can be checked for everything in one go, and who will offer treatment if they find anything concerning.
So if you have a cervix, get your smear done regularly. If you have testicles, check them regularly and if you’re worried, talk to someone. If you have a prostate, get it checked. Get sexual health checks done regularly. HIV test results are instant these days and done with just a prick of a pin. If you have breast tissue, check for lumps. If you’re worried, talk to someone.
Get yourself checked.
Why is this so important to me? Because this is my second smear test in a row which has come up “normal”. For the best part of a decade, it did not. My results showed abnormalities, which made me at greater risk of developing cervical cancer. It was such a huge relief to get that letter three years ago (perhaps not so much to my partner at the time who had to put up with the inaugural MY CERVIX IS NORMAL dance) and it was a relief to read it today. If you haven’t had a check up in a while, or if you think you have something going on, please don’t put it off. Get checked, get treated, and be healthy. Be healthy all over. Even the sexy parts. Especially the sexy parts.