MR Round Table: Let’s Talk About Sexual Health
With special guests Vera Papisova, Wellness Editor of Teen Vogue, and Meika Hollender, Co-Founder of Sustain
Leandra Medine: One of the reasons I’ve wanted to have this conversation is because I’ve been very public about my trouble getting pregnant, and what I’ve found in opening up is how many people are willing to share their stories, too. This, for me, is very much a response to the way women interpret and process and actualize shame, but it has also opened up the conversation around sexual health and reproductive rights and the difficulty with pregnancy, with trying, with enduring miscarriages, with abortion — it’s becoming much more comfortable to talk about these things. Part of that also requires talking about safe sex or not wanting to have children. This conversation is happening at a very particular moment for us — politically, sociologically, emotionally.
Meika Hollender, Co-Founder and Marketing Director of Sustain: I think with the reproductive and sexual health stuff, part of it is coming out of the controversy that’s happening around Planned Parenthood and, politically, we’ve forced people into this conversation, right? Our generation doesn’t understand what it means to not have these rights so it’s waking a lot of people up. A lot of people our age wouldn’t have said, “My gosh! I’m pro-abortion,” a few years ago because it’s like, if you want to get one, go get one. It’s up to you. And now that that’s being questioned, I’ve noticed that over the last few years, a lot of people are like, “Wow, this affects me. Who is this guy to tell me what I can’t do with my body?” It’s stemming from feminism — we’ve talked about it at work, we’ve talked about it at home, and now we’re talking about it in the bedroom because that’s the last wellness pillar. And it’s a lot trickier because it’s really personal.
Leandra: The other side is that, yes, we’ve talked about it at work, we’ve talked about it at home, maybe we’ve talked about it in the bedroom, but I’m going to broadcast it now because I can.
Vera Papisova, Wellness Editor at Teen Vogue: I think that’s the biggest difference. If you look back at the early to mid-twentieth century, women were trying to be in control of their own bodies, but the message was like, “We’re still trying to vote and be taken seriously,” so they were all about hiding their periods as if to say, “Okay, if we can hide our periods and basically pretend like we don’t have periods, we can be just like men.”
You had Kotex printing out these little pamphlets that were about periods and moms would give them to their daughters and be like “learn about your period.”
And now we have social media. Let’s say you’re being bullied at school for your period or getting boobs really young, now you can go on Twitter and say, “People are being mean to me and this isn’t cool, am I the only one out there?” You can now connect with others and the sentiment is, “Well, eff that,” because we shouldn’t be trying to hide it, we should be tweeting about it!
This college student named Sarah Michelson wrote a blog post that talked about how there are all these pop-up shops for random things, like shaving, but not one for your period. Kotex saw it and they said, “Let’s have a pop up shop, then.” So if the sentiment before was, “Let’s hide our periods to prove we can do anything that people without periods can do,” Now it’s like, “Well, we’ve already proven that so let’s deal with the stigma of what we’ve been hiding.”
Leandra: It’s almost like sexual health, reproductive rights, periods and lack of periods are the ancillary products of feminism. Which is interesting to think about as the mechanics of the business of feminism. It’s even telling, I think, that Teen Vogue has a dedicated editor for sexual health.
Vera: Yeah, and I’m the first one. We had all these stories on the site like, “This is what you buy your boyfriend for Valentine’s Day” but nothing about vaginal discharge — which was my biggest question when I was 14, so, Phil [Teen Vogue editorial director] trusted us and we wrote a bunch of stuff like, “Why Masturbation is Okay” and “What You Need to Know about Your Clitoris.” I think Teen Vogue has realized that the lack of sexual health information was really detrimental to kids because only 22 states in the country require sex-ed. Of those, only 12 require it to be medically accurate. The current generation of kids is having less sex than their parents’ generation but they account for 50% of America’s new STDs. So it’s like, they’re having less sex but they have more STDs and they’re not using contraception.
Meika is really pushing women to feel more comfortable with carrying their own condoms and being in control because here we have women afraid to masturbate, thinking that sex is bad — we’ve been taught for so long that men have to introduce us to our sexuality and because of that, we don’t carry condoms, we don’t think about our bodies.
Meika: And we’ve been taught that we won’t enjoy sex. I mean, in the 1950s, women were told, “You’re going to have to have sex when you’re married, you’re not going to enjoy it, but you have to do it for your husband.” And that, fundamentally, puts women in this “So we’re there for them” mindset. And when it comes to both of you and getting pregnant, it’s like, “What am I doing wrong?”
Leandra: Right, you feel a lot of shame as a woman.
Meika: I have a friend also going through IVF and I was talking to her and asked, “What is sex like now? Explain that to me.” Because I’m out there, trying to be like, “Women should enjoy sex, do it!”
But she’s like, “Sex sucks right now. I don’t like it. I don’t feel good,” and I think that’s another important conversation. What will it be like after she gets pregnant? How do you get back to that enjoyment?
Vera: Right now with feminism, we’re trying so hard to fight shame with pride and we’re so busy trying to be proud of everything that it’s like, “Oh no, don’t talk about how hard anything is because that might detract from the argument.” But in reality, I think what’s opening up this conversation is the idea that women are just people and we’re neither ashamed nor extremely proud all the time and that we’re just people. I think that’s the direction we’re going in now: people being more transparent about their struggles with whatever their identities are. Identifying those individual struggles are really the next step in fixing and preventing people from dealing with them alone and then, hopefully, solving those things.
Meika: You know, I constantly think about how or why I decided I wasn’t going to have sex with anyone without a condom. Because it definitely wasn’t from school. I think it’s because my parents really normalized the sexual health conversation. My mom wasn’t like, “You want to go on birth control? Great, I’ll take you to the doctor.” She was like, “How do hormones work with your body? Let’s figure that out. You have options.” Many parents are so uncomfortable having those conversations so they throw a box of condoms at the conversation and end it. Questions are never really answered.
Statistically, only 21% of single, sexually active women use condoms.
Leandra: Is it because they’re on birth control?
Meika: Yeah, so the number one fear among single women is pregnancy. They’re still having casual sex without condoms and STDs are actually rising drastically among young women.
Leandra: The birth control piece is insane to me, too. We’re injecting our bodies with synthetic hormones so that we don’t get pregnant by men who don’t understand why we’re crying.
Vera: The copper IUD is not hormonal and is an option for anyone who wants to use birth control without hormones — which should also be used with condoms so that you don’t get STDs. When Colorado did this study where they gave free IUDs to any teens who wanted them, their unintended pregnancy rate decreased by 40%. It’s very clear that this is a missing piece of the puzzle, but then again, we’re emphasizing birth control so much in the media that we’re forgetting the condoms, so now STDs are out of control.
I definitely think that healthier birth control options are in our future but having them at all is really important — not all young women and girls are in control of their bodies yet. So giving them an option that can help them be more in control is priority one. And then the next priority is to make it healthier for everyone.
Meika: And education around what we’re using, and how we should use it, and still that we should be using condoms.
Leandra: Meika, can you speak a little bit about how you launched Sustain?
Meika: My dad — you know, your typical condom business partner — was like, “I want to make a sustainable condom.” I thought that was really interesting. He’s always been concerned with what’s in products. He had previously founded Seventh Generation and launched organic tampons seven years ago. I told him that if we were going to do this together, I wanted to think through the female lens. Like, what does it mean to be a woman who buys and carries a condom? What kind of condoms do I want to buy? What should the packaging look like? How should we talk about this category? So we started to learn these really crazy statistics — like one in four college freshmen will get an STD her first year at school, 48% of pregnancies are unplanned, only 21% of single women are using condoms — and then we also learned that 40% of condoms are actually purchased by women.
So, I went into CVS and looked at the condom aisle and was like, “This feels gross. I don’t feel good about buying condoms. I feel good about exercising, I feel good about buying vitamins. Why do I feel bad and gross and kind of sleazy buying a box of Trojans?” I realized that we need to talk to women in a different way. We need to make them feel empowered about taking control of their sexual health and doing something good.
Vera: I’d interviewed Meika for Teen Vogue and she said, “You know, sexual health is like the last missing puzzle piece of wellness, because we have all this focus on exercise, now people are talking about mental health, and we already have nutrition. Sexual health is really something that women should feel good about! When we published the profile on her, the responses were like, “That’s so cool!” And my little sister, who was 18 at the time, said, “She just, like, decided that women should be part of condoms, and did it. We should do that more about other stuff!” And I was like, “Yes, you can do that.” It’s so important that there are women leading businesses that are making innovative products or ideas for women, too, because, you know, we get a new iPhone every six months, but we haven’t had a new period product in a really long time! We’ve reached this point where there are young girls who are visiting Teen Vogue and they’re like, “I want to start a business.” And that’s really new.
Leandra: Do you ever feel like Sex and the City was a really important piece of media for women? No? Really unimportant? That was the beginning of sexual liberation in pop culture for women, or at least for me.
Vera: Sex and the City was important when it was first on the air. Now it’s dated. It did what it had to do.
Meika: The thing that I find really interesting about Sex and the City is why women are subject to slut-shaming if they carry around condoms when I feel like Sex and the City created this little sense of, this is what women in New York are doing!
There was a lot of research done by Trojan a while ago around why women don’t buy condoms.They had to completely take out New York and LA because women in those cities were like, “I don’t think there’s [anything] wrong with buying condoms,” but into other parts of the country, they were like, “I’m just not that kind of girl.”
Leandra: As women our moral obligation is to normalize our conversations. Not just as women, as humans. The number one thing should be that sex is okay. Right? Period. You can not want children and have as much sex as you want and you should not be judged for that. As long as you are making your own decisions and consenting, there is no problem in terms of your sexual activity or inactivity, as far as I’m concerned.
But the other piece of it is, when you decide that sex isn’t as “hedonistic,” and that you’re using it for the purpose of reproduction, remember that the only way to produce future generations is by way of a woman’s body. And there is no reason why a woman should not feel comfortable and proud to have this conversation. The questions around reproduction are ones that, when not answered, yield enormous repercussions. And so why isn’t the conversation more normal, right?
Vera: Well, gender inequality.
Leandra: But what do we do?
Vera: Well, I would love a world where at least if the patriarchy were run by trans men with uteruses, we could connect on the level of having uteruses. But I also think that having this conversation publicly about trying to not get pregnant or trying to get pregnant is so important because how is anyone supposed to understand where you’re coming from, and know how to help you or make you feel more comfortable, unless that conversation is out there? And I think there are so many people who don’t necessarily know what it’s like to have a period, but because they hear people talking about it they’re like, “Okay, I think I can see where you’re coming from now.”
Because you’re openly talking about trying to get pregnant, there are going to be men who hear this, who physically can’t get pregnant themselves, but they’ll be like, “Wow, I never knew this was such a struggle for women, and it’s not just like, snap your fingers and you’re pregnant tomorrow.” It’s not just about connecting with other people who experience what you’re experiencing, but it’s letting other people have some kind of insight into what you’re going through. How do you expect, for example, men to understand street harassment unless you talk to them about it? They’re not just going to wake up one day and be like, “Wow, I understand slut shaming now.” No, you really need to bring them in and explain it.
Leandra: We had a conversation with Ashley Ford about white privilege a while ago, and I asked her what she thought the solution was. And she was like, “Frankly, all I’m asking for is acknowledgement, just acknowledge that because you are white and I am black we have a different set of issues, and mine might require a little more kneading.” And the more I thought about that, the more I realized that acknowledgement really does seem like a fair answer, because the minute that an opposing party acknowledges that something might be difficult for its contender, a guard comes down, and you’re able to have a much more leveled conversation. And when that happens, you can really let someone in and what you find is they’re more likely to let you in, too.
Vera: It’s about sharing your privilege, too. It’s kind of weird that I am the wellness editor for Teen Vogue and I’m running a vertical about gender and sexuality and identity even though I’m white and hetero-normative, but I make sure that my writers are not, because if you are in a place of privilege you need to share that space, step aside and let other people speak for themselves.
Meika: I was in D.C. at a women’s conference last week and all of these amazing women were there — Oprah, Michelle Obama — but when President Obama spoke, he said, “I have two daughters and all I want to do is understand the struggle that you guys are going through,” and that’s when everyone lost it. We’re more affected, I think, by those who are unlike us getting on stage, acknowledging and saying, “We will fight on your behalf.” It’s different from having tons of awesome women commiserating. We need both things to get there, otherwise nothing changes.
Leandra: But certainly we’re closer.
Meika Hollender is Co-Founder and Marketing Director of Sustain, creator of Get On Top and co-author of the book “Naturally Clean.” Follow Sustain on Instagram @Sustain_natural and follow Meika @missmeiks.
Watercolor painting by Elizabeth Tamkin.