Ah, the birds and the bees. Think back to the first time you got your period, or the first time you thought about having sex. Did you know what to do? What were you feeling? Were you scared? Excited? Did anyone tell you the difference between pregnancy and ovulation tests? My sex ed basics started in middle school health class, and was cobbled together after. The sex ed classes were probably not an ideal way to build a real understanding of sex, my body, and relationships. While sex ed classes provide some useful information about practicing safe sex, only 24 states currently require sex ed classes in their school’s curriculum. So, today we will get real about sex ed and lay out the sex ed facts that all women deserve to know.
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What are the key organs I should know?
Let’s start with our reproductive system. The key organs included in the women’s reproductive system are the ovaries, uterus, vagina, fallopian tubes, and vulva. But what do each of these organs do and why are they so important to reproduction?
First, we have the vagina. Your vagina has muscular walls and a hollow tube that extends to the uterus. The three main purposes of your vagina are for insertion during sexual intercourse, the birth canal during childbirth, and for blood to leave your body during your period. Within the vagina is the cervix, which connects the vagina to the uterus. The opening of the cervix is very small, but expands during childbirth to allow the baby to come out (fun fact: this is why it’s not possible for a tampon to get lost in there). When we are not aroused, the walls of our vaginas are collapsed against each other. Vaginal health & comfort is critical—to avoid vaginal infections like UTIs or yeast infections, it’s important to maintain lots of bacteria and a few number of yeast cells.
This brings us to the uterus. Believe it or not, your uterus contains some of the strongest muscles in the body (talk about flower power). The uterus serves a few very important functions. In terms of menstruation (your period), the uterus will grow a thick lining that is synchronized with ovulation. When we get our periods, it is simply a result of the lining of the uterus beginning to shed. In terms of pregnancy, the uterus is responsible for nurturing the fertilized ovum that grows into a fetus and holding it until it’s ready for birth. The uterus is also structured to support your bladder, bowel, and pelvic bones.
The fallopian tube, also known as the uterine tube, allows an egg to move from the ovaries to the uterus. Especially important for conception, your fallopian tubes are where an egg is fertilized by sperm cells. An ectopic pregnancy happens when a fertilized egg stays in the fallopian tubes instead of making its way to the uterus. You may have heard of or know of someone who has gotten their “tubes tied”. This is a procedure for women who don’t want to get pregnant and simply prevents eggs from moving to the uterus.
The ovaries are one of the most important reproductive organs in the female body. Their two primary functions are to produce eggs and to produce reproductive hormones. When an egg is released from the ovary, ovulation begins. You can track your ovulation using Stix’s ovulation tests! For more on ovulation and how to take an ovulation test, check out this blog we made to make it easier.
Finally, we have the vulva. The vulva is connected to the cervix through the vagina and essentially describes the external parts of female genitalia. It's time for real sex education.
How does my body change as I go through puberty?
Time to talk puberty. Remember learning about in those sex ed classes? Puberty is what happens when your body starts changing and developing from a kid to an adult. Puberty, however, is much more than getting your period for the first time or buying your first training bra. It also is the fastest your body will grow for the rest of your life, so it’s worth having information about how and why bodies change.
When a girl hits puberty, hormones in her body target the ovaries containing eggs that have been in her body since birth. These hormones create another hormone called estrogen and work to prepare the body for pregnancy one day by starting her period. Girls typically hit puberty between ages 8 and 13, but it’s very common to fall outside that range (shoutout to us late bloomers).
The first signs of puberty include breast development and pubic/armpit hair growth, followed 1-2 years later by a big growth spurt. During this growth spurt, the body builds fat around the breasts and hips. After that, menstruation will happen, and so will your first period (typically between ages 9 and 16). During menstruation, your endocrine glands produce hormones that serve as chemical messengers to your reproductive system. These hormones can cause side effects associated with your period like cramps, bloating, and increased hunger.
Let's get down and dirty—what about pleasure and consent?
Time to address the elephant in the room: sex! First and foremost, the most important aspect of sexual intercourse is that it’s consensual. But what does consent actually look like? Many of us are familiar with the phrase “no means no”—over time, we’ve learned that this phrase is not enough to really, fully, deeply understand whether a partner is consenting.
In a 2019 high school sex ed plan, consent is described as a voluntary, affirmative, ongoing conversation about mutual agreement to do something before you do it. Remember that you, and your partner, don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable doing. Voicing what you are and are not okay with is critical. This includes using body language, asking questions, and voicing your opinions. Some examples of language or dialogue you can use in situations where consent is needed or to discuss pleasure include:
- I really like you but I’m not ready for that right now.
- Are you comfortable with that?
- Does this feel good?
- Would you like me to stop?
There is also something called capacity to consent, which has to do with age, the relationship between parties, the ability to make logical judgement calls, and so many more factors. The minimal age of consent varies in the U.S. from state to state, but is usually somewhere between 16 and 18. This means having intercourse with someone below that age is classified as non consensual. The use of drug and alcohol also impairs someone’s capacity to consent.
So, how do I get pregnant?
You’re thinking about getting pregnant? First of all, huge congratulations from everyone here at Stix. This is such a special journey, no matter what it looks like, and we at Stix are here for you every step of the way. That being said, conception doesn’t always happen right away and the process of getting pregnant can be quite frustrating. Check out our blog with tips and tricks to make your journey to pregnancy a little bit easier.
Essentially, getting pregnant involves predicting ovulation and maximizing fertility. To successfully plan sex around your cycle, we find that regularly taking ovulation tests helps tremendously, as ovulation can sometimes be hard to catch. Pregnancy then happens when one sperm cell joins with a mature egg that is produced during ovulation, and that egg becomes fertilized within 24 hours. Once you begin actively trying for a baby, it’s important to regularly take pregnancy tests so that you know when to see your doctor.
It’s also important to talk about pregnancy options for same-sex couples or those without a partner. There are sperm donors, in which a man donates his sperm cells to be fertilized with a mature egg. A sperm donor can be someone you know or can be selected from a sperm bank. The same applies for egg donors. There’s also a surrogacy option in which a woman (surrogate) agrees to carry and give birth to your baby.
What about precum? Can this get me pregnant? Technically, yes. Pre cum, or pre-ejaculation, is released before cum as a lubricant for sex and sometimes contains sperm. The question of whether precum contains sperm cells that can lead to pregnancy has been researched with inconclusive results. In some of these studies, sperm wasn’t found in precum and in others, low counts of sperm were found that probably wouldn’t be enough to fertilize an egg. What we’re saying is that the chances of getting pregnant from precum are close to impossible.
But I'm not trying to get pregnant! What are my birth control options?
So we know all about getting pregnant and pregnancy, but what are our options if we don’t want to get pregnant? Two words: birth control. It’s so important to know your options in terms of birth control as every woman’s body reacts differently.
The most popular form of birth control is commonly referred to as “the pill”. There are many different types of birth control pills, but all of them contain the estrogen hormone. Combinations of estrogen and progestin work by preventing ovulation as well as preventing sperm from entering by changing the mucus at the cervix. Birth control pills are very effective in preventing pregnancy, but must be taken every day around the same time in order to work.
It’s also important to note that, if you’re not on birth control, avoiding having sex during your fertile window can be helpful but is not enough to guarantee that you won’t get pregnant. Regardless of how strong your partner’s pull-out game might be, mistakes happen. If you’re regularly having sex, protected or not, but not trying to conceive, figuring out which form of birth control will work best for you is your best bet.
This brings us to another big birth control option: IUD. IUD, or Intrauterine Device, is a small T-shaped form of birth control that gets inserted into the uterus. There are two main categories of IUDs: hormonal and copper.
Within the hormonal category there is the Merena, Skyla, Lilette, and Kyleena. These brands of hormonal IUDs prevent pregnancy by releasing the progestin hormone, thickening your cervical mucus, making your uterus “hostile”, and thickening the lining of the uterus. The difference between these brands is based on the amount of hormones being released, the size of the device, and how long each one stays inside of you.
The Skyla releases much fewer hormones than the Mirena. Additionally, the Skyla and the Kyleena are much smaller than the other two and might be a more pleasant of an insertion experience. Time also plays a large factor when considering which IUD is best for you. The Skyla is only effective for about 3 years, so, if you don’t plan on getting pregnant in the near future, you might want something that lasts a little bit longer. For example, the Mirena and Kyleena last up to 5 years, and the Liletta can stay in for up to 6.
There are several benefits of hormonal birth control vs. non-hormonal forms, other than preventing pregnancy. First, hormonal forms of birth control is proven to better control acne flare-ups that many women face during their period. Combination birth control (those containing both progestin and estrogen) are best to minimize breakouts.
Many women also use hormonal birth control to treat irregular bleeding, painful cramps, irregular cycles, and PMS. Finally, gynecologists have found that using combination birth control reduces a woman’s risk of endometrial cancer by 50%. The longer you use combination birth control, the more your chance of endometrial cancer is reduced.
Next is the copper IUD. Branded with the name Paragard, this form of birth control is 100% hormone free and works to prevent pregnancy by releasing copper ions into the cervix. The copper IUD stays in for 10 years and essentially works as a physical barrier to prevent sperm from entering as well as killing sperm cells with the copper ions.
Overall, the appeal of IUDs include not having to remember to take a pill daily, the freedom to reverse it at any time, and that they have much fewer side effects than the pill. Additionally, IUDs are safe to use while breastfeeding and are incredibly discreet.
There’s also the birth control patch. The patch contains both progestin and estrogen and works by placing it on your stomach, back, or arm once a week for three weeks. The hormones in the patch work the same as other combination birth control by preventing your body from ovulating.
Finally, there’s the ring. This is a small, plastic ring placed inside the vagina once a month that releases hormones to prevent pregnancy. You’ll take your ring out every 3 weeks and then wait a week to replace it. During this week in between rings is when you’ll have your period.
As you can tell, you have many options when it comes to birth control. Now that you have all the information about how they work, talk to your doctor about finding one that is best for you.
What about my fertility?
Where do babies come from? Let’s deep dive into this loaded question.
It’s important to note that your menstrual cycle does not occur if you are pregnant. This is because once a fertilized egg reaches the uterus, it releases pregnancy hormones that prevent the lining of the uterus from shedding, essentially stopping your period.
The first day of your period starts your cycle and menstruation, which is when the body discards the monthly build up of the lining of the uterus, and we bleed (What fun). This cycle lasts about a week and is indicated by your period. If you need a tampon or a pad, you are likely in the menstrual phase of your cycle.
Next, the follicular phase of your cycle prepares your body for ovulation by releasing a hormone called follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) to the ovaries to produce a mature egg. Starting on the first day of menstruation and until ovulation, the follicular phase thickens the lining of the uterus by producing estrogen to provide support in case of pregnancy.
Here’s where the fun starts. The ovulation phase of your cycle is indicated by the release of a mature egg to your uterus from your ovaries. Ovulation is triggered by high levels of LH, luteinizing hormone, and usually happens near the middle of your cycle. During ovulation is when your eggs are most fertile and when you are most likely to get pregnant. Figuring out exactly when you’re ovulating can be tricky, but we find that taking ovulation tests regularly goes a long way.
Finally, the luteal phase. If the egg becomes fertilized, your body will start to produce hormones called progesterone and oestrogen to make sure your uterus keeps building its lining (to support pregnancy). Additionally, this is when your body will produce HcG, which is what is detected in your urine when you get a positive pregnancy test. If the egg doesn’t become fertilized, your progesterone levels will drop and the lining of your uterus begins to shed, starting the menstruation phase of your cycle again.
What about pregnancy loss + infertility?
Everyone’s journey looks different. Miscarriages happen. Infertility happens. As a community, we all need to be conscious and sensitive to what those around us are going through. 1 in 4 pregnancies end in a loss. 1 in 100 pregnancies end in a baby being stillborn. That’s about 24,000 babies born still in the US in a single year. About 10-15 out of 100 pregnancies end in a miscarriage. And 1 in 8 of us is struggling to get pregnant.
Infertility can be caused by a number of factors, and only some are in our control. For example, being either underweight or overweight can mess with your cycle and lead to infertility. Other factors like STIs, cigarette smoking, and age are possible causes of infertility as well. For a healthy woman in her 20s or 30s, there is a 25-30% chance of conceiving each month. These chances drop to 10% once she hits 40, as the quantity of eggs declines the older we get.
Infertility can also be caused by hormonal disorders such as PCOS. PCOS, or Polycystic ovarian syndrome, is classified by very irregular periods and enlarged ovaries. If you’ve been trying to get pregnant for over a year, it’s recommended to see a fertility doctor.
Infertility can be the result of physical barriers in the anatomy of your reproductive system. Things like scarring of the fallopian tubes, blockage of the cervix, and scar tissue from previous surgeries can affect fertility.
Finally, there is such a thing as unexplained infertility. This means that an individual is having trouble conceiving even after tests & doctors visits reveal normal ovulation, a normal uterus and unobstructed fallopian tubes. There is likely some explanation for the infertility, but that explanation is not easily found with routine tests—this can weigh heavily on someone’s psyche.
We encourage you to talk to your doctor if you have any concerns regarding your fertility. Additionally, there are tons of infertility support groups to help manage your emotions during such difficult times. And remember, at Stix, you’re not alone. We are committed to meeting women where they are, whatever their journey looks like.
What medical support is available to me?
There are a slew of different doctors and specific specialties—the medical community is constantly working on building up networks of support, resources, and treatments, whatever your health journey looks like. We created a guide to women’s health doctors, to help navigate this.
We must always keep in mind that with different health journeys come different experiences for every woman. Long overdue discussions about the mental and physical health of black women are becoming more visible, from access to mental health resources to conversations about the higher birth mortality rate of black women. The LGBTQ+ community is also left out of mainstream topics around sexual health and pregnancy. From transgender parents to queer and lesbian fertility, inclusive & empathetic conversations are necessary for a deep understanding of sexual and reproductive health.
What about emotional support?
Getting the emotional support that you need is just as important as any other healthcare. Every stage of life requires emotional support, be that from friends, family, or professionals. Our Stix community has been vocal in advocating for women experiencing infertility. The consensus? Being a part of an inclusive, supportive network is everything.
There are several helplines designed specifically to provide emotional support to women who are pregnant. Emotional support from your partner is so important during pregnancy, so maintaining open and clear communication goes a long way in regards to peace of mind for both you and your partner. Several studies have been done that indicate women who did not receive emotional support during pregnancy reported higher levels of stress and depression, which is the last thing you need while bringing a baby into the world.
What does pregnancy actually look + feel like?
Pregnancy isn’t something that most sex-ed classes go into detail about, but rather how to not get pregnant. Let’s buckle down on pregnancy, the different trimesters, and what these months of growing a baby will look like.
The first trimester is from week 1 to the end of week 12 of pregnancy and is when all of the embryo’s major organs and structure starts to form. By the end of the first trimester, the embryo will grow to be around three inches long. At around the eighth week of pregnancy, external genitalia will form. Some changes you might notice in your body during the first trimester include nausea (sometimes vomiting), cravings, mood swings, and a heightened sense of smell. Welcome to pregnancy!
The second trimester happens from week 13 through week 26 of pregnancy and is when you’ll notice the most growth from your baby (and yourself!). During this trimester, the baby will go from weighing 3 ounces to weighing 1 pound and will grow to be 12 inches long. Your baby will form lots of new body parts, some of which being skin, nails, eyelashes, the skeleton, and fingerprints. Additionally, the fetus will develop regular sleeping patterns and begin to hear sounds from outside the womb. This is also when you’ll notice a bump and begin to “look pregnant”. A lot of women report feeling better in the second trimester, but noticing changes in the nipples, stretch marks, and round ligament pain.
The third trimester lasts from week 27 until delivery, which usually happens somewhere around week 40. Your baby will do a lot of growing this trimester, reaching 7-8 lbs in weight and growing 18-20 inches long. By the time of delivery, the baby’s lungs have matured and the baby has started practicing breathing motions. Most of the organs and body systems become fully developed during the third trimester and you will start having contractions.
As your belly will be pretty big by this time, you’ll likely experience discomfort or back pain. Some other symptoms experienced during this stage of pregnancy include heartburn, insomnia, swollen feet, and leakage of milk from the breasts. As delivery gets closer, the baby should turn into a head-down position, but doesn’t always. In cases where the baby doesn’t turn, your doctor might perform a C-Section.
What about postpartum depression?
So you’ve just had a baby. Now what? Though there’s no universal answer to prepare for after birth, there is useful information out there to help along the way.
Everyone’s postpartum experience is different. Not only do you have a newborn to care for, but you now have to take care of your own health, mental and physical. If you notice yourself feeling sad or anxious after childbirth, don’t panic--it’s probably postpartum depression.
Some of the biggest advice we’ve heard from women’s postpartum experience is: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There is no cookie cutter mold to motherhood, so put your fears of not being enough to the side.
Let’s talk bleeding after childbirth. Postpartum bleeding, or lochia, can last up to six weeks. The experience can be compared to a very heavy period. It’s very common for bleeding to be the heaviest for 10 days after birth and turn into spotting until it eventually tapers out. This is your body’s way of getting rid of the extra blood it produced during pregnancy for you and your baby.
You may also have to pee. All the time. Known as incontinence, pregnancy reduces bladder support that causes your body to fail to signal to you when you have to urinate. Some moms will tell you that their bladder will never be the same while others find this problem disappears after a year or two. Again--everyone is different.
Finally, many mothers navigate the pressure to breastfeed. While breastfeeding works for a lot of new moms, it’s not for everyone and is not the only way. Numerous women can only breastfeed for a short amount of time, which is more than okay! In fact, in the United States today, less than half of newborns are still exclusively breastfeeding 3 months after they were born.
The pressure to breastfeed can take a real toll on your mental health which, as a new mom, is the last thing you need. Many new mothers experience difficulty getting their newborn to latch and begin to resent their baby--as well as themselves for “failing” to nurse. Stop feeling like you have to do what’s “best” for your baby by breastfeeding. There’s no right or wrong way to feed your child, as long as it’s being fed!
So, that’s the latest on sex ed facts you need to know! We hope it was more helpful than your junior high health sex ed class. We challenge you to get in the know on your cycle and order a test today. For more on all things women’s health, check out the Stix library.
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