Monday, August 24, 2015

What We Need to Teach Young Women About Their Bodies

Originally Published on Huffington Post

I used to work in a sexual health clinic. It was interesting but sometimes frustrating work. One day a young woman came in upset and angry about a "discharge" she had that she didn't like and wanted to get rid of. 
"I've been to two other clinics and had tests and they tell me there's nothing wrong with me. But I still have this discharge!" 
I asked her if the discharge was clear and watery, like egg whites. She said it was. "You know, there is nothing wrong with you," I said. "In fact, everything is right with you. That is your natural cervical mucus. It comes every month before ovulation, and it has to do with your fertility." 
We then had a conversation about the mucus changes over the month and what these changes mean. She left, much relieved and a lot wiser. 
Women don't understand their fertility.
At the clinic I rarely met women, young or old, who understand their fertility and what happens during the menstrual cycle. They all know about the blood, although not always why they bleed. But few know anything about what happens between periods. No one has told them. 
Why have we kept this information from young women? Why do we tell them they can get pregnant any time of the month? If it's to encourage young people to use protection when they have sex, it doesn't seem to work. We have given out countless morning after pills (emergency contraception pills) to young women who tell us they always use condoms except that once when they didn't and guess when that one time usually is? You got it, just at their most fertile time. They have no idea when that is or how their body can clue them in about it. 
Educators and counsellors don't know how to tell the story of fertility.
When educators and counsellors don't have the full story, we are afraid to share the information we have lest it be misinterpreted. Some of us think the information is too complicated. We don't know how to explain it, so we don't say anything. 
When I was young, no one really understood what cervical mucus was, what it was for and why it changed over the month. But now we know that when this mucus is wet, slippery, clear and stretchy, it is what we call fertile mucus. It comes a few days before ovulation. 
Fertile window includes cervical mucus.
Some years ago I read an article that proclaimed women's "fertile window" was unpredictable. The conclusion was that even when women considered their cycles "regular" their ovulation could be unpredictable in any given month. The advice to women was not to rely on calendar dates to determine their fertile window, (good advice in my opinion) but not once in the entire article did the authors mention that the "fertile window" had to do with cervical mucus. 
So, while some educators and other health professionals tell young women you can get pregnant any time of the month, others tell them that there is a safe time after the period, when they cannot get pregnant. This may be true for some women, but fertility experts know that if a girl or woman has a short cycle, her cervical mucus will appear early and she will ovulate early too. They know it is possible that the mucus may even be there when she is still menstruating and that it is possible to get pregnant while still on your period if you have a long one. They tell us sperm can live in this mucus up to five days, waiting for the release of the egg.
The mucus sperm love

The mucus sperm love is transparent and elastic. I tell the women, "Check your underpants every day or when you wipe after you pee. If the mucus is there, if it is clear, slippery, like egg whites and if you can stretch it, you are fertile. That is the stuff that sperm love. The mucus helps keep the sperm alive and to swim. Even though the egg only lives about a day after it is released from the ovary, women are fertile longer than one day, due to the mucus that comes before."
Then I usually tell them how many sperm men release every time they ejaculate. When they hear that it is millions, their eyes grow wide. 
The mucus changes. 
"So what happens after the egg has been released and died or been fertilized? Well, the mucus changes. Now it could be described as dry, sticky pasty and yellowy. You cannot stretch it. Nature doesn't care anymore if sperm can swim in the mucus, because there is no egg to fertilize. After a couple of weeks, if the egg has not been fertilized, the lining of the uterus sheds, little by little, and that is menstruation." 
Of course if a woman is on the pill or on "the shot" or some other hormonal method, she doesn't have the fertile mucus because she is not releasing an egg. 
Now isn't that a neat story? And if you are a guy, wouldn't it be useful to know the story of women's fertility and your own? Then you will be informed enough to avoid playing Russian roulette when it comes to protection. Of course, using condoms all the time would go a long way to solving that problem. 
Books for girls don't tell the story well either.
When I was looking for books about puberty and menstruation, most of the books I saw had inaccurate information about cervical mucus, where it comes from, (the cervix) and what it is for (fertility). One book described it as vaginal mucus, for cleaning the vagina. Another said it came before menstruation and also said it was for cleaning the vagina. Another said it came from the walls of the vagina. Another described it but did not say where it was produced or why, and called it "discharge." (I know a lot of people call it discharge but I find that term rather negative.) One of the books reiterated the falsehood that you can get pregnant at any time but then, in another section talked about a safe time! Guess when it was? Right after the period! By the time I had finished looking through these books, I was gnashing my teeth. And I wouldn't recommend any of them. 
So please, let's tell girls and women the truth. Let's acknowledge the role mucus plays (particularly when telling the story of menstruation). And let's tell the story early so the girls won't worry about what's in their underpants, and let's tell it often so young women are empowered by this knowledge. Then they will know that there is nothing wrong with them. In fact, everything is right!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this! It needs to be spread everywhere, especially high schools.