Q.I’m a former student who is now the parent of a 12-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. I really wish you could teach them but we live out of state. I’m your FB friend and I learn a lot from your posts. You recently posted an article about reproductive misinformation. Can you address the article’s myths in your column? People who don’t use social media need this education. Thanks for all you do!
– Grateful former student
Mary Jo’s response: Being remembered makes my heart sing! I’m grateful for you.
I did recently share a newspaper article about our nation’s basic lack of reproduction information, then I debunked misinformation by answering questions I’ve personally received from young people over the last 40-plus years. It gives me pleasure to address it here.
My intent is to present knowledge and facts respectfully. The theme of the article was a lack of basic reproductive knowledge among lawmakers. If I were in charge, every elected official would have a course on human reproduction. Please let me enlarge upon that – all people need to know how bodies work. Many adults were exposed to little or no sex education growing up, and the stigma surrounding talking about sexuality in our culture too often holds back conversation. In my opinion, we use sex to sell products, titillate movies and TV shows, and sexualize young people’s bodies more than we provide basic knowledge.
I’ll look at four areas mentioned in the article and expand them to include questions I’ve consistently received since I started teaching sexuality education in 1981. I began teaching childbirth education in 1977 as well. I’m certified to teach in both areas. I’ll divide the topics between this column and next week’s columns.
The first topic is periods: The article shared a quote from a man who said he didn’t understand why so much money was spent on sanitary products. He said, “Why don’t women just hold it, the way men keep themselves from urinating?” This statement shows such a lack of awareness of menstruation (the correct term for periods) one might think the question rare or even impossible. Sadly, I’ve heard this comment and many variations of this question, especially before online research was possible. In the first months of my teaching, I vividly recall a 15-year-old telling me he thought women went to the bathroom and just “had a period,” much like urinating. He was the first, but not the last, who didn’t understand how human reproduction works. A deep confusion about periods is common.
Here’s the truth about periods: Menstruation happens as a result of ovulation (the release of an egg from the ovary). Hormones in the body change and the uterus (where babies grow) starts preparing for a possible pregnancy. The uterine lining thickens to allow for a baby’s growth and implantation of the fertilized egg; if sperm are available in the short time while the egg is viable and ready for conception, pregnancy begins. If no sperm are available, the uterine lining isn’t needed. It drips slowly from the uterus through the vagina (it’s not possible to “hold it” like urine). This process takes a “period” of days – hence the common term “period” for menstruating. Most periods last three to seven days. Periods reoccur as cycles. Each body with a uterus is different – some menstrual cycles are regular, happening every 28 to 30 days. Many cycles are irregular, making it more difficult to know when a period will start or when an egg is released. Knowing a menstrual cycle’s pattern is important and can help with fertility. During puberty, when periods first begin, they are usually less regular. After menopause, when periods stop, ovulation stops and pregnancy isn’t possible.
Variations on the comment above from my Curiosity Bag:
- If a girl doesn’t want to get pregnant, she can just think about something else during sex and her body won’t catch the sperm. Nope. There’s no connection between a person’s mind and the uterus or ovulation or conception. Thinking about avoiding pregnancy won’t prevent a pregnancy.
- During rape, a woman’s body shuts down and she won’t get pregnant. Not only is this untrue, it is extremely disrespectful. A person does not need to give consent to get pregnant; sexual pleasure is not linked to conceiving a baby. Pregnancy can definitely happen as a result of sexual assault.
- Having sex during a girl’s period is the best time to make a baby. Nope. It’s the least likely time, typically, since ovulation happens 12 to 14 days before a period starts. This confusion is often connected to a comment about human reproduction that compares it to dogs, cats or horses being “in heat.”
- Missing a period just means a girl is nervous, it doesn’t mean she’s pregnant. Stress and other medical problems can cause delayed cycles, true, but unprotected penis-vagina sex during ovulation can cause a pregnancy, which causes a missed period. Taking a pregnancy test after missing a period in that situation is wise.
- I heard of this girl who never skipped a period and didn’t know she was pregnant and then had a baby. While it is possible for some bleeding to occur during a pregnancy, this is rare. Implantation bleeding – spotting (slight bleeding) about 10 days after unprotected penis-vagina sex – simply means the embryo is attaching to the uterine wall. It’s not a period. There are other signs of pregnancy, like nausea, swollen and tender breasts, abdominal growth, and fetal movement, that can signal a pregnancy. I’ve known only two young people who weren’t aware of their pregnancies over my last 40-plus years as a nurse and childbirth educator. For most people, pregnancy is tough to miss, and the first sign is a missed period.
- eriods and peeing happen in the same place. Nope. Bleeding from periods passes through the vagina. Urination (peeing) passes through a tiny tube in front of the vagina, called the urethra. Every human has a urethra – either in the vulva (the correct name for female body parts) or the penis.
- A tampon can get lost inside. Nope. Tampons are placed in the vagina to catch menstrual bleeding. The vagina is like a dead end. A tampon inserted into it can’t move through the body or get lost. The opening of the uterus is called the cervix; it enters the vagina, but the cervical entrance is very tiny – far too small for a tampon to enter. Sanitary napkins or menstrual cups are also used during periods.
In my next columns I’ll explain ectopic pregnancy, the biology of conception and postpartum.
Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at firstname.lastname@example.org.