Sexual (re)education series
Medical Herstory and reform in the healthcare system
Your health relies on so many things: the ability to speak about your physical and emotional well-being, the knowledge that your concerns are valued, being able to take action and get help.
In so many hospitals and healthcare units, these three factors do not exist without stigma, which makes it more difficult to voice what is happening in your own body – and to be heard when you do.
Medical Herstory, which was founded in 2018, challenges harmful and sexist stereotypes that persist in the medical field by uplifting the stories of women and femme people. Through a collection of unapologetic memoirs, these individuals share their stories of exploitation in the healthcare system.
Spanning across five countries, twelve universities and 40 volunteers, Medical Herstory continues to work towards gender-sensitive healthcare reform. They promote more education for medical students and working processionals, patient advocacy to help people advocate for their medical rights, and normalizing conversation about women’s health, sexual health and chronic illness to help undo stigma.
Tori Ford, the CEO of Medical Herstory, began voicing her opinions about stigma in the healthcare system when she wrote about her experience suffering from chronic yeast infections and struggling to seek care. Acknowledging that other women struggle to be understood, Medical Herstory blossomed from the experiences of individuals who work to navigate the medical system. Through events and panels encouraging honest conversations about women’s health, Medical Herstory speaks on behalf of everyone to achieve the best possible care.
“I am a big proponent of peer education. I think that’s how you are the most effective for your messaging, and also empowering other young women to share their stories,” explained Ford.
Events such as Sex Positive Trivia Nights are prime examples of how Medical Herstory promotes conversation and education about sexual history and normalized conversation in fun settings. At the latest Sex Positive Trivia Night, topics of discussion ranged from contraceptives to debating if something was a sex toy or a dog toy.
It was a learning experience and a good time, as participants enjoyed an engaging and diverse set of questions. Teams divided into breakout rooms over Zoom and decided on what answer to send back before the time ran out.
Some of the most disheartening questions had to do with medical injustices, such as the statistics that Black women are four times more likely than white women to die during childbirth.
But there were some fun, oddball questions too, such as ones about the origins of Corn Flakes (initially, they were invented to discourage masturbation).
The facts were an excellent balance of wacky and informational to keep all guests intrigued.
Normalizing talking about the not-so-pretty stuff that happens in your body is key to cracking down the walls to understanding your health. The reality is that no body is perfect. They leak, smell, and secrete unpleasant things.
“There [are] lots of overlaps of what gets left out in terms of sexual health,” added Ford.
Questioning the issues within your body and understanding how specific processes work can be uncomfortable for people to explain. While pregnancy, contraception, and STIs are important parts of sexual education, many other things can and should be emphasized as well.
“So many things that affect a way larger percentage of women such as yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, and UTIs are often left out of the curriculum,” said Ford.
Three-quarters of women will experience a yeast infection within their lifetime. Not to mention that bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections are incredibly similar. Learning to decipher between the two could help identify the problem and get treatment much earlier.
Medical Herstory also provides a safe environment for sexual and domestic violence victims to share their experiences. Sexual violence is a serious issue on many university campuses, and it’s important to help and support survivors throughout their journey.
“[It is important to] support survivors directly because often they are not believed,” said Ford. “So valuing those stories, honoring those stories, letting people come to you with where they are at, and just being a person of support who is non-directional, non-judgemental, and just there to help.”
Ford also said another method of support involves empowering people to be active bystanders “when they see violence occurring, when they hear a joke about that’s about sexual violence, how to intervene at those levels and promote consent culture.”
Encouraging conversation about the uncomfortable normalizes these situations. More gender-sensitive training for medical professionals allows them to push back against gender bias and hold space for people who need to be heard.
And, according to Ford, there is still so much work to be done.
“We don’t talk enough about pleasure, we don’t talk enough about common infections, and we do not talk enough about normalizing these conversations amongst young people themselves,” she said.