Alarming new research has revealed just how little men really know when it comes to female anatomy, with 50% of subjects unable to correctly identify a vagina on a diagram. A further 61% were unable to identify the vulva, while just 17% admitted that they knew how their partner’s vagina actually worked. So far, this sounds like an awful lot of bad sex waiting to happen. However the underlying effect of all this gynaelogical ignorance is actually far more dangerous.
More than 21,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with gynaelogical cancer every year. That’s 58 diagnoses a day. However, as this study by The Eve Appeal – the only UK charity funding research into gynae cancer – indicates, awareness levels into women’s health issues is shockingly low with potentially lethal consequences. A staggering 21% of 18-44 year olds, out of a broad sample of 2,000 men, said they would be “too embarrassed” to talk to their partners about gynaelogical health issues, while almost a fifth (17%) said they didn’t need to know because it wasn’t their problem.
Sadly, the women surveyed showed just as much embarrassment, with 42% of 18 – 24-year-old women admitting they would keep abnormal vaginal bleeding to themselves. This is one of the key symptoms of all five gynaelogical cancers, which includes cancer of the vulva, womb (uterine), ovaries, cervix and vagina. Half of those surveyed said they wouldn’t seek help for persistent bloating and only 19% would like to talk to their partners about potential symptoms.
“So often what’s cited is embarrassment about not seeking early advice from a medical professional, that’s what women tell us,” Athena Lamnisos, CEO of The Eve Appeal, tells Shevolution of the study launched in correlation with Gynaelogical Cancer Awareness Month this September.
“Often, the first time they’ve heard of these cancers is when they’re sitting in a white room being told that they have one. If they were supported by everyone in their lives, particularly by the men in their lives, that would have a big impact.”
“Dispelling the taboos and stigma around gynaelogical health and female anatomy is really important,” she continues. “We want men to be as comfortable as women so they know gynaelogical health is something important to know about and protect. We all know how important reproductive health is when people are trying to start a family. Men may need to start learning about menstrual cycles and sexual organs then. We want to get that thinking in at a much earlier stage.”
So why is there so much embarrassment? We already know there is a gaping hole in knowledge in female reproduction and health issues in curricular sex education, which instead focuses on contraception and STIs. But are there cultural and social reasons as to why we simply don’t know about gynaecology too?
Lamnisos says: “We use euphemisms for female body parts. It is certainly different for male anatomy, for which men and boys call willies in the same gentle way we say tootsies for toes. There is no female equivalent.”
The media, she adds, “has a huge role to play”, too.
“There’s an extraordinary sense of censorship around the language used. The word vagina, for example, is quite often blocked on social media or starred out like a swear word.”
Jake Moses is the father of cancer survivor Laura, a 28-year-old primary school teacher who tested positive for the cancer-causing BRCA1 gene mutation (read her blog www.findingcyril.com here). In May 2016, Laura started experiencing symptoms including abdominal bloating and pelvic pain. Over this time, her GP and a gastroenterologist misdiagnosed her and the symptoms were put down to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). In fact, she had stage 3 ovarian cancer. She had six cycles of chemotherapy and radical debulking surgery.
Having gone through treatment with his daughter, Jake feels that he has gained better insight into gynecological issues and cancers and the importance of men being aware of these.
“Becoming aware of the issues related to ovarian cancer meant that I could listen to her, I could try at least to understand the fears she was going through about her body failing her, letting her down and causing her issues that have changed her life completely. Not having children. Surgically induced menopause. Night sweats, hot flushes, mood swings. There is no way I would have understood that without talking to her, listening to her and engaging with the medical staff.”
As to why more men fail to engage with female health concerns, he says, it’s part of a culture of men “just burying their heads in the sand.”
“I think they’re scared and I think it’s embarrassment. Quite simply men need to read up so that they can gain knowledge about these issues in order to support the women in their lives.”
Conal Presho is the husband of Caroline Presho, who was found to carry the BRCA2 genetic mutation after she underwent testing following her father and her aunt’s deaths from cancer. At 36, the mother-of-four underwent a preventative double mastectomy and had both her ovaries removed.
“When Caroline was given the news about her mutation it quickly became clear just how serious and life changing this was for her and for our four children who may also carry the mutation,” Conal says. “I therefore began to read as much as I could to ensure that I was informed and able to make a useful contribution to discussions about options moving forward.
“It is so reassuring that Conal has been able to educate himself surrounding gynaelogical issues and finds himself able to talk openly about it with me,” Caroline continues.
“Too many men struggle with the vocabulary and embarrassment when talking about gynaelogical problems. There are so many taboos that by the time people have plucked up the courage to go to the doctor with pronounced symptoms, problems can be difficult to treat and issues can be advanced.”
Conal says he feels it is “absolutely” men’s responsibility to educate themselves about gynaelogical issues. “It is also important for this to be discussed more widely in our culture to help to change the perception that it is something hidden or embarrassing.”
“It’s about responsibility-taking and protecting the people you love, be they sisters, mothers, friends or daughters” Eve Appeal CEO Athena Lamnisos concludes.
“We want this to send a powerful message to men to protect the women in their lives by taking responsibility.”
For more information about The Eve Appeal and gynaelogical cancer, visit The Eve Appeal.