I think of myself as a strong and confident woman—but when it comes to advocating for my own sexual and reproductive health, I often find myself hesitant and nervous.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has stated that equality in reproductive health includes access to affordable, quality contraception, including emergency contraception, without discrimination. The decisions a woman makes also have a crucial impact on the enjoyment of other human rights.
These are decisions that I want to make for myself.
So why do many women like me struggle with advocating for our own sexual and reproductive health?
The internet can be your friend
Researching your sexual health symptoms can be tricky at best and terrifying at worst. Search engines may tend to optimize the scariest possible disease, inciting more anxiety than they quell.
"You need to make sure that you're only accessing credible sources of information, and it isn't always obvious," said Elizabeth Saewyc, Ph.D., R.N., a professor at the University of British Columbia and public health expert. "Sometimes, researching symptoms can have you worried you've got a rare condition. Other times, it might lead you to minimize the seriousness of the symptoms you have. Not all sexual and reproductive health symptoms will require urgent care or a trip to the emergency department, but some do."
Make sure you rely on only the most credible women's health websites. In addition to Giddy, consider Planned Parenthood and Mayo Clinic in the United States and Options for Sexual Health in Canada. Rely on sources that provide expert-written and -verified articles.
Many of these websites also operate resources (for example, SexSense by Options for Sexual Health) that can answer specific questions as well as recommend clinics that provide specific care. There's also the option of calling a phone triage service in your healthcare system, where you can talk to nurses who can guide you to the next steps.
You know yourself best
Medical professionals may sometimes invalidate or trivialize women's health concerns. One reason could be that a majority of medical research has traditionally focused on men and their health concerns. This puts women at a disadvantage: They have a harder time proving discomfort or concerns because there is often little precedent in published scientific literature.
When you go to a clinician, know what to expect and speak up for yourself. Log your symptoms and pain, and bring them up with your health practitioner. Yes, sexual health can feel like a taboo topic; patients may not be comfortable disclosing their detailed sexual history. But sexual risk should not be taken lightly.
"If you're sexually active, you should consider getting tested regularly because STIs don't always cause noticeable symptoms, and if left untreated, your sexual health and fertility might be affected long term and you might pass on the STI to others," Saewyc explained.
Think of getting tested regardless of the gender(s) of your partner(s). In her research, Saewyc has found some young women having sex with other women who said they never knew they could get a sexually transmitted infection from oral sex or sex toys.
A good rule of thumb when you're battling doubts about your symptoms is to check in with a phone triage service, commonly operated by women's health groups and clinics. It's important to know what you're being tested for, especially where STIs are concerned.
For example, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not mention herpes in the recommended STI panels for sexually active individuals, but 1 in 6 Americans between ages 14 to 49 are affected by genital herpes. (The CDC does list specific scenarios in which herpes testing can be considered.) When you go in for STI testing, ask for specific tests you'd like included.
Communication is always important
Finding a healthcare provider who best meets your needs can be a process of trial and error. The only way to find the right match is through active communication. Don't be afraid to voice your concerns and doubts. If you're feeling invalidated, express it to your doctor.
To make sure your concerns are taken seriously, Kristen Gilbert, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia School of Nursing, recommended using statements like:
- "My sexual health is a priority for me. What testing do you recommend for me today?"
- "I'm not interested in getting pregnant right now. What methods of birth control would you suggest?"
- "I'm looking to get pregnant in the next year. Is there anything we should check in terms of my health or fertility?"
Talking about sexuality can prove difficult for everyone, including clinicians.
"Several studies have shown that patients are unlikely to initiate discussions about sexuality, even if they need to," Gilbert noted. "So it's often up to the healthcare provider to ask about a patient's sexual wellness. If you want to improve the odds that your sexual wellness will be supported by your clinician, be sure to bring it up during your visits."
Transparency is very important, Saewyc added.
"If you're keeping things back and not telling your healthcare provider about some aspect of your health, they might be missing important information to help figure out what is going on with your health and might end up delaying the right care," Saewyc said.
Know that your doctor or nurse is only asking these questions to be able to provide you with the right diagnosis, treatment and care.
Any clinician who considers your sexual health is ahead of the curve. You're in safe hands if you have a healthcare provider who asks about how therapies or medications are affecting your sexual health.
"You deserve a clinician who will honor your right to sexual expression and healthcare," Gilbert said. "If you encounter a health practitioner who is sex-negative, who shames or disapproves of your sexual choices, who refuses to treat you because of their personal beliefs or who is out-of-date on issues of sexual health, please seek competent care from a sexual health clinic."
Saewyc named clarity and concern as green flags for proper healthcare.
"When your healthcare team listens to your concerns, asks further questions and checks your medical chart for your history before telling you what they think is going on, these are good signs," Saewyc said.
Remember, it's not unrealistic, demanding or burdening to get clinical advice and support for your sexual and reproductive health. Sexual health isn't just about avoiding unwanted outcomes; it's also about the affirming and enriching aspects of connection and pleasure.
Editor's note: Abortion is a medical procedure that is currently illegal or restricted in some portions of the United States. For more information about the legality of abortion in your area, please consult a local healthcare provider.