Huge Real-World Consequences Of Thinking Vaginas Are Icky
Men in charge have always been confounded and terrified by vaginas. But vaginophobia isn't limited to our ancient past. The colossal failure to understand the female anatomy bleeds into many aspects of our supposedly modern world.
We Are Dangerously Stupid About Period Stuff
As you've probably noticed by now, close to half of the population bleeds out of their vaginas about 20 percent of the time. That's a lot of vaginal blood. While this is a necessary and regular fact of life, everything that comes out of our nether regions has something of an ick factor. Luckily, our bathrooms come well-equipped to deal with our many biohazards ... well, except the one kind that helps the human race continue to reproduce.
Any menstruating person who's ever had a job, or even left their house, can tell you about the coy dance of slipping a tampon or pad into one's sleeve before scurrying to the restroom. In a pinch, we resort to panhandling hygiene products off of anyone who seems like they might have a uterus of childbearing age. Sometimes (rarely) there will be a vending machine, but no one gets asked to insert two quarters for a few sheets of toilet paper and some running water.
Adding insult to likely abrasion, they seem to only ever stock baroque contraptions made of equal parts asbestos and splinters. Yet your period is an equally important involuntary bodily function as defecation, and dealing with it in a civilized way is an equally important public health issue.
The full extent of obstacles to menstrual hygiene access is something that researchers have only just started looking into. Turns out, it's a huge problem. Young people in the U.S. end up missing school because they don't have access to tampons and would prefer their desks not look like the scene of a massacre. In poorer countries, many kids drop out altogether or even resort to prostitution, trading sex for pads or the money to buy them.
On the bright side, there's been some movement recently to change the conversation and policies about how we deal with menstruation. In 2016, Barack Obama became, as far as anyone can tell, the first president to ever talk about periods publicly. Think about that. Presidents take the time to pardon a damn turkey every year, and yet before that, one never mentioned what half the population goes through every month.
And it's not like Obama's talk inspired much confidence. He admitted that he had no idea why tampons and pads were subject to luxury taxes. That's right; unlike, say, anti-baldness foam, or candy, or Viagra, menstrual hygiene products aren't "necessities" according to the tax codes of 40 states.
A lot of this comes down to ignorance. We don't talk about periods, and not everyone has them, which leaves about half the population basically in the dark. There is a downright weird amount of stories about adult human men who don't know that menstruation doesn't work like peeing -- that you can't "hold it" until you get to a toilet or reasonably private patch of shrubbery. A 2011 survey of college men found that they had only a slapdash understanding of menstruation, cobbled together from the whispers of relatives, friends, and girlfriends.
So maybe if we could all figure out the difference between a vagina and a vulva, we could move toward reasonable access to menstrual hygiene products! Tampons for everyone! Except ...
Tampons Are Not Safe, And We Are Doing Nothing To Fix That
Menstrual technology has barely changed in almost a century. That must mean that something like the tampon -- which has been around for at least 80 years, with only minor alterations -- is a safe and reliable method for blood-soaking, right? And not something that could kill you?
Fat chance, if you're trying to have it all by "not visibly bleeding" and also "not dying." It turns out the more absorbent you make tampons, the more they harbor hazardous bacteria. One of the minor changes tampons have undergone since their inception has been the switch from natural ingredients to synthetics. In the 1980s, a tampon manufacturer famously introduced an "improved" product designed to be more absorbent. Unfortunately, these new tampons proved to be the ideal breeding ground for Staph bacteria, resulting in an epidemic of toxic shock syndrome, which -- you guessed it -- can be fatal. Of course, all the major tampon companies responded by changing their products to be safer, and the TSS epidemic ended.
Oh, sorry, we were talking about Ideal World. Y'know, the place where human beings show each other empathy and people don't die to save corporations a nickel. No, the overall composition of tampons hasn't changed since the '80s -- companies just slapped a warning label on their packages and called it a day. More baffling still, tampon companies are under no obligation from the FDA to list their ingredients, despite the potentially lethal consequences. That means that the average person on their period knows more about what's in their made-in-China sweater from H&M than what's in their vagina.
The TSS epidemic ultimately ended because of awareness campaigns and people becoming more vigilant about regularly swapping out their tampons. But that doesn't mean that the problem has gone away. Menstrual TSS remains a very real problem, particularly for adolescents and young adults. In fact, the incidences have been more or less stable for decades, with no reduction in the number of cases since the initial outbreak ended. Even with proper education about how to use super-absorbent tampons, people can get TSS merely by leaving a tampon in while they sleep for longer than eight hours.
And the ever-present threat of dying from TSS because you slept in a bit might be the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, we've never bothered to look into the possible risks of whatever mysterious wizardry goes into our tampons. And our only data is self-reported by the manufacturers.
There is a bill that's been floating around Congress -- the Robin Danielson Act, introduced Representative Carolyn Maloney -- which would establish a research program with actual scientists studying the chemicals and materials in menstrual hygiene products. The only problem is that most members of Congress have never menstruated, and further, they have the imaginations of lobotomized goldfish, so they couldn't give less of a fuck. Maloney's bill has been killed at least nine times.
In fact, products for women are regularly neglected. Take, for instance, a recent male birth control trial. When participants started to drop out because of side effects, the World Health Organization became concerned. When one subject's depression got so severe that they attempted suicide, the project was (rightfully) shelved. It's worth noting that these exact phenomena have been observed -- and at a greater magnitude -- in women taking birth control. The very same side effects that halted the trial in males are considered par for the course for females.
Elected Officials Consider Female Anatomy Offensive
While Congress might not give one waving dick about tampon safety, they love micromanaging reproductive healthcare. Though god forbid you use a word like "vagina" while they scramble to decide how far you should have to drive for a pap smear.
In 2012, in the midst of a Michigan state House debate about vagina stuff, Representative Lisa Brown had the audacity to say "vagina" -- the correct word for the thing they were all talking about. Fellow Representative Mike Callton described her comment as "so offensive, I don't even want to say it in front of women." You know, because if women remember that their own vaginas exist, they all faint.
Not only did the Republican leadership gasp and clutch their pearls, but they also went so far as to block Brown from speaking. Not just about vaginas, but about anything, like a later bill about teachers retiring. Yes, the government silenced a woman for mentioning her vagina in a legislature, proving once and for all that no legislators have any understanding of irony.
"You don't hear me talking about the massive erection I have from yelling at you, except for mentioning it right now, which doesn't count!"
And this isn't an isolated incident, either. Back in January, a Philadelphia woman called Senator Pat Toomey's office with questions about his twin crusades to repeal the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood. If Toomey is successful in his mission, that would leave millions of people without access to things like birth control, cancer screenings, and regular check-ups. When the caller mentioned issues like cramps and IUD contraception, a staffer for Toomey went into a huff and accused her of being too "graphic." Critically, this wasn't a "call up Mike Pence and describe your period" thing (which, for the record, is pretty funny). The constituent simply wanted to discuss the sorts of services provided by Planned Parenthood and the ACA, and how there would be a major gap in coverage if Toomey got his way.
This should probably go without saying, but you can't have a substantive conversation about the services Planned Parenthood offers without mentioning the services Planned Parenthood offers. If someone finds words like "cramps" or "IUD" too icky, it should come as no surprise that their carefully considered political stance is "Throw these things in a ditch and never mention them again." It should be equally obvious that they shouldn't work in an office legislating things impacting cramps or IUD access.
Some Higher Educators Still Believe College "Kills" A Vagina
Knowledge is power. We've seen G.I. Joe and after-school specials. We know about the power knowledge gives us, and that in turn gives us even more power. But if you were a woman in the 19th century, knowledge itself had the power ... to drain the vitality from your lady parts. Or at least, that's what doctors at the time published. They believed that too much learning would render a woman infertile and a "pale, weak, neuralgic, dyspeptic" husk of a person.
Those are the words of prominent Harvard Medical School physician Edward H. Clarke (as well as swathes of German "experts" at the time) in his 1873 book Sex In Education: Or, A Fair Chance For Girls. Clarke's idea was that energy in a person is constant. So if you use too much of your energy for frivolous things like higher education, then you will be taking necessary fuel away from other parts of the body -- the parts most important to men. (Why this didn't apply to males wasn't really covered in Clarke's writing. Perhaps the oversight was due to spending too much of his precious vitality worrying about women becoming sexless brainiacs.)
As you might imagine from the century that gave us science as progressive and accurate as phrenology, Clarke's half-baked speculations caught on like wildfire. His book had 16 editions and set woman's access to higher education back by decades. But at least we can take refuge in the fact that those outdated views have been left exactly where they belong in the long distant past ... of 2005.
Yes, the same primitive year that brought us American Dad also saw a former president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, claiming that women were biologically wired to break if they strained themselves with too much education. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be only one ( or even two) guy's stupid opinions. Clarke's legacy lives on.
While it is true that more higher education students than ever are women, we've written before that they're still hugely underrepresented in subjects linked to science, technology, engineering, and math. And if you look at who's awarded teaching positions in higher education, women come up short with depressing regularity. Their male counterparts outnumber female professors by more than three to one. And those who do land a professor position despite the handicap of being born a lady can expect to earn substantially less than their male colleagues.
Even universities, those bastions of rationality and objectivity, still favor PhD candidates with a little extra D.
Adam Koski is so unafraid of vaginas that he wrote half of a fantasy book full of characters who have them. Mike is a freelance journalist who writes about things like beer. Roisin Isner is pronounced "Roh-sheen Eyes-nur." She's very sorry about that.
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