TW: mention of suicide
0.000095%. This strikingly-minuscule figure, which headlined the front page of the British tabloid The Sun last month, refers to the probability of fatal blood clots caused by the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Despite its extremely rare side effects, a rise in public uncertainty led a vast number of European countries to temporarily suspend their Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine rollout, and even ban it indefinitely, as occurred in Denmark. Nevertheless, while blood clots developed in AstraZeneca vaccine recipients at a rate of 1 in 250,000 according to the MHRA, a BMJ study concluded that combined oral contraceptives cause excess clotting cases in approximately 6 to 14 per 10,000 women every year. As the world anxiously observed the debate surrounding the British-Swedish vaccine’s potential risks, this attention-grabbing comparison was repeatedly touched upon, thereby raising the question: Is women’s sexual health systemically neglected?
Throughout history, female sexuality has been substantially disregarded and deeply stigmatised. The problematic Victorian attitudes towards women’s sensuality are exemplified by the British doctor William Acton who asserted in 1865 that “the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind” and that “a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself”. In particular, the sexist public discourse surrounding ‘female hysteria’, which some scholars argue led to the 19th century invention of the vibrator, truly sheds light on the historically misunderstood nature of women’s bodies. Nowadays, women continue to experience a wide range of overlooked health issues, such as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which leads around 15% of diagnosed sufferers to attempt suicide in their lifetime. It is important to note the far-reaching impacts of such health concerns, as roughly half of British women suffer from poor sexual health according to research published in BMC Public Health last year. Moreover, this eye-opening study found that women in the United Kingdom are disproportionately experiencing poor sexual well-being, thereby revealing the prevailing structural discrepancy between the quality of men and women’s access to reproductive healthcare.
Arguably, one of the most significant underlying roots of this deplorable gender gap is the lack of sex education. Established upon the conventional experiences of cis-gendered, heterosexual males, the traditional sex ed curriculum has effectively failed to address women’s sexual needs. As critically remarked in a The Guardian opinion piece, “girls and boys spend at least the first 10 years of their sex lives focusing exclusively on what boys want,” thereby emphasizing the generational inequality perpetuated by limited relationship and sex education (RSE). Despite recent forward-thinking developments, such as the Department of Education’s 2019 ruling to include LGBTQ+ relationships in compulsory RSE classes, further progress is imperative. By predominantly focusing on the reproductive process (and how to avoid it) without discussing the topic of sexual pleasure, schools essentially cultivate the toxic social stigma and self-shame which permeates female sexuality. Therefore, creating a safe, sex-positive environment, which actively addresses consent, orgasms, and masturbation, is of utmost importance for the future of women’s sexual health.
In addition to exacerbating the detrimental gender bias which encompasses the academic field of medicine, women’s neglected sexual health causes devastating physical, as well as psychological, consequences. For instance, the misdiagnosis of female heart attack symptoms and their unequal treatment directly resulted in the deaths of 8,200 women in England and Wales during the last decade, as reported by the British Heart Foundation. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation has expressed that “poor mental health [is] associated with the significant burden that reproductive health conditions place on women.”’ As we gradually approach the UK’s long-awaited return to normalcy thanks to the highly-efficient national vaccine rollout, it is essential to advocate for a post-COVID ‘new normal’ which holistically embraces women’s sexual health. Only by raising awareness through education and urging governments to invest in women’s healthcare are we able to foster a healthy approach to sexual intimacy and ultimately advance women’s empowerment. Finally, scientists must continue to conduct research into more riskless combined oral contraceptives, as 151 million women of reproductive age currently rely on the pill around the world. Prior to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine controversy, a significant number of women felt gravely unaware of the birth control pill’s concerning side effects, such as a Scottish woman who declared “I’m happy I’ve had an AstraZeneca vaccine but I’m never going back on the pill.” Therefore, blood clots, vaccines, and the pill are truly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to female sexuality.
[Athina Bohner – she/her – @athina.14 (instagram)]
[Photo credits: Mićo Tatalović]