You may have seen the slew of headlines claiming that a recent survey shows young women can’t “locate” their vaginas. Not only is this playing loose with the truth of what the survey found, it also masks a real problem when it comes to women’s health.
“Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word,” declares the Independent, a title mirrored by a number of sites, while the Deccan Chronicle goes for the more concise yet even more inaccurate “Half of young women can’t find their vagina: survey.” There’s just one problem,:what these headlines imply is not what the survey they are writing up actually found.
Conducted by women’s cancer charity The Eve Appeal, the survey of 1,000 UK women across the age spectrum found a worrying lack of knowledge about the most common symptoms of gynecological cancers, a group of cancers which includes cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. The survey found less than a quarter of respondents in that age bracket said they felt “well informed” about such health issues — that compared to 42 percent of women aged 66-75.
The study also found that 65 percent of 16-25 year olds feel that they have difficulty using words like “vagina” or “vulva.” Any of these facts might have been clickbait enough had the survey not found the next set of figures which I will reproduce from the press release in its entirety just to show how the charity has not sensationalized its findings (emphasis added) but how the mass media machine did:
Lack of basic anatomical knowledge is also an issue, with women in the younger age groups struggling to correctly identify the five areas that can be affected by gynecological cancer (womb, cervix, ovaries, vagina and vulva) on a simple diagram – just half of women aged 26-35 were able to label the vagina accurately. In contrast older women aged 66-75 were much better educated about their bodies, with eight in ten able to correctly label ovaries and nearly nine in ten the womb.
Headline writers across the web seem to have seized on the small phrase in bold above and spun it into implying that women don’t know where on their body their vagina might be — of course, that’s ridiculous.
I would hazard a guess that men would similarly be unable to easily label their own anatomy, and this may speak to a wider problem of a lack of sexual health education and education on our bodies in general.
That said, and to be fair to sites like the Independent, they do go on to clarify in the text of their articles what it is the survey actually found, but I’d argue the damage is done. Admittedly while this sensationalism might get people reading the article, it also could turn people off when they get to the piece and find that the media machine has yet again run a bit of clickbait, while those of us who are reading media sites a lot may simply pass the story over altogether as yet another attempt at an attention-grabbing, trivial story — and that risks readers not getting an accurate picture of these findings, something that would be a tragic waste of an opportunity to inform and educate.
For instance, the survey also found that it’s not just that there’s an age-gap in general knowledge about gynecological health, but rather that there’s a significant difference between how the generations feel when it comes to their attitudes about discussing gynecological health with their doctors, something that is vital in early detection of cancers across the board.
Indeed, one out of every 10 women aged 16-25 said they find it “very hard” to talk to their GPs about this issue, while nearly one third said they had avoided going to the doctors altogether when it came to gynecological health concerns. This matters because it directly contradicts the prevailing idea that as a society we’re much more open to talking about these kinds of health problems and it speaks to why these kinds of cancers continue to be under-diagnosed until much later in their progression when they have become far harder to treat.
That’s why The Eve Appeal has launched its “#vaginadialogues” campaign, to try to overcome this stigma and start a meaningful conversation. The campaign is also encouraging women to get together and talk about this issue, hopefully breaking down the embarrassment by talking to girlfriends who can provide emotional support in a judgment-free setting.
Says Helena Morrissey, Chairman of The Eve Appeal, “At the Eve Appeal we know how important it is to promote straight talking about the signs and symptoms of gynecological cancers to women of all ages, and this survey has highlighted just how far we still have to go to make this happen. These cancers have some of the worst outcomes for women, with a 40% mortality rate. Understanding the symptoms will save lives, which is why we are urging women this Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month to talk more openly about these life-saving issues.”
As you have read, these kinds of cancers are killers, and so creating headlines that are enticing but still accurate is important to ensure that the information doesn’t get lost or overlooked.
By undercutting that information with problematic headlines, sites like the Independent have done their readers and this campaign a disservice. That said, the Daily Mail, the Herald, and a number of other media sites did manage to represent this story fairly while having an enticing headline, thus magnifying the voice of the campaign and its reach.
If you’d like to learn more about gynecological cancers and their symptoms, please click here.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.