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Zosia Bielski is a reporter at The Globe and Mail.
Women’s sexual health was hardly top of mind for health care practitioners before the pandemic, falling even lower on the list of priorities once the global crisis unfolded.
A recent report in The Lancet warned that COVID-19 had a devastating impact on women and girls, limiting access to contraception, safe abortion, reproductive and sexual health care. In Canada, university-age women reported reduced access to reproductive health services, STI testing and treatment since the pandemic intensified, according to a national survey from the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada.
I’ve written about sexuality for more than a decade at The Globe and Mail and see the current backslide as troubling, given how many facets of women’s sexual health have been underserved for generations.
It starts in school. Sexual health education remains haphazard across the country, with teachers missing opportunities for nuanced conversations with young women. The silence persists into adulthood: for most women visiting their family doctors, discussions about sexual health are next to non-existent.
In the absence of meaningful, fact-based information, women face a barrage of hostile messaging about their bodies and self-worth. From the proliferation of misogynistic and coercive scenarios in pornography, to invasive surgical procedures with names like “vaginal rejuvenation,” to the failed quest for a pink Viagra, a costly pill that did little to arouse women, to a vast vaginal hygiene market of douches, washes, wipes, powders and sprays – it’s open season on women’s insecurities.
Fundamentally, these are industries that don’t much care to understand women’s bodies, doing harm in the process.
Women are beginning to push back. A growing number of sex educators, health specialists and thinkers have seized the conversation about female sexuality, sharing factual, useful, non-judgmental information. Canada is on the vanguard of much of this encouraging work.
Huge strides are happening in sex ed, including a groundbreaking program for university-age women on consent, good relationships, sexual health and desire. A University of Windsor team led by psychology professor Charlene Senn developed the program, now being adapted for a high school audience. I sat in on two days of sessions with 16- and 17-year-old girls: It was an illuminating experience for a 40-year-old and made me regret never receiving anything close to this caliber of sex ed as a teen.
Progress is on the horizon for adult women. Winnipeg-born obstetrician-gynecologist Jennifer Gunter, whose new book is The Menopause Manifesto: Own Your Health with Facts and Feminism, has been a fierce advocate for women’s sexual health. Gunter entered the spotlight after criticizing Gwyneth Paltrow and her wellness franchise Goop for peddling dubious “healing” treatments for the vagina, including steams and jade eggs. Gunter’s retort was the 2019 book The Vagina Bible, which served as vital counter-programming, with no-nonsense information on everything from vulvar pain and yeast infections to kegels and lube. The ob-gyn blasted physicians, predatory marketers and other “vagina profiteers” for pushing harmful myths about women’s bodies.
Others are illuminating the many ways women’s sexual desire has been overlooked throughout history, medicine and mainstream culture. “Female pleasure is its own separate thing with its own rules,” Sarah Barmak, Toronto author of the mind-bending book Closer: Notes From the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality, told me in 2016. “We’re still just figuring out how women work.”
Canadian sexuality researchers are on the leading edge in this field – and a fun bunch to interview.
There is the University of New Brunswick’s Lucia O’Sullivan, who researches everything from adolescent sexual health to pornography to infidelity. At Queen’s University, Meredith Chivers helms cutting edge studies on female desire. Right on time for lockdowns, Lori Brotto at the University of British Columbia created eSense, a compassionate, online therapy model for women struggling with sexual concerns. The virtual therapy is particularly useful for clients in rural and remote regions with limited access to health care services. At McGill University in Montreal, med student Jillian Schneidman recently launched Sex[M]ed, a sexual health education platform for health care practitioners, intended to fill knowledge gaps in the medical profession; one recent post centred on teaching doctors about period pain. (On menstruation, Zoe Scaman does a terrific roundup of a new generation of femtech apps helping women understand the totality of their menstrual cycle.)
It’s a promising revolution. For too long, women’s sexual health has been overlooked, monetized and compromised. Today, we’re paying closer attention to how the messaging about our bodies makes us feel and demanding better.
What else we’re thinking about:
I read and re-read Amanda Hess’s clear-eyed profile of Sinead O’Connor in The New York Times recently. The story of the controversial Irish singer is the latest in a wider reckoning around the public’s appetite for destroying female celebrities. O’Connor has written a memoir, Rememberings, which re-examines her time in the limelight. Like the recent documentary Framing Britney Spears (reviewed astutely by Globe columnist Elizabeth Renzetti), O’Connor’s memoir and Hess’s profile reveal the human toll of being bashed for decades by the press. The singer was scorned after ripping up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992. Though the stunt was viewed as a career-ending move, O’Connor saw it differently – as liberation from the pop stardom she never settled into. The singer, who has struggled publicly with mental illness, is alternately perceptive and vulnerable as an interview subject. She admits she blocked out most of those brutal years. “I really trust the subconscious,” she tells Hess. “If it doesn’t want you to remember something, there’s a very good reason for that.”
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