‘What has religion done for women?’

A superb documentary by Shelagh Fogarty, on BBC Radio 2 this week, asked ‘What has religion done for women?’ The programme sought to understand why some women feel valued and empowered by their religion, whilst others find religious dogma oppressive and misogynistic.  Cleverly melding pop culture and kick-ass music clips with incisive journalism, it’s well worth a listen on BBC iplayer . There’s also a great article on a similar theme in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, by Rabbi Adam Chalom, ‘Religion’s treatment of women key to understanding progess’.

Listening to Fogarty’s documentary has inspired me to dip into some Hildegard Von Bingen, a heroine of mine both for her ideas (that were centuries ahead of her time) and for her startlingly beautiful choral music. Hildegard was a 12th century nun unlike any other, an extraordinarily talented woman who was inspired by her Christian faith, but also by science, cosmology, art, music and medicine. She believed that both men and women were made in God’s image, a progressive view for her time and she extolled sexuality as natural and a symbol of the union of God and humanity. In a diversion from 12th century medical opinion, she claimed that female orgasm was an important part of conception (not entirely medically correct, but a great push for early feminism!) She writes:

“When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat
descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.”

One fabulous 12th century nun, who valued sensuality as well as celibacy.

A new study suggests that as many as one in 12 women suffer from a type of genital pain known as ‘vulvodynia’, yet few have a diagnosis or seek treatment

Having survived a long and arduous journey through the burning pain of vulvodynia (which inspired Eve’s Volcano, my upcoming memoir) I was interested to read about a new research study that indicates that the condition is far more common than was previously thought.

The following is an excerpt from a recent press release I have just sent out to media on behalf of the Vulval Pain Society…

Vulvodynia refers to pain, soreness or burning of the vulva (the external genital area) in the absence of skin disease or infection. The symptoms may be constant, or arise from contact during sex, tampon insertion, cycling or wearing tight clothing. Although the condition is farily common there is frequently a delay in diagnosis and patients are often wrongly told by doctors that ‘thrush’ is the cause. Anecdotal evidence suggests that over-use of topical antifungal medications such as Canestan may make the condition worse.

True estimates of the prevalence of the condition remain unknown in the UK, but a recent study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology has suggested that of 2,300 Michigan women surveyed, at the time of the study, 8.3 percent of women had been experiencing symptoms fitting the criteria for vulvodynia for at least three months [......] a similar study found 15 percent of women had experienced genital pain for more than three months. In the Michigan study, vulval pain was rarely diagnosed and properly treated. Of the 208 women with current symptoms, almost half had sought treatment for their pain, but only three had been diagnosed with vulvodynia.

Dr David Nunns, medical advisor to the VPS and Council member of the British Society for the Study of Vulval Disease, says: “Those women currently diagnosed with vulvodynia just represent the tip of the iceberg. Misdiagnosis is common and labelling all women with vulval symptoms as having ‘thrush’ is simply wrong and detrimental to their treatment and recovery. The pain of vulvodynia can have a devastating impact on a woman’s life, affecting everything from sexual functioning and relationships, to her ability to work, exercise and socialise.”

Dr Nunns points out that women with vulval symptoms have a variety of different problems and treatment will depend on the individual needs of the patient. This might include pain modifying drugs, sexual therapy, physiotherapy, creams and possibly surgery.

The Vulval Pain Society (VPS) will be hosting a ‘Super Workshop’ at London Southbank University on Saturday 10 December 2011, geared towards women with genital pain and their partners. It will be a full day of information given by leaders in
the field from all disciplines including dermatology, psychology, gynaecology and more.

For more details and to book a place at the VPS ‘Super Workshop’ visit the ‘Meetings & Workshops’ section of the VPS website at www.vulvalpainsociety.org

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