In this week's sexual health roundup: one study shows us that a significant proportion of women experience post-traumatic stress disorder in women (especially those who don't use pain medications) while another one suggests that childbirth may improve memory function. A study in men suggests that obesity is linked to erectile dysfunction.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Common after Childbirth
After having my first child, I remember telling friends that while I didn’t think it was a great way to spend a day, childbirth wasn’t nearly as bad or scary as I thought. For many women, however, this is not the case. A new study published in the Israel Medical Association Journal suggest that one out of three women experience some of the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (which is more often associated with natural disasters, accidents, and returning war veterans) and three percent have full on PTSD.
Researchers interviewed 89 women between the ages of 20 and 40, first within two to five days after delivery and then again one month after delivery. They found that 25.9 percent of the women interviewed displayed symptoms of post-trauma, 7.8 percent suffered from partial post-trauma, and 3.4 percent exhibited symptoms of full-blown PTSD. The most common symptoms included flashbacks to labor, avoidance of discussing the events, physical reactions like heart palpitations during such discussions, and a unwillingness to consider having another child.
Moreover, the researchers found that pain management during labor had a large impact on PTSD symptoms later on. About 80 percent of women who experienced partial or full post-trauma symptoms had delivered via natural childbirth, without any pain relief. According to one of the authors:
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“The less pain relief there was, the higher the woman’s chances of developing post-partum PTSD.”
In addition, 80 of the women who experienced PTSD said they were uncomfortable being unclothed.
Other factors such as having a midwife or doula during labor, socioeconomic status, marital status, level of education, and religion did not help women avoid PTSD symptoms caused by childbirth according to this study.
Given the vitriol with which the topic of pain relief during labor is often debated, I can imagine that this study could become controversial especially because the sample size is so small. At the very least, though, it should remind us that women have different reactions to childbirth and for many women it is a very frightening and stressful experience and we should all (whether we are health care providers, family, friends, or total strangers) respect this possibility.
I did not, by the way, have the same mild reaction to childbirth the second time around. It was shorter but much more painful and scarier and at the end all I could think was “Thank goodness I never, ever, ever have to do that again.”
Childbirth Actually Improves Memory
Childbirth may make leave some women with symptoms of PTSD but contrary to popular opinion, it does not make you lose your memory. The finding of a series of experiments–which were presented at a recent meeting of the American Psychological Association–found that: “new mothers scored better on tests of visuospatial memory–the ability to perceive and remember information about their surroundings–compared with women who didn’t have children.”
Researchers tested the visuospatial memory of 35 first-time mothers whose children were between ten and 24 months-old and compared it to that of 35 women who had never been pregnant. The women were shown a paper containing six symbols for 10 seconds, and then asked to draw what they remembered. This task was repeated several times. The first time women were shown the paper, both groups remembered about the same amount but the second and third time the mother performed better. The mothers also did better when they were shown a different set of symbols and asked which of them had also been on the earlier paper.
Pregnancy brain–which I describe as the inability to remember anything for more than 30 seconds while pregnant–is not a myth. Pregnant women are scatter-brained. In fact, studies show the brain may shrink up to five percent during pregnancy but it returns to its normal size within six months. Researchers suggests that the brain may “re-map itself during this time” and that may be why the mothers performed better in this study, though they admit the results have to be verified with a larger sample of women over a longer period of time.
I’ll be interested to see if the finding hold up because I firmly believe that my once steel-trap memory became more like a stainless steel sieve during my first pregnancy and has not gotten any better in the six years since.
A New Reason for Men to Lose Weight: Erectile Dysfunction
A whole host of health care specialists from cardiologists to neurologists to nephrologists have been telling us for years that we need to slim down prevent problems with our brains, hearts, kidneys… you name it obesity has been linked with countless health problems. New research suggests that for men, at least, sexual dysfunction may be added to that list.
Researchers from Weill Cornell Medical Center set out to study whether obesity was linked to urinary tract issues including frequent urination and incontinence by looking at 400 men ranging from 40 to 91 years old. About a third of the men had a waist circumference of less than 36 inches, a third had a waist that measured 36 to 40 inches, and the rest had waists greater than 40 inches. The results, however, went beyond urination.
The study, published in the British Journal of Medicine, found that three quarters of the overweight men suffered from erectile dysfunction compared to a third of those with trim waists. Moreover, it found the heavier the men were, the more likely they were to experience problems. The good news is that newer research conducted by the same team suggests that reducing your stomach’s circumference by just two-and-a-half inches could improve sexual health. Now if that’s not incentive to get back to the gym, I don’t know what is.
This week, new studies accuse the public health community of ignoring the unique needs of bisexual men, find that casual sex is good for some people's self-esteem, and show that women who get pregnant naturally at older ages may live longer.
This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.
The Public Health Community and the Needs of Bisexual Men
A new study in the Journal of Preventative Medicine argues that the public health community has not paid enough attention to the unique needs of bisexual men. In Beyond the Bisexual Bridge, author William Jeffries suggests that men who have sex with men and women (MSMW) are often seen as transmitters of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV, and, more to the point, as the way in which certain diseases or epidemics jump from gay men to heterosexuals of both sexes. By looking at them as disease vectors and not a population with their own sexual health issues, however, Jeffries believes that we are making bisexual men more vulnerable to STIs.
Only about 2 percent of the male population identifies as MSMW but, according to the study, their sexual health needs and experiences are different from those of heterosexual or straight men. They are more likely to have early sexual debut, forced sexual encounters, and sex in exchange for money or something else of value. They tend to have more sexual partners, greater issues with substance abuse, and take more risks in sex with both male and female partners. Adolescent MSMW are more likely to drop out of school because they don’t feel safe. This may be one of the reason that, according to the study, adult MSMW are less likely to have a college degree and more likely to have lower incomes or be homeless.
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Jeffries attributes many of these issues to biphobia, which comes from both gay and heterosexual people who feel that bisexuality is not a legitimate sexual orientation. The view of bisexuals as the STI “bridge” between communities heightens biphobia and can lead MSMW to take additional risks. For example, Jeffries says that “MSMW may feel inclined to publicly validate their bisexuality through multiple sexual partnerships with men and women.” He adds that the biphobia “can contribute to MSMW’s social isolation and psychological distress, which in turn may promote HIV/STI risk through substance use, sexual risk behaviors, and the avoidance of prevention services.”
Jeffries ends the article with a number of social and public health strategies, including media and educational campaigns that he believes can improve the health and well-being of MSMW. One suggestion is to create “social spaces that cultivate a sense of community to provide opportunities for social support and candid discussion of sexual health concerns.” He also believes that medical and health professionals need “sensitivity trainings to lessen any hostility encountered by MSMW when they seek information about sexual health or HIV/STI testing.”
Finally, Jeffries concludes, “Recognition of MSMW’s unique sexual and social experiences can lay the foundation necessary for ensuring that these men have healthy and fulfilling sexual experiences.”
Is Casual Sex Good for You? Depends Who You Are
Researchers, possibly because they reside primarily on college campuses, where this is common, have taken quite an interest in hook-up culture. They’ve tried to determine how prevalent casual sex is, whether it represents a significant change in values around relationships, and, importantly, how it affects those young people who are doing the hooking up. As you can imagine, the results of these inquiries have been varied.
For example, Rewirereported on a study around this time last year that found college students who had recently had casual sex had lower levels of self-esteem, life-satisfaction, and happiness, and higher levels of general anxiety, social anxiety, and depression compared with their peers who had not had casual sex recently. A study published this past March, however, suggested that it’s not whether you have casual sex that affects your well-being; it’s why. Those who had casual sex for the “wrong reasons”—such as to feel better about themselves, to please someone else, for material reward, or for revenge—had lower self-esteem, higher depression and anxiety, and more physical health symptoms, compared to those who didn’t have casual sex. In contrast, those who did it for the “right” reasons, such as to have fun and new experiences, had similar levels of depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms to those who didn’t hook up but notably had higher self-esteem.
Now a new study, by the same lead author, suggests that reactions to casual sex are mostly about the individuals who are having it and how authentic they are being to their own sexual mores. The study followed 371 college students at New York University and Cornell and asked them to fill out diaries about their sexual contacts over a semester, as well as answer various questions about their states of mind. Participants were considered to have had casual sex if they had oral, anal, or vaginal sex with anyone they described as a one-night stand, friend with benefits, “fuck buddy,” ex-partner, just a friend, or a casual hang out, or anyone with whom the relationship was “unclear” or “complicated.” By the end of the study, 42 percent of participants had had casual sex.
The effect of such incidents on the participants’ psychological well-being, however, had to do with each person’s own views on casual sex. For those who the researchers described as sociosexually unrestricted—essentially those who were more open to and accepting of casual sex—the experiences were beneficial. In fact, these people reported thriving after the casual sexual experience. Interestingly, however, the researchers did not find the reverse—sociosexually restricted individuals did not report negative effects after casual sex. Still, they believe this study shows that the impact of casual sex is never just good or bad, but depends on situational characteristics and personality traits. They also believe the lack of findings on restricted individuals can be explained by the small portion of this group that actually engaged in casual sex during the course of the study.
Having Children at an Older Age Linked to Living Longer
When I got pregnant with my second child, I was somewhat offended at the label “AMA” stamped on my medical records, because they stood for Advanced Maternal Age. At 37 (and a half to be accurate), I didn’t feel all that “advanced” and knew plenty of women who had had uneventful pregnancies and healthy babies when they were older than that. But from a medical perspective, women are at their reproductive best (most fertile, less likely to have pregnancy complications) closer to 27 than 37. A new study, however, suggests that those of us who do have children a little later may live longer.
Using data from the multi-year Long Life Family Study, researchers analyzed the effect of age-at-childbirth on overall life expectancy and found that women who got pregnant naturally and successfully gave birth to their last child after 33 lived longer than those whose last child came before the age of 29. These findings were true even when the analysis controlled for other health factors like smoking and obesity.
While us older parents would like to think that countless episodes of Dora the Explorer and games of Candyland we suffer through keep us young, the researchers have a different explanation. Rather than being the reason these women lived longer, the researchers believe that becoming pregnant and having a child later in life is a sign that these women are aging more slowly than their peers. The Long Life Family Study included women with family members who had lived longer than average and examined these women, in part, to determine the genetic keys to longevity.
Dr. Thomas Perls, a co-author of the new study, said in a statement, “The natural ability to have a child at an older age likely indicates that a woman’s reproductive system is aging slowly, and therefore so is the rest of her body.”
Women are having children later in life as the age of marriage increases and they spend more time getting an education and starting a career. However, many women who get pregnant after age 35 rely on reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization. The study only looked at women who got pregnant naturally.
There’s an App for That Rash on Your Genitals
Last year, Rewirereported on an app that for $10 would allow you to send a couple of pictures of odd bumps, lumps, or sores on your genitals to a dermatologist who could tell you either to stop worrying and buy some over-the-counter cream or get thee to a clinic pronto. Unveiled in early 2013 as STD Triage, it apparently did not officially launch in the United States until January of this year. Now called First Derm, the app charges $40 and claims to be able to diagnose 90 different skin disorders anywhere on the body including Lyme disease, hemorrhoids, psoriasis, and yeast infections—as well as, of course, HPV, Herpes, and syphilis. The creators of the app say that the rebranding came in part because they realized that no one wanted to recommend an STD app to their friends. Despite this, however, they claim that 70 percent of inquiries still come from “below the waist.”
The app is completely anonymous (no registration required) and promises a response in 24 hours. Since its launch in January, First Derm has been downloaded 10,000 times and has provide 1,000 diagnoses, according to TechCrunch.
George Will is right. Throughout my life, my status as "survivor" has afforded me any number of privileges. For instance, the surgery that I needed a couple of years ago to fix the long-term consequences of the assault on my body was truly a privilege—it gave me the status of being temporarily unemployable.
Content note: This article contains a graphic description of sexual assault.
Recently, the Washington Post published a column called “Colleges Become the Victims of Progressivism” by well-known conservative George Will. Based on the headline, it would be reasonable to expect that Will was going to counter progressive assertions that ballooning administrative costs have caused the price tag of college to go up astronomically or that education inflation has devalued undergraduate degrees.
But Will did not address anything truly related to higher education. Instead, he spent the entire column railing against efforts to curb rape on college campuses. He claims that such efforts make “victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges,” are “excruciating” for colleges and universities, and as a result “victims proliferate.”
Like most publications of some repute, the Washington Post does not typically print opinion that is based on clearly fanciful representations of facts. For example, I highly doubt that they would publish a piece in which George Will opined that all extraterrestrial aliens should be required to wear pink in public. Even though that would be nothing more than an opinion, it is based on facts that are not in evidence: that extraterrestrial aliens walk among us and wear clothing.
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If you take away the guise of opinion, what you have in Will’s opening lines are propaganda statements that are absolutely contrary to the facts. For Will’s “opinion” to be worthy of printing, the Post had to believe that there is some truth in the following statements:
Women receive positive attention for being raped. Having a “coveted status that confers privilege” requires that someone else confer that status and those privileges. Someone must be giving the average survivor so much positive attention that we all want to have the label of survivor.
Women want to be raped. After all, anything that is both “coveted” and “confers privilege” is something that women must be dying to experience.
Rape is not the reason that rape “victims proliferate.”Will suggests that the reason we have high rape statistics on college is not because rapists rape—it’s because we have made being a rape victim something that is “coveted” and that “confers privileges.” In other words, the problem is not that rape happens. It is that progressives grant that women have the nerve to talk about it. And what will cure that pesky old rape problem is kicking those darn progressives out of university life.
Dealing with rape is so “excruciating” for colleges and universities that the pain of victims pales in comparison. Therefore, we must alleviate the suffering of college administrations even if that encourages rape and inflicts more pain on survivors.
Let’s be very clear about what happened here: Under the the guise of giving space to one man’s opinion, the Washington Post has told men that women want to be raped, that women get positive attention for it, and that the real problem is that women talk about it.
The Washington Post has just given young men permission, if not an incentive, to rape.
Will tries to support his amoral opinion by offering two pieces of evidence. The first are data that he willfully misinterprets. It must be a willful misinterpretation since I am fairly sure I could get a chimpanzee to understand why there might be a difference between rapes reported to campus security and what is reported to social scientists. But let me put it in the most simplistic terms I can: Police do not always file reports on rapes reported to them. And many women are afraid to even tell the police what happened to them because they know how horribly our justice system will treat them. So they are more likely to tell the truth in anonymous surveys than to the police.
Will’s other piece of evidence is a story of campus rape. He pulls selective quotes from transcripts and extrapolates that one story is representative of all date rape on college campuses. The smoking gun for him are the following facts: that the woman had a prior relationship with her rapist, that the woman was there of her own free will, and that she had engaged in foreplay with the man in question.
Since Will seems to think that one story can make a case, let me offer another story of a young woman in college who went to the house of a man she had known her whole life. In fact, they had grown up together. She went to this man’s house of her own free will, engaged in foreplay, took off her own clothing, and even agreed to engage in sex.
That excludes her from the category of a “legitimate” rape victim in Will’s eyes, does it not? And if she talks about it or files a complaint, she should be ignored, right? After all, she must be just looking to get that “coveted status” and the privilege that comes with it.
So here is the story: When I was 19, I decided to have sex with a man I had known my whole life. I went to his house in my favorite outfit—jeans and a trendy sweater. Under it were my favorite matching baby blue bra and panties. We made out on his sofa, and I followed willingly when he led me to his room.
By the time we got to his bed, I was naked from the waist up. I remember being ashamed of the tiny pooch of my belly, worrying that he would find an extra inch of flesh unacceptable. I shucked my own panties and jeans before I climbed into bed.
You will have to forgive me if I cannot offer a complete narrative of what happened after I entered the bed. I know how guys who excuse rape, like George Will, feel about women who pass out during sex—that they deserve whatever happens. So I know that some will mock me when I freely admit that between pain, shock, and blood-loss I lost consciousness several times.
The man who sexually assaulted me did it with such force that he tore my vagina from the opening through the cervix. I gushed blood, which he later licked up as if he were a vampire. He continued to pound me after he had torn me, banging my intestines for what felt like hours and spreading bacteria throughout my peritoneal cavity.
I drove myself to a friend’s house, and she took me to the hospital. By the time that I got there, I was in critical condition. I coded twice before they could get me stabilized. I saw the white light and had a near-death experience. Surgery and blood transfusions saved my life.
You’d think that with that kind of an injury, I’d definitely experience the status and privilege that George Will claims sexual assault victims are afforded. Everyone would believe my story, and no one would dare say that a woman who had been so brutalized wanted it or had it coming. Right?
But the police would not even file a report or record my statement. In so many words, they explained to me that no reasonable jury could believe that taking off my panties wasn’t a tacit agreement to having my vagina ripped and my intestines pounded and the exterior of my colon bathed in semen. As a single woman, I had entered the home of a single man, so it did not matter how much of his bedroom was bathed in my blood, or that there was a trail of it out of his door and in my car. I had engaged in foreplay with him, so whatever followed, even if it killed me, was fair game.
I’m sure the police’s decision to dismiss me without taking a report kept the crime statistics for our city and the campus at a minimum. This, I’m sure they thought, was for the best—since so many people knew about it, there was the risk of the story being picked up by the press. And it is more important to keep the reputation of a growing college healthy than to affirm that it is wrong to nearly kill a woman using your penis.
The “status” of being survivor was so overwhelming that I could barely breathe in the weeks following the sexual assault. I became so popular that everyone in our community knew and had an opinion as to whether I was a deserving slut or not. It was so much fun when women I barely knew asked me who had taken off my panties and used the answer to judge me as a lying whore. And without the “privilege” of having my intestines screwed, I am sure that I would never have married my ex-boyfriend a scant four months later just so that I could leave the area.
George Will is right. Throughout my life, my status as survivor has afforded me any number of privileges. For example, I had the privilege of having preterm labor and miscarriages because the assault compromised my cervix. I had the privilege of having my babies by cesarean section. And the surgery that I needed a couple of years ago to fix the long-term consequences of the assault on my body was truly a privilege—it gave me the status of being temporarily unemployable.
Who wouldn’t get in line for that?
There was also the privilege of having my attack brought into a custody hearing as evidence that I couldn’t possibly be stable. You see, the worse the assault, the less capable the survivor is of being a sane and judicious person.
And it was so helpful when I reported that a fellow teacher’s assistant was publicly rating the hotness of students in his classes. I was fortunate enough to have people in power who knew my history, so I was privileged to be informed that my history precluded me from seeing that a would-be professor needed to be given a pass for his early attempts at sexual harassment.
I cannot tell you how many jobs I’ve gotten thanks to my sexual assault; when I’ve needed to explain why I dropped out of college the first time, everyone has applauded me and shoved me to the front of the hiring line.
In truth, the times that I’ve lied, I’ve reeked of shame so badly that I’ve been forced to learn to tell my story even when it really, really hurts. It is because of the privilege of shame and fear that I have not applied for jobs because I knew someone in the administration knew about the sexual assault.
Contrary to Will’s assertions, I have never encountered a trigger warning in a college classroom, but I’m sure they must be present in some. I’m sure it must be a horrible inconvenience for a professor who has to insert a boilerplate line into a syllabus, and it must be annoying to read such a warning if you, as a student, have no such triggers. Surely that pain and annoyance outweighs the risk of a PTSD relapse for students who have been assaulted.
After all, an environmentally based disease like PTSD could not possibly require any accommodations. We should just tell survivors of wars, murder attempts, and rape to suck it up like the people who have to bounce their wheelchairs up and down steps. Oh, many buildings have ramps and other accessible features now, you say? But surely we shouldn’t offer comparable accommodations to people with mental illnesses, especially those caused by violence. I’m sure veteran’s groups would agree.
For more than a decade, I have been working or studying on college campuses. And I can say that, as George Will asserts, sexual assault victims who report being victimized get all sorts of privileges. They get special tutors who sit with them during tests. Their papers are practically written for them, and they barely have to show up to class.
Wait, sorry, those are athletes I’m thinking of.
I remember one class where we were discussing an issue related to sexual assault, and a woman was so rattled by the discussion that she confessed to having been the victim of a recent sexual assault. Let me tell you how many people lined up to escort her to a counselor, to make sure the assault was reported to campus police.
Nobody. That’s how many people did that.
But there must have been a huge payoff in the status she was afforded. Who doesn’t want to be known as a “crazy bomb” that could go off at any second?
Then there was the case of the sexual predator who worked in my high school. I remember that incident well since I was the one who finally reported his crimes, even though they had been going on for more than a decade. People in that community practically held a parade in honor of the bravery that the survivors showed in coming forward. And I cannot tell you how much my status improved as the person who ratted.
In reality, I have been humiliated, blamed, and faced with death threats.
A few years ago, I received a rape and death threat against my daughter so gruesome and personal that I have felt obligated to write under a pseudonym since.
The truth is that George Will is lying. There is no privilege or status granted to those who have been sexually assaulted. We are counted as liars or trouble-makers. We become the objects of gossip, attacks, and other people’s projected shame.
I am someone who has born witnessed to and been a victim of the kind of a sexual assault that Will tacitly condones. And without an ounce of sarcasm, I can say that it has given me “a coveted status that confers privileges”—so long as the status you covet is that of advocate, and the privilege you long for is to help others.
I can scarcely imagine what my life would be if I had not been sexually assaulted. I’m sure that I would not have been someone who gives other women and men a safe space to talk about their experiences of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. I probably would not have held the hands of women while they tentatively tried to tell someone in authority what happened to them. And as a result, it is unlikely that I would have had the opportunity to truly see and appreciate the resiliency and strength of my fellow survivors.
Most of all, being a survivor has given me the status of a person who gives a damn, and it has conferred on me the privilege of being a person who cannot ignore her conscience. I cannot stand by idly while people like George Will tell America that our real problem is that we are trying to make a safe place for women to talk about sexual assault, when I know that the real problem is that people like George Will have created a place in which sexual assault can happen.
Will lied, and with those lies he gave his tacit permission for college-aged men to rape. For this gross breach in the most basic rules of journalism, he deserves to be fired from any and all media-related jobs. And I, for one, will judge the ethics of media outlets by how they respond to his “opinion.”