The stigma and feelings surrounding reproductive health often lead to conversations only happening in the clinician's office. But why should this be the case?
By Megan Nellis
Health topics are not always easy to talk about, and reproductive health is no exception. Everyone’s reproductive health journey is unique: some are looking for conception help, some are looking for contraceptives, some are looking for childbearing help, some are looking for information on prenatal vitamins for men, etc. When medically-accurate sex education (not to say anything about including reproductive health education) is only required in 22 states, many people are going to need to find more knowledge on the subject. However, the stigma and “uncomfortable” feelings surrounding reproductive health often lead to conversations only happening in the clinician's office. But why should this be the case? Reproduction is beautiful—a wonderful phenomenon of life that should not be taboo to talk about.
The research (or lack thereof)
During my research about reproductive health conversations, it was interesting to find most studies done on this topic are centered around patient-provider conversations—and not around any other relationships. Though these are very important conversations to have, in everyday life, most people do not have the time or ability to talk about every concern with their provider. Instead, they turn to their mother-figures, friends, and more often than not, the internet to help them understand their experiences and concerns. Maybe this lack of research is due to stigmas around the topic of reproductive health, or maybe it is because these conversations are not happening often enough.
My own experiences
In my own health experiences, sometimes I have been unsure of who I can talk to about my concerns, and what is appropriate to talk about. However, having health conversations with the people in your life can have a very positive impact on your health, knowledge, advocacy, and communication skills. You should understand your boundaries and the boundaries of those you are talking with when having reproductive health conversations, but there should be no need to be uncomfortable, embarrassed, or afraid to speak about your experiences. These conversations help people understand what they are going through, what they might need to look more into, and who in their group is there to support them.
Young or old, the relationship with a mother-figure has a substantial impact on how reproductive health is viewed. This relationship can have positive impacts when parents start having open and honest communication about reproductive health with their children at a relatively young age. This helps future patients feel empowered and knowledgeable about the subject, leading to productive conversations with healthcare providers. However, fears and awkward stigmas that surround reproductive health often lead to a lack of these conversations, potentially causing unwanted situations where decisions are made that do not align with the needs of the patient. Better parent education about reproductive health, as well as confidence in young adults, can help facilitate these important reproductive conversations which may lead to better overall health and trust.
But sometimes, there are some things that you really do not want to talk about with your parents. Where do you turn to next? For many, the next step is usually the internet or your friends. Both of these unconventional forms of knowledge are continuing to have a greater impact on the decisions of young people, but how should the topic be approached?
Though everyone is different, the opinions of peers can go a long way in influencing the decisions someone makes. Among some friend groups, it is easy to bring up the topic of reproductive health, and in others, it is not. You should feel comfortable bringing up such an important part of your life, but you should always keep in mind the past experiences of members in the group, be respectful of everyone’s opinions, and make sure to obtain consent when approaching the topic. These conversations among friends can lead to senses of relief knowing someone else has had the same experiences, help you understand who you can go to about when you have concerns, and can even lead to important discussions outside of reproductive health such as reproductive social issues.
But when even your closest friends do not have the answers needed or you want to fact-check what you’re learning, the quick Google search is just one click away. Among the upcoming generations, technology and the internet plays an inevitable part in people’s lives. Social media and online websites provide a way to get fast information, widen social networks, and help patients understand what questions they need to be asking of their providers. The reach of technology is continuing to grow and when used as telehealth, technology used to support long-distance healthcare, it helps provide an interactive learning process that can help influence young people towards positive, lifelong sexual and reproductive health experiences.
More health professionals have started to develop technology to educate and communicate with people. Some examples of new developments are podcasts, apps, online forums, chat rooms, social media, etc. These online resources can help have a positive impact on responsible decision making, greater health literacy and confidence, access to clinical information, and help build supportive relationships with those who are going through similar experiences. However, one downside to internet resources is uncertainty with information accuracy. This is why it is important to continuously have conversations with those around you, and your clinician, about what you have learned to ensure that you are receiving the right information.
Normalizing the conversation
Though it is most important to continue having effective conversations about reproductive health with your providers, normalizing reproductive health conversations among those closest to you will help de-stigmatize the topic and make the discussions feel more normal. Your experiences with reproduction should not feel “dirty” or embarrassing, and friends and family can help you feel more empowered about your wants, feelings, and concerns. Avoiding “negative” topics with those you trust does not lead to healing, and instead, can lead to a deeper sense of shame when you feel you can not share your thoughts and feelings.
You should never feel ashamed about your reproductive health journey; it is special and uniquely yours. Including your friends and family in the journey is one way to help accomplish this and to have healthy experiences moving forward.