Misogyny in the NHS stopped me getting help for vulval pain

10 months after being diagnosed with unprovoked vulvodynia and being told emphatically that there was nothing visibly wrong with my vulva, I’ve just come out of my referral with a consultant gynaecologist.

After introducing herself and getting a brief history from me, she got straight to examining me. Prodding around my vulva with a cotton bud, she asked where I could feel pain. I explained (for what must be the 50th time) where the pain is and gritted my teeth through the rest of the examination.

The consultant told me to get dressed and when I sat down she said immediately: “You have an abnormal vulva.”

Hearing those words was honestly the best piece of news I could possibly have hoped for. I have been convinced when I have looked at my vulva with a mirror that things did not look normal. I could clearly see inflammation in the most painful areas, but every time I went to the hospital for my appointments at the sexual health clinic, I would be told that there was nothing there.

The gynaecologist went on to explain that she has been looking at vulvas for 25 years and that mine does not look normal. She said doctors who do not look at vulvas everyday tend not to actually know or understand what normal is, hence the diagnosis of vulvodynia. She explained that the skin condition I have could well end up also causing vulvodynia, and experiencing painful sex definitely contributes to the vaginismus (which I also have).

I don’t think I can really put into words the the anger that exploded in my body at that moment. I have been through doctors telling me anxiety and mental health issues are tricking my body into being in pain. I have been prescribed pain medication that sent me into a state of depression for months. I have been made to feel like I am going clinically insane for examining myself and seeing red raw inflammation that doctors later tell me is how vulvas are supposed to look.

To hear that after 15 months my pain and suffering is most likely vulval eczema which can hopefully be treated in a matter of months with strong steroid cream…is almost more than I have the emotional capacity to cope with.

I have been unable to have sex pretty much full stop for the last 5 months, not taking into consideration the difficulties I was having before and forcing myself to endure. I have been walking around in agony in the wild hope that my “vulvodynia” would eventually disappear.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that had I been a cis man, my condition would not have gone undiagnosed for this amount of time. I am disgusted by the way that I have been treated by doctors, who refused to listen to me. I have been passed around professionals who are clearly unqualified to deal with gynaecological issues, many of whom have often had the bedside manner of a square of soiled toilet paper.

Of course the NHS crisis is a major contributor to this and I do acknowledge the immense pressure and stress that staff are under. I will not, however, excuse the misogyny evident in the contempt many medical professionals have had for the pain I have described and how they have examined me, what must be dozens of times, only to repeatedly misdiagnose me.

I feel such a sense of relief that I am crying as I write this: they are tears of fury. Fury at the misogyny that has put me through this, at the austerity that is destroying our NHS and for my own fucked up sex life and hatred for my vulva and vagina that has developed over the course of my ordeal.

I am writing this for anyone who has a vulva: demand to be listened to, trust your instincts and do not let male doctors pass off your pain as hysteria brought on by some phantom female anxiety.

Advertisements

In what situation could we confidently assert that John Worboys has been rehabilitated?

justice

Amy Hills-Fletcher

The announcement that serial convicted sex offender, John Worboys, is to be released from prison after serving just ten years behind bars has provoked outrage. Police say that they fear he could have raped and assaulted as many as 100 women, but he only ended up in prison after being convicted of one count of rape; five sexual assaults; one attempted assault, and twelve charges of drugging. The sentence he was given is known as an imprisonment for public protection (IPP), which is a sentence designed to imprison serious offenders perceived as a risk to the public, for those who could not be given a life sentence.

Given the nature of his sentence, the Parole Board (an independent body) was able to assess whether he continued to pose a risk to the public, based on reports from those who work closely with Worboys e.g. guards, psychiatrists etc. Offenders attend hearings roughly once a year with the Parole Board: in November, a Parole Board panel directed Worboys’ release. These hearings are totally private and the reason for release is not made public, which begs the questions – how did Worboys and those who have been monitoring him in prison convince the Parole Board that he is ‘rehabilitated’ and no longer poses a great risk to the public?

With at least 85 separate complaints from other women made about Worboys after his initial conviction, over which the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) did not bring further criminal proceedings, forgive me for not popping open a bottle of champagne to celebrate the efficacy of our criminal justice system.

In light of all of this, I have been considering: in what situation could we confidently assert that John Worboys, and other offenders like him, have been rehabilitated and no longer pose a threat to women?

If sex offenders admitted responsibility for their crimes

Having pleaded ‘not guilty’ in the trial where he was then convicted of 7 sexual crimes and 12 drugging charges, it seems odd that he is able to walk out of prison having maintained this facade of innocence. As recently as 2015, he was formally protesting his innocence and applied to have his convictions reviewed in 2013. Admitting guilt and accepting responsibility has got to be the first basic step towards rehabilitation and proper justice for survivors.

If criminal charges were consistently brought against accused sex offenders

It should not be possible for any further complaint about a convicted sex offender to not be properly investigated by the police and, further to this, the CPS should have no option but to bring further criminal proceedings against an already convicted rapist. This is surely of the foremost importance when the number of women coming forward  is as high as 85. Until these complaints have been investigated and taken to court, John Worboys’ level of rehabilitation and suitability for release from prison should not be considered.

What’s more, in a society where women are consistently disbelieved or not taken seriously by the police when they report sexual crimes, Worboys is just one example of the serial sex offenders who are either left to attack women having not been tried in court at all, or released early from prison to continue to do so. It is depressing to have to argue for anyone to be put in prison, but what other choice do we have when women are being attacked and put at risk?

If the prison system were not such a disaster that perpetuated structural inequality and discrimination

Our prison system is a bleak, failing mess.

93.2% of the prison population is male and 10% are black (only 2.8% of the population is black). It is estimated that around 30% of prisoners have learning difficulties or disabilities, 10% of male prisoners have had previous psychiatric admission and 16% say they have had treatment for mental health issues. 62% of male prisoners have a personality disorder and almost a quarter were assessed as suffering from anxiety and depression. Consistently, it is poor, vulnerable adults who end up behind bars and thanks to austerity, it is even harder to believe that inmates are getting the support they desperately need.

How is throwing John Worboys, a dangerous sex offender, into one of these institutions being construed as a version of rehabilitation? There should be absolutely no situation in which a sex offender like Worboys is being dumped into our stinking prison system; the notion being that “punishment” is somehow the same thing as rehabilitation and that justice is served the minute a rapist has spent any length of time in prison.

If the tiny percentage of convicted rapists that end up in prison were actually offered an effective sex offender treatment programme 

Recently it emerged that taking part in a six month prison psychological group therapy course for sex offenders led to an increase in reoffending. The core programme has now been cut by the Ministry of Justice, but why was such an ineffective programme ever able to exist?

I have found it difficult to find out any information about whether Worboys attended a treatment programme in prison, but I sincerely hope that he did, given he has been granted release by the Parole Board. This is not say that completing the programme would be enough, but it makes my blood run cold to think that the Parole Board could have granted his release without having proven in some capacity that he has changed.

If, however, offenders like Worboys cannot even accept responsibility for the crimes they have committed against women, sex offender treatment programmes are failing at the first hurdle. Rapists and sex offenders must have to examine, in depth, the structural issues that create a society where (mostly) men rape and sexually assault (mostly) women.

Given that the overall proven reoffending rate fluctuates at around 29-32%, I am not filled with great confidence that Worboys will be released from prison a man that is no longer a dangerous, predatory misogynist.

If we were not living in a violently sexist world

The sexist world in which Worboys committed his previous sexual offences is the sexist world into which he is now being released. The path which many men go down that leads to violence against women is still one that is regularly trodden, and the reality of sex offenders committing crimes with impunity is all too real.

Until real revolutionary change is brought about, I will continue to scoff at the idea that rapists and sex offenders who serve time in our utterly morally repugnant and ineffective prison system are released as changed human beings, particularly when they are released into the same society that moulded them into the person who committed those offences in the first place.

There are reports that Worboys’ other victims are ready to bring fresh prosecutions against him. If this does happen, we will see the true nature of Worboys’ ‘rehabilitation’ – by pleading not guilty previously, he forced women survivors to endure the torment of a criminal trial.

In the current state of affairs, it seems likely that, if the CPS do bring further criminal proceedings, Worboys will maintain his innocence and the vicious cycle of bringing rapists to ineffective justice, if at all, will continue.

Vulvodynia Update: What am I Supposed to Do?

Hidradenoma_Papilliferum_of_the_Vulva_(7205035550)

Since my diagnosis of vulvodynia (which I wrote about in April) my situation has unfortunately continued to deteriorate. Each time it has felt like there has been some progress my positive feelings are swiftly shattered. The initial gratitude I felt for getting a diagnosis wore thin very quickly as I came to terms with the mammoth struggle I was up against, particularly at a time when the NHS is as under-resourced as it is.

After having seen the two consultants at the psycho-sexual unit, I started taking my daily 10mgs of amitriptyline. Even at this very low dosage, I immediately started feeling very tired. I decided to stop drinking for the first month or so of taking this medication having read about the extreme tiredness that alcohol brings on in many people who take amitriptyline – this left me feeling quite socially isolated and depressed at first but I thought it was best to allow my body to get used to the medication. Over the next few months the doctor gradually increased my daily dosage until I was taking 50mg per day. Once the dosage had hit 40mg, I noticed that the pain in my vulva had definitely dulled. I was no longer feeling pain when I sat down and the burning sensation was far less severe. The vaginal pain on penetration, however, was exactly the same – I still could not have sex. Despite the dulled vulval pain, I realised that this medication was really not working for me because every time I went on a night out it would get to the point where I physically could not keep my eyes open because I was so tired: I did not feel safe trying to get home at night by myself.

During these long months I slowly lost my sex drive almost completely. The fear of pain and the build up that I would have to go through mentally each time made any sexual interaction incredibly unappealing. What’s more, the vulval pain is unfortunately concentrated most around my clitoris and so I did not even want to touch myself, let alone let my partner. There obviously were some good days when I was able to have a sexual encounter but I generally found it easier to just avoid sex.

The effect that this has had on my mental state is difficult to describe, but I think the best I can do is to say that I feel like the vulvodynia has taken the old me hostage. I used to be sexually confident and happy where I now feel a deep sense of insecurity and anxiety. Even though I obviously have good days (because it would be too physically exhausting to feel how I do on my bad days everyday) I feel like most days I must numbly accept my unhappiness and pain, which I mostly do by filling my days with stuff – lots and lots of reading, talking (probably quite maniacally), doing work, writing, volunteering, going to meetings. I find small talk incredibly difficult in a way that I never used to. I often find myself sitting with people wishing I wasn’t there. I don’t want to make out that I have become some kind of social recluse, I haven’t, but I have become more socially anxious and find talking to certain people hard.

What really does not help is that lots of doctors like to tell me that being stressed can make the vulvodynia worse whilst they simultaneously do not offer me mental health support and say stuff like: “Ohhh poor you, it must be very frustrating. We’ll get there in the end”. After I burst into tears at my last appointment with the doctor at the sexual health unit (I am still confused as to why my doctor is here when vulvodynia is not a sexual health issue but a gynaecological one), he decided that I should start taking new medication, as the amitriptyline was not doing the trick. He prescribed me an anti-convulsant drug (Gabapentin) that is generally used to treat epilepsy.  He told me that some women find that this can help because vulvodynia can make your vaginal muscles spasm and therefore your vagina tightens making penetration difficult. The downside to this medication is I now have to take it three times a day, as opposed to once as I had done with the amitriptyline, and thus far I can report no improvements. On the plus side, I no longer experience extreme tiredness or in fact any other negative side effects. Because of my crying fit, this doctor confusingly told me that I should go back to my GP to be referred for pelvic floor physiotherapy.

I went to said GP appointment this morning and was told to stop reading up on vulvodynia online or in books because overthinking it will make the situation worse. She did not seem to really understand what vulvodynia is (no surprises there) and was making all of the worst assumptions about vulvodynia being a result of my mental health. This made me want to fly out of my chair and punch her in the face but instead I just cried again and tried to calmly explain that the vulval pain has nothing to do with my anxiety, my anxiety is there because of the vulval pain. I managed to get her to refer me for physiotherapy but really she seemed like she wanted to bundle me out of the room.

What am I supposed to do? Wait the 3 months in between my appointments twiddling my thumbs, taking medication that does not help me? Of course I seek out help online because talking to other sufferers of vulvodynia has enabled me to find some respite and some useful information and advice. I feel like I am being passed around between medical professionals in the NHS who are too overworked to care about what I have been going through because I am not dying. It is getting to the point where I feel like I should seek out a specialist privately because this year and a half long process is dragging me further and further from the happy person I want to be.

Something surely has got to change – how can so many women be suffering in the same way with so little support? Waiting lists are at least 3 months long for most services and in between, I am left flailing around unable to speak to most people I know and crying intermittently to my mum or boyfriend. The sad truth though is that without serious funding for the health service, vulvodynia is going to be so far down the list of priorities that all health professionals can possibly do is chuck some medication at you and hope for the best.

Boots, Trump and Northern Ireland…Why are we still having to talk about abortion and contraceptive rights in 2017?

DSC_0195

Amy Hills-Fletcher

For many people, 2017 will be remembered as a year when moralistic and reactionary arguments around abortion rights and women’s contraceptive rights were dragged back into the mainstream. Yesterday, Boots decided to wade into the debate around abortion and contraceptive rights by refusing to lower the price of the morning after pill, which costs around £30.

Despite the fact that other chains, like Superdrug, agreed to halve the price after a campaign by Bpas (The British Pregnancy Advisory Service), Boots wrote a letter to Bpas explaining that the “EHC [emergency hormonal contraception] polarises public opinion,”  and that they “receive frequent contact from individuals who voice their disapproval of the fact that the company chooses to provide this service.” Boots went on to make the revolting, moralising statement that they “would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product.”

The notion that we stupid women should be punished if we are worried we may fall pregnant after unprotected sex, whether that be because of a split condom, forgetting to take the pill, or a drunk night of unprotected sex, is insulting. What’s more, the suggestion that lowering the price would lead to a stampede of irresponsible women in Boots, post-sex, frothing at the mouth and raring to take the morning after pill “inappropriately” feeds the suggestion that we are incapable of making contraceptive decisions independently, and that we are all just horny, irresponsible whores looking for a bargain on our mission to murder unborn children. Unfortunately, this Boots saga comes in a year where it seems our reproductive rights are once more up for grabs in many respects.

In 2017, a bill in parliament to decriminalise abortion in England was voted in. Shockingly, the 1967 Abortion Act did not actually do this, but rather made it legal only if two doctors approve the procedure – if you failed to meet these conditions, you would have been committing a criminal offence. Online abortion pills are now widely available and abortion was the only medical procedure governed by such old legislation. Why were women still being questioned on their ability to make these choices independently?

In the USA, we have seen the election of the racist, misogynist Donald Trump who, in his first day in the Oval office, signed a federal ban on international groups that give information about or provide abortions. He and his ilk are pro-life and anti-women. Lest we forget that during Trump’s election campaign he suggested that there should be “some kind of punishment” in place for women who have abortions (if it was banned). More recently, there has been a proposed revision of the contraception mandate (which saved women more than $1 billion in birth control costs in 2013) of the Affordable Care Act, which would make it much more difficult for women to get protection. When this is paired with the fact that abstinence is taught in some schools in the USA as a part of sex education (and often instead of education around contraception), Trump’s administration will put women at risk of pregnancy as their ability to have free, safe abortions is being threatened more every day. A Donald Trump appointed judge recently compared abortion to slavery, calling them, “The two greatest tragedies in our country.”

Of course in the UK, Northern Ireland has been at the centre of the struggle for free, safe and legal abortion since the 1967 Abortion Act has never applied there. This fact has become more prominent of late due to the Tories’ dodgy deal with the fiercely pro-life DUP.  Abortion is not permitted in Northern Ireland even in cases of rape and incest and in 2016, a 21-year-old woman was given a suspended sentence after she bought drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage as she did not have the money to travel to England for an abortion. It was recently announced that the government would provide free abortions to Northern Irish women in England. Although this is a step in the right direction, women would still have to have the funds to get to England in the first place, after most likely having to take days off work and/or organise child care.

Like women in Northern Ireland and USA, the disturbing common thread is that women who have money are more likely to be able to access safe and legal abortion and contraception services, whilst women who do not, have their right to bodily autonomy taken from them. What’s more, companies like Boots are putting their profits before our reproductive rights whilst condescending to us with their sneering moralism.

The fight is no where near over whilst an estimated 22 million unsafe abortions take place worldwide each year. Women are driven to this when they cannot access safe, legal and free abortions and/or access free contraception due (often) to the sweeping moralism of the state and religious institutions and the contempt with which they view the concept of our right to choose what we do with our bodies.

We must continue to oppose any suggestion to limit our abortion and contraceptive rights in the UK and across the world, and in the case of Northern Ireland, keep fighting for the right to access free and legal abortions. Boots will likely see the effects of openly showing contempt for our contraceptive rights after a boycott has been called. What is horrifying, however, is this reminder that, in the year where millions flooded the streets to join the Women’s Marches, the hard fought victories that were won by reproductive and contraceptive rights campaigners must be held onto with all of our strength to protect them from those that are waiting to pounce and drag us back to much darker times.

I was sexually harassed and touched at work and nothing was done

TW: Sexual assault and harassment

Anonymous

It has been 8 months since I was sexually assaulted and harassed at work and nothing has been done.

I had been sexually assaulted by different men (once at a house party, 3 times in public) four times previously and had never reported it. I had always wanted to play down what had happened and did not want to re-traumatise myself by going through the process of a police investigation for what I knew were ultimately very minor sexual crimes. I did report an incident to the police once when a group of us were flashed on the way home by a drunk man who was out with his friends. I was so fed up and furious that I ran and asked for help and some lovely men tried to stop him leaving in a taxi while I called the police – it took them more than 40 minutes to arrive, by which point I had gone home and the man had escaped. When the police called me to follow up the next day, they said “he did not seem like a predator” and was “just drunk”. This was obviously a minor incident but it is my only personal experience of reporting a sexual crime to a higher power and it did not fill me with a great sense of optimism.

On starting work at a Secondary School in September, I naively thought that I would be safe from work place harassment. In my first week, however, I had already taken note of how creepy one of the PE teachers was. Every time he passed me in the corridor he would wink, and he inappropriately called my line manager “a two faced bitch” in one of the few conversations we had. He would leer at me in meetings, giving me those horrible looks that all women recognise. In short, he seemed like a creepy, sexist older man.

At the Christmas staff quiz he was sitting on my table. I had had a few glasses of wine and was chatting to various members of staff on my table. My memory is hazy due to the alcohol, but I remember him making some kind of comment along the lines of “you have a great figure” and as he said this, he put both his hands onto my thighs. It was over very quickly but it made my skin crawl. I tried to brush it off with nervous laughter and moved to a different seat. I attempted to forget about it, but had this nasty feeling that he was testing the waters to see how I would react, to see how far he could push his behaviour.

After the Christmas holidays I was at a year group briefing early before school in one of the classrooms. I was sitting at the back, the other members of staff were in front of me. He came into the room late and so people were joking about him being lazy – everyone was laughing about it. As the meeting started and the other members of staff were distracted, he walked close behind me, put his hand under my hair on the back of my neck and said confidently (but so nobody else could hear) “very pretty.” He then moved calmly across the room to sit on the other side from me.

I was so astounded that I actually started to say thank you before I fully realised what had happened and felt furiously sick. The meeting was only ten minutes, but it felt torturously long because I was hot with rage and so deeply disgusted. He was so much older than me, with a round head, sharky eyes and a terrible haircut – the hair was thinning, grey and crunchy. He always wore shorts which revealed his waxy legs. I was furious he thought he had any right to my body. How dare he leer at me, touch me. It brought back all of those memories of the times men had taken my body as their right, grabbing my vagina as I tried to turn off the smoke alarm at a party, undoing my bikini top on a beach where I was alone, living in a foreign country.

After the meeting finished, I immediately spoke to a woman teacher that I trusted and asked if she had heard him – she had not, but she agreed that I should report what had happened. I felt confident because his behaviour had been so inappropriate leading up to this (second) assault that I was sure they would deal with it – a string of incidents is surely more likely to show how calculated his actions were?

Unfortunately all that followed was a humiliating investigation, led by an older male member of the Senior Leadership Team who, frankly, did not have a clue. They followed procedure, they said, and told me they were carrying out a ‘formal investigation’ – an HR woman from the council came in to oversee the process. I was interviewed multiple times, crying openly in two of the meetings. This was humiliation enough as a young woman new to a job. I also had to drag one of my colleagues with me to the meetings as my support as  I was not in a union yet (I had only been working there for a month and, stupidly, had not got round to joining).

I was sure that there would be some outcome – all I wanted was for him to admit he had harassed and assaulted me. I wanted my work place to see that I had been a victim of age and gender discrimination and to acknowledge that I did not feel safe or comfortable. Instead, after a horrific process over the course of two weeks, they decided there was not enough evidence to support what I had said (despite the fact he had admitted to saying what I told them). They told me that the problem was that they could not prove that the “unwanted sexual touching” had happened.

I was confused because I did not understand what process I had just been through. They had said it was a formal investigation but they then played it down saying it had actually just been informally working out what had happened. I tried to say that I did not care about the formalities and I just wanted to be believed and for him to understand what he had done. They offered for him to write an apology letter but this only infuriated me – how could he apologise for something he was denying he had done?

What is so frustrating is that they did not have any internal procedures in place to deal with structural issues like sexism. I can guarantee that this man never went through any kind of training about gender inequality and discrimination – how is this not a safeguarding issue? The man works with vulnerable children everyday as part of his job, yet the school were entirely incapable of taking seriously his harassment of a new, young colleague and how that could have the potential to be a serious issue for the children in the school.

I tried to explain to the investigating team that, for me, this was not just about the incidents themselves, but about the inherent power imbalance that was at play in everything that had happened. He was able to treat me in the way that he did because I was new, because I was young and because I am a woman. He was a long-standing member of staff who I feel was testing the waters with me from the minute I arrived to see what behaviour he could get away with.

Unfortunately, my experience is not unique and on the scale of sexual crimes, it is very minor – if I had reported this to the police, I would have had no hope whatsoever of getting any kind of justice. A 2016 TUC survey of 1,500 women cited 52% as having stated that they had been sexually harassed at work, and a quarter of those women experienced unwanted touching. This is a systemic issue and it is to the shame of the local authority school where I work that they have absolutely no training in place around these issues for staff.

It is 8 months on from this and it has been totally brushed under the rug. I asked for a meeting with the investigating officer when I received a whole staff email from my harasser wishing all of us “ladies” a happy international women’s day – he had attached a photograph of a man holding a bouquet of flowers… Aside from wanting to gag, I was apoplectic with rage that he had had the audacity to include me in his stupid, sexist email after everything that I had had to go through.

When I complained about this email I explained, yet again, that he very clearly had no understanding of how to behave towards female members of staff and asked whether there would be any training provided so that he could understand the string of terrible things he had done, and be able to put together some kind of formal apology. The investigating officer attempted to appease me by claiming to understand but, since that meeting, absolutely nothing has happened and they claim that no such training course exists.

I flinch every single time I pass my harasser in the corridor. I feel embarrassed and anxious anytime a member of staff from the PE department is near me. I worry that the Senior Leadership Team think I overreacted and lied. In short, it has made my life at work extremely difficult. I was referred for CBT by my GP and in those sessions truly realised how much anxiety work was causing me. Thankfully I am leaving in 4 weeks time, but I must endure those weeks knowing that nothing has been done.

My experience is part of a vast picture of harassment, intimidation and violence against women, LGBTQI+ and non-binary people within the work place. It is no shock to me that work places get away with creating and nurturing these unsafe spaces for us, but it is really important that people are aware of how widespread this kind of behaviour is. I wish I had had the strength to shout out in that meeting for him to get his hands off me, but in the moment, I froze.

We need strengthened unions that stand up for workers and protect us from harassment and bullying and proper training and development for members of the workforce who are sexist – it is disgusting to allow this cycle of sexual assault and harassment to continue.  Thankfully, I am able to leave my workplace and move on to something else – although I suffered, ultimately, I have been able to keep living my life when, for others, this is not the case. Sexual harassment often causes women to be pushed out of work causing a devastating economic impact on the woman victim. It can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other serious mental  health issues. It has a knock on effect to almost every part of the victim’s day to day life and a huge social impact within the workplace (if the woman has not felt like she has no other option but to leave).

We must continue to fight to kick sexual harassment out of the workplace and remember how many thousands of women, LGBTQI+ and non-binary people are impacted each year by the insidious sexist culture that pervades our work places.

Bacterial Vaginosis: One Woman – not the first, not the last, but alone.


Anonymous

The Harpy blog article posted in April is one of a few that have recently caught my attention (perhaps because of my own experience with vulval health) which have addressed the naïvety surrounding women’s sexual health care. Granted, I know nothing about other forms of genital healthcare, or how they are dealt with in clinics, health centres or even by specialists – I can only speak from my own dealings with Bacterial Vaginosis (BV). It’s hard to begin this article after wanting to write it down for so long – where to start?

Maybe I’ll put forward a hypothesis of a cycle – top down, funding for research into women’s sexual health is limited. Funding for medical testing, understandably, prioritises illnesses that affect a larger demographic (cancer, HIV etc.), but it is hard not to be frustrated that, although thrush and BV are ‘common’ conditions, they are much less manageable than the flu (from my experience anyway).

Since there is limited funding for the research which is desperately required, what limited empirical knowledge of vulval health is there for the doctors and nurses to learn? Even the NHS website admits not much is known about BV, for example. Due to this, women often get turned away with a pack of antibiotics and a ‘come back if it gets worse’ kind of attitude. Unless the problem is incredibly persistent, if you’re turned away more than three times say, you’re unlikely to go back for something like BV, which can be at times asymptomatic.

The sexual health clinic, doctor’s and the gynaecologist’s are supposed to be places where stigmatisation is irrelevant, so it can be hugely distressing when there is no clear antidote for such intimate issues, and when the people we often put our trust in are not confidant in their own diagnosis. This leads to the lonely road outside the clinic – apparently one in three women get BV, but I’d only heard about it as a mythical condition ‘you NEVER want to get’ because it makes your vagina STINK.’ Maybe because it is more prevalent for women of colour and, admittedly, my friends are unquestionably a majority of white middle class women, perhaps less of them have had it (as a condition experienced by many black women in particular, I want to refer everyone to the gal-dem article that really spurred me on to write this one, which also addresses how BV is misunderstood in sexual relationships).

I didn’t know it had a name. I didn’t know anyone who had it until I was open about it. I imagine this is because of a combination of the nature of the condition (an embarrassing smell) and the alienation of the professionals that leads women to hide it, which is an incredibly self-isolating reaction that has only ever led to the detriment of mental health.

I was shocked when friends I talked to openly about menstruation, masturbating, sex, sex, sex etc. only ever told me about their BV experience once I, in my unwavering need to talk my issues into the ground, was open about the gory details (which incidentally are not that gory…)

So in the spirit of sharing and finding my ultimate platform to really get to grips with the issues, I’ll just now go into my own story which I hope finds resonance with other people’s experience.

Around August last year, having been consistently sleeping with the same person for a few months, I went straight to work from his house one day after not using a condom (mistake 1), unshowered (mistake 2) and felt a familiar sensation of slight irritation. As the day went by, this became a burning pain. When I went to the loo, I noticed an unfamiliar and alarming – yes, fishy – smell that immediately made me panic. I was working 9 to 6 so couldn’t do anything about it, but I was close to tears by the end of the day. On the way home, I got off the bus because I thought I could smell myself and was embarrassed in case other passengers could smell me too.

At work I’d been going over in my mind what the fuck could be happening to me – I’d been having unprotected sex, which had been a conscious choice because I trusted the guy and was on the pill and knew I was safe from STDs. So, I’d had a bit of discomfort after sex because of his cum, but something had changed this time. Basically I FREAKED THE FUCK OUT –  I might have the unnamed ‘disease’ that everyone said you should avoid. By the time I got home I was on a mission – laptop, internet, ‘what the fuck is wrong with me?’ Answer: ‘Thrush or BV.’ ‘What can i do?’ Answer: ‘Apple cider vinegar’. So, it being the end of a Saturday and not being able to go to a pharmacy or anything immediately, I did the best home remedy that I found online and poured some apple cider vinegar in a bath. This caused some relief, but was the first of a long line of home remedy attempts.

Interruption for life lesson – USE A FUCKING CONDOM.

BV is not an STI but believe it or not there is a pH imbalance between cum and vagina, the former is alkaline the latter acidic and far more sensitive. I think probably a bit too much alkaline ultimately fucked me up. I didn’t really know this was what I had until I went to the sex clinic on the Monday, I was given the antibiotics, reassured that it was nothing ‘more serious’ – as in not an STI – and felt relived that in a week I should be cleared up. Sidenote – this was the first time I had slept with someone for longer than a week so I was pretty excited to say the least, and. as you can imagine, totally bummed out that this was happening, and I think it also began the winding down of this summer tryst – not very helpful for a girl’s self-esteem. Smelly fanny. End of sex – mutually exclusive or cause and effect?

Flash forward – my first bout of antibiotics helped with the burning immediately, but the smell and and inane consciousness of my vagina’s presence was persistent. I then went to the pharmacy and bought some Canesten pH balancing tubes – again, some relief, but messy AF and a faff to insert. I’ve now also used the Balance Activ pessaries AND tubes and a Canesten test to see if you had thrush or BV – basically all bogus. Granted friends have had some success with these, but not lasting. I went back to the sex clinic and happened to see a gynocologist who said it was gone. So I was like, ‘Great I can drink and have sex, woo!’ Wrong. From this point on I was on and off different kinds of antibiotics at least four times – higher dosage, longer dosage etc. Once these were ineffective I explored the internet again for more specific home remedies.

The online presence of women with vulval problems is, to say the least, extensive – especially for BV. Hundreds of women on family forums and chat rooms have shared their experiences and I did not feel any better for it – just far more angry. Some women had been dealing with the condition for decades. DECADES! Some, at this point, had made drastic life changes such as no sugar, no alcohol, no caffeine, or no dairy diets, that may or may not have worked. Very few women would follow up on their hypothesis online and, if they did, it usually went like this: 1) ‘Gonna try [insert insane home remedy such as vitamin C tablets in the vagina] tonight, I’ve heard good things, and I really think it will work.’ 2) ‘First day in and it’s going really well so far, smell’s pretty much gone, I just have funky discharge, I might do a week and stop,’ 3) ‘Guys I’m so upset I stopped using [insert home remedy] and the smell has come back! I don’t know what do!’

Basically all of these ‘remedies’ are totally impractical and any benefits, at risk of further harm, are short term. Some of these I’ve tried, such as the afore mentioned vitamin C tablet insertions (worked for a friend, not for me); garlic cloves inserted in the nether regions at night (worked whilst I used them but so much hassle – no longevity); one brief stint with hydrogen peroxide (highly recommended online – total bullshit, painful and messy); no sugar diet (just boring AF made little to no difference).

What worried me a lot was after finally seeing a proper gynaecologist she didn’t flinch at these obscure and potentially harmful self-treatments. Basically, it means that she couldn’t offer anything better than these experiments. Granted she thought I didn’t have BV anymore (although she didn’t take a swab – hmm…) and actually suggested I might have a kind of reactionary vulvodynia, which I don’t believe I have (although lack of penetration, tampons or otherwise, means I can’t really tell). I was totally unsatisfied with her diagnosis and am frustrated that I’m still dealing with this shit almost a year later after it started. THERE IS SOMETHING INHERENTLY WRONG WITH MY VAGINA! Why can no on see it?

After seeing my GP several times, more blood and urine samples, an ultrasound to check whether there is anything wrong with my bladder since I’d had the sensation of a UTI since contracting BV, (which I thought was part of the condition but might have been a side affect – who the fuck knows) the end is not in sight. I have an appointment with a different gynaecologist coming up soon who I will grill, but apart from just getting used to a dull heaviness in my belly and the knowledge that I am unlikely to let anyone near my vagina again (to subject them to the smell or make it worse) there is not much I’m willing to do anymore.

What I have found valuable over the last year is really getting to grips with the different ways my friends are also suffering – polycystic ovaries and their symptoms, UTIs, chronic thrush, relapsing BV, contraceptive side affects – which are physically and mentally detrimental. I’m terribly sad that despite knowing my friends are very open about their bodies, the complicated and dismissive journey to receive a correct and reassuring diagnosis and treatment is incredibly isolating. Without comparing to those suffering diagnosed mental health issues, the emotional upheaval, however irrational, was extreme. Personally I found it incredibly difficult to get over the crippling self-consciousness I experienced, the thought that I would never find a partner who would not be completely curtailed by my odour, never feeling clean even though I showered everyday, not wanting to get dressed fearing that my clothes would smell, barely having the motivation to leave the house (granted for me combined with moving city and re-entering education) – whilst this sounds over dramatic and self-indulgent a close friend with the same condition and the scores of women present online show that this is not an unfamiliar state. Some individuals admitted they were so self conscious, even with their partners, that if they did have sex (often because they FELT BAD FOR THEIR PARTNER) they would only have sex in the bath or shower. How is it possible that a ‘common’ condition can leave women feeling so utterly helpless and insecure to the point of jeopardising their relationships and preventing them from living daily life?

I wish I could properly pinpoint where it’s going wrong – Patriarchy? I mean women have had vaginas since the beginning of time, so why do they continue to be a mystery? Especially since they GIVE LIFE.

All I can say is I feel privileged to share my experience and that I hope it resonates with some readers, not only to encourage them to share *cheese*, but for others to not be so discrediting when someone wants to open up. Again, I’m privileged that my friends are happy to hear the gritty details of my sexual organs but I also have other friends who have been received with unhelpful reactions – without negating the experience of thrush, having it once, sadly, is not the same as having BV for two years and if you haven’t had it, or vulvodynia for that matter, you probably do not know what it’s like in the same way that I having had BV will NEVER know what it’s like to have endometriosis or polycystic ovaries. BV is just one way of entering the deep dark convoluted realm of mysterious vaginal complications.

I’m not sure I’ve even fully articulated how this last year has been for me, or the incredible online presence of other such isolated women, not to mention that, if this is my experience (middle class white woman in a ‘developed’ country), what kind of situation is it for those where the healthcare systems are few and far between if existent?

Food for thought, if not an argument for some sort of initiative towards better women’s healthcare through research.

Anonymous

5 Reasons Self-defining Women Should Vote For Corbyn’s Labour 

Amy Hills-Fletcher

Last week, as has been a daily occurrence since the announcement of the snap general election, I was having a conversation with a woman about our voting intentions. Some way into this discussion, she asked tentatively,  “But doesn’t Corbyn have a bit of a problem with women?”

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, commentators on both the right and the liberal left have thrown the accusation of sexism around, citing arguments such as, “But none of the key positions in the shadow cabinet are held by women,” or, “Wasn’t it supporters of Corbyn who  threw a brick through the window of Angela Eagle’s office?” These newspaper sound bite arguments have consistently been used to undermine Corbyn, with no real regard for the truth – a brick was not thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s office, and quite clearly, many of Corbyn’s closest allies and most important voices in his shadow cabinet are prominent women MPs, such as Diane Abbott (Shadow Home Secretary) and Angela Rayner (Shadow Secretary of State for Education).

What has all too often been the case is that those who are ideologically opposed to Corbyn, whether this be people on the Labour right, liberal commentators in The Guardian, or right-wing journalists, have used allegations of sexism against Corbyn and his allies as a political weapon.

As well as rejecting the smears that have been aimed at Corbyn, there are 5 good reasons to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour:

1) His voting record

Corbyn’s actions over the course of his career as an MP show emphatically that he is in fact a committed anti-sexist, who has stood alongside women in their struggle against sexism. He has consistently supported abortion rights, the rights of sex workers, LGBTQI+ rights and other issues that mainly affect self-defining women, and has voted accordingly in parliament throughout his career.

2) His support of the grassroots 

It is not just his voting record that is important, but also the way in which Corbyn and John McDonnell have supported women in grassroots campaigns throughout their careers, such as this meeting, which McDonnell hosted in the House of Commons last year.  If you are still in need of convincing, Corbyn was shown to literally be amplifying women’s voices when he did this during the election campaign:

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 16.49.03

 

3) His gender is not inherently an issue

There are some who suggest that Corbyn’s cis male gender identity somehow inherently means that he cannot work alongside and support women in the struggle for gender equality in the same way that a self-identifying woman could. We need only look to Theresa “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” May to see how easy it is to co-opt a radical liberation movement, and claim a “feminism” that is based solely on gender identity and not on actions. Sometimes, being a woman is not enough. We must reject the faux feminism of right-wing women who are pro-life, pro-war and pro-austerity yet claim to be “on the side” of women.

4) His policies

The cruel austerity measures that the Conservatives have over seen have disproportionately affected women, particularly mothers, who are bearing 85 per cent of the cuts. The manifesto that Labour has put forward has promised to put a stop to austerity and to properly fund public services through higher taxation on the 5 per cent, as well as through measures such as reversing corporation tax cuts. There is no question that women in particular will benefit from the manifesto pledges that Labour have set out, such as (to name just a few), free childcare for 2-4 year olds, halting cuts to women’s refuges, reforming the Gender Recognition Act, making LGBT hate crimes aggravated offences, and appointing a Violence Against Women Commissioner.

5) A progressive alliance will do nothing for women

The calls for a progressive alliance appear to come from a good place, but the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Tories in 2010 after saying emphatically that they wouldn’t – what’s to stop them doing exactly the same this time around? The Liberal Democrats may appear to have socially liberal policies, but Tim Farron has made clearly offensive comments about homosexuality and has not supported abortion rights (shown by his voting record). Any alliance that involves the Lib Dems should not be called progressive. We have a Labour leader worth voting for, why vote Lib Dem?

In this election, women have the opportunity to vote for someone who is committed to fighting for justice for all, and for a person who feels genuine compassion for members of our community living in poverty through no fault of their own. Corbyn is passionate, dedicated and, shockingly, seems to be a genuinely nice man.

Corbyn is the only truly progressive, anti-war, anti-racist and anti-sexist potential Labour Prime Minister we have ever had the chance to vote for, and he can win.

Register to vote by this Monday, and then, #VoteLabour.

 

Amy Hills-Fletcher