Spring Talks Sex

SPRING TALKS SEX: Menopause – whose information do you trust?

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By Lyba Spring

A friend asked me if I was going to talk about menopause during aworkshop I am offering on sexuality and aging. She is 68 and still getting hot flashes. News “flash”: I’m 66 and still getting them too. It made me wonder what has been going on in the world of menopause since I first started getting hot flashes in my late 40s.

I was lucky. Apart from driving everyone around me insane with my perimenopausal moodiness, I was not disturbed by night sweats. For many women, night sweats are debilitating, because they affect sleep and therefore the ability to function.

Thank Google; there is lots of useful information out there. The website 34 Menopause Symtoms gives a plausible explanation about later life symptoms and some common sense advice about relief.

Common sense advice is not the approach you are likely to get when you visit your doctor. Big Pharma continues to dominate the discussion, and Big Pharma probably has your doctor’s ear.

Back in the day, I found common sense in every issue of Janine O’Leary Cobb’s newsletter A Friend Indeed and her book Understanding Menopause, reading both from cover to cover. Other books, like Menopause Naturally by Dr. Carolyn Dean, put this natural part of a woman’s life into perspective. But doctors were offering women hormones like they were candy.

The Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), a.k.a. the nurses’ study in the States, made great headway in debunking the dangerous practice of offering HRT to every woman with symptoms (and in many cases those without).

SPRING TALKS SEX: Disordered eating and sexuality

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By Lyba Spring

In preparation for some upcoming workshops, I’ve been learning more about barriers to healthy sexual functioning, including age, disability and eating disorders. For this month’s blog, I am focusing on eating disorders and trying to understand the complex physical, emotional and psychological issues involved. The literature is extensive and theories about causation abound; but there is less written about their effects on sexual functioning.

What is food preoccupation, how common is it, when does it become a concern and how does it affect relationships and sexual health?

If considered on a continuum, food and weight preoccupation runs from concern about weight to compulsive dieting to compulsive over-eating to anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating can persist for years, even an entire lifetime. An estimated 10 per cent of individuals with anorexia nervosa die within 10 years of their first episodes. In 2002, 1.5 per cent of 15 to 24-year-old Canadian women surveyed had an eating disorder.

Weight preoccupation can begin at an early age. Twenty-eight per cent of girls in grade nine and 29 per cent in grade 10 have engaged in weight-loss behaviours. Thirty-seven percent of girls in grade nine and 40 per cent in grade 10 perceived themselves as too fat. Even among students of “normal-weight” (based on BMI), 19 per cent believed that they were too fat, and 12 per cent of students reported attempting to lose weight (see Public Health Agency of Canada information).

How does weight preoccupation affect sexual functioning?

SPRING TALKS SEX: When sex gets boring

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By Lyba Spring

I guess it depends on what you call “sex,” but sexual routines, even when they work, can become repetitive.

Although you may get off with partnered sex, you may also find yourself observing your pleasure rather than mindfully enjoying it. Author Carol Shields called it, “going through the motions of love.” If the running internal commentary sounds like this: “Now they’re going to move to the other nipple; now they’re going to check to see if I’m wet...” it doesn’t sound like fun. Recognizing that it’s no fun is a good place to start.  

When boredom sets in, it may affect frequency of sexual contact, resulting in a discrepancy of desire in the couple. Of course, there may already be other relationship issues requiring attention. Avoidance, or a shoulder shrugging “let’s get it over with” attitude; or worse, the possibility of a real or implied threat of coercive sex, may lead to the end of the relationship entirely.

SPRING TALKS SEX: Personal Puff Piece: The fabulous world of online dating

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By Lyba Spring

Everyone knows someone who has tried online dating. Was it fabulous for them? Perhaps from the outside looking in. From inside, it can be rather dingy and depressing. Speaking personally, there may be other 65-year-old women who are having a blast. I am not.

It’s been a year since my last online dating experience. A promising (somewhat younger) man who was clearly turned on to me, disappeared in a puff of smoke after a very brief affair.

Here’s how it works. You begin with a profile, trying to make yourself stand out from the crowd—cheerful, attractive and interesting. You are encouraged to post pictures of yourself doing fun stuff. In my age bracket, there are lots of photos of men with their cars, their dogs, their children and their grandchildren. Of course, when you begin to read through the profiles of the potentials whose photos are appealing (in my case, no dogs or cars), they seem dismally similar. Comfortable in a tux or jeans. Loves to cuddle by the fire drinking wine (does everyone have a functioning fireplace?). Works out every day, cycles, skis, loves to travel…

Then, if you finally find someone literate and interesting, you work up the courage to send a message and… Well, like my last go round, it may result in a rushed first coffee date with enthusiastic follow-up. Or, you get nothing. If you’re lucky, you get a civil “thanks, but no thanks.” What feels worse is a flurry of messaging back and forth, and then nothing. I am told that the lack of etiquette is the etiquette of online dating.

Sometimes you get a date—or a few with the same person. Sometimes you have a short-term or even longer-term relationship; and then it’s back to online dating, unless you meet a real, honest-to-goodness long-term partner, which for some is the ultimate, seemingly unattainable end game.

So what does all this have to do with sexual health?

SPRING TALKS SEX: Murder by misogyny?

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By Lyba Spring

mi∙sog∙y∙ny  noun.  1. a hatred of women (Merriam-Webster).

Laci Green, self-described sex-ed activist, uses the phrase “misogyny as murder” in her YouTube rant about the May 2014 murder of six people and wounding of 13 others by Elliott Rodger in California. People seeking out the definitive answer to “how could this have happened” fall all along the blame continuum that runs from blaming his family life and early mental health issues, to the medications that he was prescribed, to his blatant hatred of women, and to easy access to guns and ammunition. The latter is of course refuted by the gun lobbyists who continue to assert that guns don’t kill, people do—citing their right to bear arms. Interestingly, in their effort to deflect attention from Rodger’s modus operandi, some gun lobbyists have put all the blame on prescription medication.

SPRING TALKS SEX - Choice denied

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By Lyba Spring

A law with teeth is only as good as its enforcement. But when a law is struck down, politics determines how it will play out in society.

When the Supreme Court struck down the law on abortion in 1988—the famous Morgentaler decision—a woman’s right to choose was enshrined in Canadian society. In 1989, the argument of “fetus as person” was rejected, as was the attempt by men in three provinces (Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba) to stop their partners from having abortions. These legal decisions left the right to choose firmly in the hands of individual women.

But a woman’s ability to exercise her choice is limited by several factors: location (it is hardest to get an abortion in the eastern part of Canada); cost, when a woman has to travel to get an abortion or a province does not fund the procedure; and by people, including doctors, who push their anti-choice agenda on a pregnant woman trying to make her decision. (Read more about which provinces cover hospital and/or clinic abortions and which ones do not).

Only 17.8 per cent of Canadian hospitals provide abortion services. Even hospitals that provide abortions may place obstacles in the way of women who try to obtain one, especially if their administration is anti-choice.

SPRING TALKS SEX - Female genital modification

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...the cutting edge of a double standard

By Lyba Spring

In February, 2014, the Ontario’s Sexual Health Network organized an update on “female genital mutilation” (also known as “female genital cutting”). At the meeting, I raised the question that was so eloquently discussed in a paper on intersex surgeries about the cultural parallels between genital cutting practices in “developing” countries and genital surgery in “developed” countries. This issue was raised again in a recent discussion on CBC Radio’s program, The Current to which I listened attentively (yes, I took notes) as I am interested in these surgeries and have participated in two public discussions on the subject.


Listen to the CWHN podcast on "designer genitalia"

The Current invited the CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC), Dr. Jennifer Blake, to speak about the SOGC guidelines on both female genital mutilation/cutting and female genital cosmetic surgery. They also invited Dr. Sean Rice, a plastic surgeon who performs labiaplasty as well as a triathlete who had requested—and was satisfied with—the surgery.

SPRING TALKS SEX - ‘Getting off’ the barriers

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By Lyba Spring

At a sexuality conference in Guelph, Ontario about 20 years ago, I watched in awe as a man using a wheelchair danced at a social event with his partner seated on his lap. It was mesmerizing. That was my introduction to the now more commonly acknowledged fact that people with disabilities are sexual beings. Sounds pretty obvious, right? But it is one of the persistent myths about people with disabilities that they do not have sexual lives, despite the fact that as the Canadian population ages more and more of us will become disabled in one way or another. The current figure of 14 per cent of Canadians with disabilities does not even cover chronic conditions. We will all have to make adjustments in our sexual lives as we develop the diseases of aging like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis or other mobility problems. Our sexual self persists despite these barriers. My mum was still asking me to pluck out her chin hairs just months before she died.

Disabilities include mobility issues, spinal cord injury, head trauma, hearing or vision impairments, as well as psychological and mental health issues. Aside from the disability itself, sometimes treating the conditions of the disabilities can interfere with people’s sexuality. For example, medication for heart disease or diabetes may further affect a person’s ability to enjoy their sexual life. Surgeries to treat certain conditions can leave nerve damage in key areas, affecting one’s sexual response. Some people who have lived with mental disabilities for years have found that their medications affect their desire and ability to have an orgasm. Negative sexual symptoms from anti-depressant use may even persist after discontinuing the medication.

SPRING TALKS SEX - Sex work

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By Lyba Spring

On December 20, 2013, the morning the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three aspects of the prostitution law, my phone started ringing off the hook. Three Radio Canada programs were asking for interviews. Luckily, I had recently given a talk to a francophone agency arguing (unsuccessfully) in favour of decriminalization and had a file full of information in French. Some interviews were wide ranging discussions—from the specifics of the decision (solicitation, “living off the avails” and keeping a bawdy house) to my opinion on what the new and improved law should look like.

These 2013 interviews had nothing in common with what I would have said 40 years earlier.

In 1968, I had clear (and rigid) views about both prostitution and pornography. I have written in this space about my evolution regarding the latter. Like pornography, for me prostitution was rooted in sexism and therefore exploitative. End of story.  

As prostitutes’ rights groups began to form in the mid-70s, they changed the language of the discussion. The term “sex work” required us to consider prostitution as work. I eventually came to accept the term and all that it implied, but was still unable to accept the notion that some people chose to do this kind of work.

Part of my assignment for a while at a local public health agency was teaming up with a community centre to do the rounds of places where local street-level workers hung out. We discreetly distributed condoms and information, while on the lookout for the police. These tours did little to disabuse me of the notion that there was “choice” involved in the trade. Most of the women we encountered had personal stories of abuse and subsequent addiction to crack cocaine. We got to know some of the women, like Debbie.

SPRING TALKS SEX - The case against hormonal contraception

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By Lyba Spring

I’m no big fan of hormonal contraception. That said, it has its place in the limited birth control options available to women. As I have written here before, the principle—as always—is informed choice and individual circumstance. “Informed” is the operative word and the provenance of the information is critical. Nevertheless, with the recent demonization of hormonal methods, I feel like weighing in once again and trying to seek some kind of balance.


For a related article, see also the Network book review of Sweetening the Pill

A friend posted an article on Facebook from The New American about Depo Provera and how the Gates Foundation was “killing African women.” I started to read the article on which the post was based and got as far as the statement that Depo causes STIs and cervical cancer.

The Rebecca Project For Human Rights’ Kwame Fosu quoted the reverend Dr. Randy Short,: “The used [sic] of Depo Provera contributes to and in several cases causes life threatening diseases and medical problems: cervical cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, heart attack, sterility, miscarriages, HIV/AIDS, Chlamydia, and other STIs/STDs.”

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