Stigma, Shame And Disbelief Still Keep Women From Getting Medical Treatment They Need

“I feel like I’m on a mission to let women know. This is real. This is painful. This is undeserved. But there is treatment. There is help.”

By Joy DiazAugust 10, 2018 10:25 am

Attitudes toward women’s health are often shrouded in euphemism and fear. Women may be afraid to speak openly about issues affecting their health, especially where reproductive organs and sexuality are concerned. And medical professionals and others who interact with women sometimes exacerbate women’s concerns by showing their discomfort, or lack of knowledge about how to help.

Amy, who is not revealing her last name for reasons of privacy, shares a story about a medical condition she has had for more than 20 years.

“I have something called vulvodynia,” she says. “Vulvodynia is a chronic condition, and it affects the vulva. It is characterized by burning, stabbing and stinging sensations in the vulva.”

She says the level of pain caused by vulvodynia varies. For some, the condition is uncomfortable – for others, it makes sexual activity painful, and can be so debilitating that those who have it experience feelings of depression and hopelessness.

“I am very fortunate to be married to a man who has gone through this journey with me,” Amy says. “But you can imagine for the young women who are diagnosed – being very scared of going into a relationship saying ‘I might not be able to have sex with you because it hurts too much.'”

She says medical professionals sometimes discount vulvodynia symptoms.

“I feel like I’m on a mission to let women know. This is real. This is painful. This is undeserved. But there is treatment. There is help,” she says.

Dr. Rebecca Rogers, associate chair of clinical integration and operations at UT Dell Medical School’s Department of Women’s Health, says women often don’t speak up about their own health issues because they are acting as caregivers for others. And their health takes a back seat.

“Unfortunately, some of these conditions are associated with shame and embarrassment – they’re hard to talk about,” Rogers says.

That embarrassment applies to conversations about reproductive organs and sexual function. Using terms like “down there” to describe the vagina and related areas is an example.

“I think it’s very common,” she says. “And I think it varies with your cultural upbringing and ethnicity – your own experience, both in the health care venue and outside of the health care venue.”

Rogers says coming up with a common language for these conditions and body parts is crucial.

She says women’s health concerns related to reproductive organs are more common than you might think. She specializes in pelvic floor dysfunction, and says “one in five women will have a surgery in their lifetime.”

Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.

Written by Shelly Brisbin.