Vaginas and Youth Work

by Natalie Collins September 14, 2018 A

As someone who is immersed in women’s rights and feminism, it’s not often that an article will leave me feeling even more astounded about the inequality that women face.  Two articles that have done just that over the last couple of years are Kayla Webley Adler’s article for Marie Claire, Women Are Dying Because Doctors Treat Us Like Men and Lili Loofbourow on The Female Price of Male PleasureBoth of these articles provide swathes of evidence about how badly women are disadvantaged by the medical establishment.

Loofbourow tells us that while a man can immediately access treatment for erectile dysfunction (something that perhaps causes emotional pain, but not physical pain), women living with the horrifically painful condition of endometriosis will, on average, suffer for almost 10 years before being diagnosed.  Webley Adler’s article focusses on the way that women’s health problems will often be written off as psychological, rather than further examination taking place.

In June this year, the UK government agreed to temporarily ban vaginal mesh implants that treat women with urinary incontinence.  This was after thousands of women have been left in agony and dealing with serious disabilities from mesh implants.  Some women have described how the mesh cuts through them internally until it is visible.  The issues with the mesh implants have been known about since at least 2004, but it has taken until 2018 and the pressure from injured women and their supporters, for a ban to be instigated.

What does this have to do with Youth Work?  For a start, it is often during puberty that girls will become aware of gynaecological health problems.  For some, menstruation will be accompanied by brutal pain, anaemia from excessive blood loss, exhaustion, and the emotional turmoil of discovering that they may never be able to have children.  Have we created a context in which girls will feel able to talk to us about such issues?  Are we equipping girls to be confident about their bodies?  Do they have the skills to advocate for themselves when doctors tell them their issues are psychological?  How can we create a space where girls with gynaecological health problems feel safe to share their anxieties and struggles?

Alongside this, a significant number of youth workers are female, with bodies that that may need medical attention.  Are our Christian communities and churches places where female youth workers feel able to talk about health problems related to their Lady Places?  My experience has been that they often are not.

It is ironic that Christianity is a religion of the body when Christian culture so clearly ignores bodies.  Jesus gave us a ritual to remember Him that involves ingesting His body, and yet we would rather focus on a spirituality that is floaty and divorced from physicality.  The Bible is full of talk about wombs and discharge.  Our Saviour entered the world through a woman’s cervix and vagina, but women’s bodies are not wholly accepted.  Many women who are priests recount stories of being denied their calling because men were anxious that their menstruation-potential would defile their giving communion.

A friend once told me of a Christian she knew who had managed to have four children without being aware that she had a urethra that she urinated from.  The woman presumed that she urinated from her vagina (where the baby comes from).  Whilst I hope this is not the norm, there is significantly lower literacy about women’s bodies than men’s bodies both in Christian culture and more broadly across society.  This is partly practical; men’s parts are all dangling out there and visible whilst women’s are internal and a mirror is required to really get any sort of a look at them.  This shouldn’t be an issue, but Christian anxieties about sex leave many discouraged from thinking about, looking at or touching their genitals.  For girls, this leads to greater mystery about their own body than for boys.  As youth workers (particularly those of us who grew up in Christian culture), we may find that we are still anxious about bodies and genitals.  It’s important for our own health that we find ways to become confident with all the bits God made us with.  Until we do, we will struggle to create spaces where young people feel able to share their anxieties about their bodies.

Thanks to the tireless activism of women, the term “period poverty” is one that is becoming more familiar to the general public.  When a female is on her period, she will need sanitary towels, tampons, and may need pain relief.  The cost of this can be up to £18,450 throughout a woman’s life.  For teenage girls from low income families, this can leave them unable to go to school whilst on their periods.  This should be of serious concern to us as youth workers.  Do we have a way of checking with the girls in our youth groups whether they can afford sanitary products?  How can we help where this is an issue?

In Tower Hamlets, the Red Box Project (which also runs nationally) provides sanitary products to schools for girls, whilst Amika George has set up a petition that all girls on free school meals should be provided with free sanitary products.  I have a friend who organised for her whole church to get involved in sewing reusable sanitary products to send overseas for women without access to sanitary products.  Could we support these initiatives?  Could we help to set up similar initiatives in our own local area?

Around 50% of the young people we work with will have female bodies and our role is to help them flourish.  Knowing more about the potential health issues and medical inequality that they face can only enable us to more ably support and care for them.  In Luke 8:40 – 56, we read about how Jesus healed a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years on the way to raising a twelve-year-old girl from the dead.  We have a Saviour who was not alienated by women’s and girls’ bodies, but instead restored dignity and life to them.  Let us commit to continue that aspect of Jesus’ ministry within our own ministries.

A great book to read to understand more about women’s bodies is Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. If you are East London based and want to donate to Red Box Project Tower Hamlets as mentioned, you can do so here