Sexism kills – exploring consent, contraception and the stigma surrounding female sexual healthcare
Leah Frape discusses how the recent coil controversy has opened up a debate around female sexual and reproductive health.
My first ever concert was the Britney Spears Circus tour at the O2 Arena. I watched as she sang, suspended from a silver moon to an audience of hundreds, with breathless effortlessness. There is no doubt about it – Britney is cherished by millions because she represents the female power, brilliance and liberation that her fans grow up idolising.
Flash forward over a decade on from shimmying in the far row of a London arena in a pink tutu and fingerless fishnet gloves, I am an onlooker as Britney Spears speaks out about the violation of her basic human rights. It was revealed recently that Spears has endured a coil contraceptive device remaining in her body against her will, due to the 13-year long conservatorship that controls her assets, money, healthcare and daily routine. The implications feel sinisterly personal: if one of the most famous, respected and idolised women in the world does not have power and control over her own body, reproductive health and autonomy, then what hope does that give the rest of us?
Female sexual health is taboo – girls are told through hushed whispers, tampons sequestered up sleeves, archaic myths about cherry popping and the hypocritical virginity construct, coupled with abstinence-only education. There is an urgency to keep young women infantilised as ‘precious and pure’, rather than preparing them for adulthood and all the experiences it entails. Meanwhile, their male counterparts are actively encouraged to enjoy the same experiences due to outdated stereotypes of toxic masculinity, pressurising them to compete for ‘body count’, in order to be seen as ‘more of a man’. Regardless of gender, being taught that sex should be tied directly to the worth we give ourselves, and the level of respect we should gain from others, is damaging to everyone.
One of the most damaging lies we teach our girls is that pain during sex, menstruation and certain reproductive health procedures is ‘normal’.
For women, depending on cultural background, there is still a level of shame associated with reproductive health; often raised with the ludicrous rhetoric that sex and menstruation make our bodies ‘dirty’ and ‘unclean’, and that all evidence of either must be hidden, or slowly pried open in the deathly silence of a public toilet cubicle. It doesn’t help that sex education is historically heteronormative, gender biased and veers away from consent, women’s pleasure and female anatomy.
One of the most damaging lies we teach our girls is that pain during sex, menstruation and certain reproductive health procedures is ‘normal’. From between the ages of 9 and 15, most women get their first period, often accompanied by a barrage of unbearable symptoms. When we speak out, we are accused of exaggerating, yet in 2016, John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, revealed that period pain can be as painful as heart attacks.
In June 2021, presenter Naga Munchetty described having the coil (IUD) fitted, as ‘one of the most traumatic’ experiences of her life and says that she fainted multiple times. I held two Instagram polls about the coil, asking two questions. When asked whether they themselves or someone they knew had used the coil, 81 per cent of my followers who answered, selected ‘yes’. Of those people, 80 per cent agreed that the experience was painful during or after the procedure. People also reached out about the Jaydess and Mirena coils – whilst some had horror stories, others were incredibly positive, describing that despite pain during insertion, they hardly think about it now, as IUDs last from five to ten years. Whilst they don’t protect against STDs, benefits include clearer skin, period regulation and increased sexual freedom.
Birth-control is also used to manage chronic health conditions such as endometriosis or fibromyalgia. For many women, it is the difference between life and death. These conditions can be fatal if left untreated, yet, as of 2020, in the United States, the Supreme Court upheld the expansion that allows employers and universities to deny insurance coverage to women for contraception, based on moral or religious grounds. Like Britney, female bodies face regulation without our consent. Globally, women are still hurdling over the enforced opinions of others to access basic healthcare.
When are people going to start taking women’s reproductive health seriously, rather than telling us we should live the rest of our lives in agony?
A source close to me, in medicine, has given me their opinion anonymously. Throughout her experiences as a medical practitioner and ciswoman of colour, she was told by a male GP to “give it a few more years and [her symptoms] will change” and that “pain is something that women just have to deal with”. She also stated that “with the coil, I have seen it be put in – it is very painful. It can fall out or be inserted incorrectly and cause perforations, although that is very rare. Size and placement wise, cervixes differ on an individual basis, which is important to know before insertion to prevent complications.”
Undoubtedly, the largest take away from our discussion is that ‘pain for people of colour is not taken seriously. Racism and sexism are seen most within childbirth and reproductive health for women of colour.’ Reports produced by MBRRACE-UK Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK over the last two years, show that black women are “four times more likely than white women to die in pregnancy or childbirth in the UK, and women from Asian backgrounds face twice the risk”.
As a 22-year-old ciswoman, I have been trying birth control since my early teens, for pain management and chronic fatigue. By this, I mean struggling to live daily life due to knife-like back pain, abdominal pain and menorrhagia (extreme blood loss) that causes me to pass out. I have tried holistic treatments, exercise, changing diets and I have taken medication. I have been mis-diagnosed multiple times and been referred to different doctors for almost a decade, yet I am still without a conclusive diagnosis. Many of my friends are in the exact same boat – gaslit and dismissed by doctors who continue to undermine us. It is heart-breaking to think of how many deaths could have been prevented if women received the medical attention that they deserved. When are people going to start taking women’s reproductive health seriously, rather than telling us we should live the rest of our lives in agony?