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“A vagina is truly a vagina”

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Thousands of Canadians have the-knickers-they-won’t-talk-about in knots this spring because the Government of Ontario wants to tell developing human beings some facts about healthy, respectful, and inclusive relationships to sex, and sexual health.

In many forums, the debate on the Health and Physical Education Curriculum has centred around the educational roles of teachers vs. parents. Many of the curriculum’s loudest opponents assert that this part of learning is the responsibility of parents and families, which, to save time here, is atrocious. Unfortunately, just because someone has had sex does not mean they have healthy or accurate information about it. Our parents and guardians weren’t well-taught about healthy relationships to sex and sexual health, either.

There’s an important point to make regarding the word accurate, above. The things we should be teaching human beings here aren’t a belief system that they should have the right to opt out of, or a theory that we have the right to ask for proof on before it is institutionally shared as the truth. Consent as essential is the law. The existence of gender identities and sexual orientations (both incredibly plural) is a fact. A vagina is truly a vagina. This is not propaganda — this is telling our children the truth.

I will always be among the first to admit the limitations and variability of the Canadian education system; I enthusiastically concede that this specific curriculum is not, in its entirety, the progressive silver bullet of sex ed that I stubbornly believe is possible. The reasons to doubt and feel concern about these changes are varied — but many, I believe, come from a place of fear: from the cycle of sexual stigma we continue to perpetuate in our communities.

Fear and stigma at home

An annual campaign by Planned Parenthood – Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Health Centre attempts to raise awareness and funding for cervical screening — pap tests. The basic premise of Feb-U-Hairy is to encourage people to do the opposite of whatever they normally do regarding body hair. For example, some people grow out hair they would normally shave, while others may shave what they normally don’t, all the while encouraging their communities to pledge in support of the campaign.

Alicia Cox, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood, says only 67 per cent of those eligible for pap tests in Newfoundland and Labrador are getting them, which is one of the lowest rates in the country and a direct contributor to incidences of cervical cancer across the province. These simple and painless tests screen for abnormalities of cervical cells, which can be early indicators cervical cancer and can allow treatment to start early.

So why are 33 per cent of individuals with cervixes or neo-cervixes still not getting tested? While rural accessibility, mental and physical disabilities, and age all play a significant role in testing rates, Planned Parenthood also sees many individuals who fear making the appointment, having the test, or simply don’t understand why the test is so important to their overall health.

This is the cycle of stigma.

Individuals in our communities feel shame and fear, so they don’t access pap testing (or talk, learn, or explore healthy sex and sexual heath.) They also don’t talk about it, adding to the silence, increasing perceived shame and fear, as well as rates of ignorance about how the test works or how important it is. Stigma breeds stigma, and at the end of the day more shame, fear, inaccurate information, and ignorance in our communities mean less individuals caring for their sexual health and getting tested.

The importance of community organizations like Planned Parenthood

Initiatives like Feb-U-Hairy aim to insert honest, inclusive, and accurate information into this cycle, while generating the funds needed to continue education initiatives and provide accessible clinical services year-round. Whether the issue is cervical screening, HPV, healthy relationships, gender identities, consent, or contraception — until this education is institutionalized, our communities rely on the work of organizations like Planned Parenthood to tell them the truth, with the hope that each one of us can have healthier and more respectful relationships to sex and sexual health.

The majority of us grew up in a space lacking the accuracy, inclusiveness, and honesty of outreach programs like Feb-U-Hairy, or curriculums like Ontario’s latest. We have a lot to learn and unlearn every day about how we perpetuate the problems of stigma both intentionally and unintentionally in the communities to which we belong. We all must think critically about where our thoughts on sex and sexual health come from, and who, or what, those thoughts are really serving.

The 2015 Feb-U-Hairy Campaign is collecting donations until Sunday, March 8. For more information or to pledge your support to the work of Planned Parenthood, visit www.febuhairy.dojiggy.com.

Unless directed otherwise by your doctor, individuals should begin receiving annual pap tests at the age of 20, if they are sexually active. Talk to your family doctor to make an appointment, or call 1-877-NO-MYTHS (666-9847) to book an appointment during Planned Parenthood’s regular clinic hours or once-weekly evening clinics. Planned Parenthood’s adjustable exam bed makes it easer for more individuals to access cervical screening.

Anna Smith is a student and teacher of public engagement, Canadian education reform, and gender equality. She recently returned home to NL to continue work on all three.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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