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It’s About Time We Talk About Women’s Health 

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Exeter chapter.

A women’s health has a long history of being controlled by a patriarchal system founded on the presumption of male superiority over the female body. And whilst centuries later we are starting to see the light at the end of a very male-dominant tunnel, we still fail to talk freely about women’s health. But why? This lack of autonomy has long been ingrained, leaving women to feel almost scared of their body and shamed to speak up about problems they are facing.  

The “Wandering Womb” – How to Blame a Women’s Body… For Everything  

Hippocrates can be credited with coining the delightful condition of ‘hysteria’ in Ancient Greece. As Gilman, King, Porter, Rousseau and Showalter discuss in Hysteria Beyond Freud, this is a disease solely for women and could been seen in a plethora of symptoms and believed to be caused by an unstimulated uterus (womb) that lacked sexual fulfilment.

Sterpellone’s Greek Medicine tells us that the treatment for this condition was to prescribe sex. However, this sex had to take place within the strict confinement of marriage, and thus young women were shipped off to be wed and “fulfil” their uterine needs. Not only this treatment fuelling men’s pleasure through sex, but female pleasure was neglected, with masturbation being considered sinful.

Only in 1800s did Freud show that males too could contract hysteria, debunking this female-only disease with its origins in the uterus. However, whilst we are so far along in the timeline of women’s health, stigma surrounding female self-pleasure and sexual concerns are still rife amongst the population. The mysteriousness of a women’s body, and male dominance over its function ensues ongoing indignity and makes many women ashamed to speak about their health, whether that be clinical problems or sexual wellbeing.  

Stigmas, Shame and Sex in the Modern Society  

Fast forward to 2023 and we still fail to see women’s health as a topic that can be openly spoken out. And why is that? Despite years of empowering women’s rights and autonomy over their own bodies, women still do not feel comfortable to talk about their problems, both to medical professionals and friends.

The pathologised history of women’s health has led us into a rabbit hole of myths, shames, and controversies where we feel we cannot express our concerns to one another, yet alone the desire to take control of our sexual pleasure. Why is male sexual pleasure so commonplace and yet women feel a sense of wrongness for self-intimacy? The first vibrator was developed in 1880, but hold on! Whilst this may seem progressive, Baloh (in Medically Unexplained Symptoms) tells us this device was originally made to relieve men’s pain!

Even 143 years on – there is still a taboo surrounding the use of vibrators in women. In 2019, sex toy start-up Dame released an advertisement for female sex toys. This was rejected by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, despite them previously freely supporting the advertisement of sexual content tailored to men. Dame subsequently sued on the grounds of gender inequality.

This double standard needs to be faced head on, and speaking freely about women’s health is a first step in achieving this. There is zero shame in owning own’s sexual experiences, and in fact female masturbation has been linked to reduced urinary tract infections, increased pelvic floor strength along with mental health benefits including stress relief and increases in mood. So, take time for you, because not only do you own your own body, but your sexual experiences are not defined by anyone else.  

Sadly, the stigma surrounding women’s health stretches beyond female pleasure, and has swept through the medical profession such that many women do not feel comfortable raising concerns regarding their health, whether that be gynaecological or not. With their thoughts often shunned as being overreactions, no doubt women hide their health problems from both professionals and their relationships. A survey of 5,100 UK women and men found that 56% of women thought their pain was underemphasised or neglected by medical professionals.

Personally, I can resonate, having trailed through numerous appointments for years just to seek clarification of my pain, only to find that I was told I was “fine” every single time. Four years down the line I have finally managed to access diagnostic tests to confirm my pain, yet this process has made me lose trust in myself and my opinions. Similarly, lower than 2.5% of publicly funded research money is given to reproduce health in women. Five times more money is given to erectile dysfunction, which affects 19% of men, than premenstrual syndrome, affecting a huge 90% of women. I acknowledge the crucial importance of men’s health and actively support raising awareness, but this figure highlights the staggering inequality, given that less than 2.5% of public spending is going into a finding solutions to problems that 1 in 3 women face.

By fighting my case alone for so long, not only did I not receive the medical care I needed, but I stopped trusting myself about my body and what it told me, doubting that my pain was valid and assuming I was just being… well “hysterical” – how appropriate!

Alongside this, I have a gynaecological condition called vestibulodynia, which at first, I felt scared to share to both my friends and my partner, and my opinion was dismissed by many since I did not fit the stereotypic “normal” demographic for gynae problems. I am 21 years old, and wondering why my age is even coming into conversations about the validity of my pain.

Conversations with professionals even rose to where I was told that my sexual pain was “just” something I had to push through, giving no concern to the fact I was not experiencing any pleasure from sex at the time, and was in fact in weeklong stints of unbearable pain. Unfortunately, I am not alone, and many women are shipped away because a young women experiencing sexual pain must be an overreaction to normal sex; the “just get over it” opinion was being thrown on me again.

I am lucky enough to have found people that considered my problems valid, saw the impact on both my physical and mental health. But many women after these initial traumatising encounters will not seek further help, and instead internalise their problems as things that they just have to live with. Even amongst friends, many women find it hard to open up about their problems, and this leads to each of us fighting our battles alone instead of uniting and laying bare the concerns women face about their health explicitly. Just having the knowledge that my sexual health was valid helped me to be able to speak up about it openly and realise that I should not be embarrassed by any aspect of my health.   

Every woman’s experience is valid. Every woman’s pain is justified and should be treated with respect. And every woman should own their sexuality and their pleasure, irrespective of whether that be alone or with a partner. We have reached a point where we need to talk about women’s health and the inequalities in access to healthcare and pleasure- so let’s start the conversation. Let’s talk about *women’s* sex.  

Meg Sullivan

Exeter '24

Hi I'm Meg :) I'm a Psychology Master's student at the University of Exeter attempting to navigate my way through my mental health and letting everyone know that they are not alone on this journey <3. I am passionate about promoting self-care and raising awareness around mental health. I love travelling and all things outdoors but am also a sucker for a cosy afternoon with a good book!