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Op-ed: The language of female sexual health

Op-ed: The language of female sexual health

When discussing female sexuality, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of appropriate language to describe it in all its complex glory.

In a world in which we’ve been schooled in the language of male sexuality, it’s become clear, that in American society, we don’t actually have a ready vocabulary to discuss these matters in ways that work for many women.

You’ve seen the ads on TV and in the internet, and heard them on the radio and podcasts. They’re everywhere, and you can’t escape them. By now, is there anybody alive in America who doesn’t know there’s a “little blue pill” for men that treats erectile dysfunction, or about the “four-hour erection?”

Two decades into Viagra and the other erectile dysfunction drugs in the marketplace, the most commonly heard words — “bigger,” “longer,” and “stronger” — do not generally reflect how women talk about sex. In my work, I’ve spoken to hundreds of women about their feelings, concerns, anxieties, and joys about sex. They’ve told me, without hesitation, that they do not look at sex as a performance sport, and therefore many of those adjectives simply do not apply. I often start with a query to demonstrate the chasm that exists between male and female vocabularies around this topic. I’ll ask: “Who’s looking for a partner with a four-hour erection? Raise your hands high.” As you might expect, I generally don’t see too many hands go up.

So how do you have a conversation without a common vocabulary?  And where does this problem start, so we have some clue as to how to fix it?

Start with the mind-blowing, brain-melting, infuriating fact: only 19 of 22 states that require sex education in public schools require that the information provided in these classes be medically, factually, and technically accurate. “Abstinence-only” sex education is littered with shame and guilt rather than facts, which is why I’m not shocked at all by outcomes data that consistently demonstrate such programs result in less use of birth control and higher rates of sexually transmitted infections among those students who have gone through them. And I’m not making any judgment about when and if people get pregnant, but it’s disturbing to learn that upwards of 45 percent of all American pregnancies are unintended — defined as a pregnancy “that was either mistimed or unwanted.”

Among all 50 states, only two forbid the promotion of religion in sex education classes: California and Louisiana. Furthermore, this isn’t a problem isolated to the United States; a mid-2017 study in the United Kingdom revealed that 50 percent of 1,000 men surveyed were unable to correctly locate the vagina (as opposed to the vulva, the clitoris, the uterus, the cervix, or other structures) on an anatomical chart of the female body.  Add to that dynamic an entire generation of young adults whose entire sexual education comes from watching online porn — a world of simultaneous orgasms and depictions of “erotic” violence. (On a serious note, anything is fair game between consenting adults.)

Also, it’s significant to mention that removing the shroud of mystery from sexuality and body parts benefits girls, women, boys, and men. In an era when we are finally beginning to address the epidemic of sexual assault, a body of research has concluded that when people know the proper names of reproductive body parts and understand what their bodies can do, the chance that children, men, and women will report sexual violence and abuse increases. Being able to use the right words is especially important for children because it clarifies communication and also makes it clear that such incidents are not something to hide, according to Dr. Bob Sege, director of the division of family and child advocacy at Boston Medical Center.

So what’s the answer? What’s the alternative to ignorance, misperception, lack of discussion, and slang words to describe body parts? Discussion, questions, ongoing dialogues and openness — as well as harnessing the power that comes from education, accurate information, and knowledge. No euphemisms, no avoiding the topic, no infantilization of female sexuality; just girls and women talking about what it is to be a women, using accurate terminology to talk about their problems and their solutions.  

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