Female genital system Illustration

Whoa, whoa, whoa. A study funded by First Response and conducted by the Yale School of Medicine found that many women are seriously, seriously ignorant about the workings of their own bodies.

Using a sample of 1000 women between the ages of 18 and 40, the study published today in Fertility and Sterility looked at reproductive knowledge, encounters with healthcare professionals and other data to paint a powerful picture of where American women stand on understanding of fertility and reproduction.

The results were shocking to me, although I guess it shows my educational and class privilege that I am so freaking amazed that 41% of women believe that their ovaries continue to make new eggs as they age, that only 10% of women seemed to be aware that intercourse needs to occur before ovulation and that 50% have never discussed reproductive healthcare with their medical provider. About a third of women in the study admitted to visiting a reproductive health care provider less than once a year or never, and about one-fourth said they had no knowledge that obesity, smoking, STDs or irregular menstrual cycles can affect fertility.

The press release doesn’t clearly discuss factors that may have affected women’s knowledge about reproductive issues, like level of education, geographic area and socioeconomic status, although it does say:

“The sample is generally representative of the US population of women in the reproductive age group by racial and ethnic distributions, and regional representation matches the US census for this age group by design. The survey included questions to assess knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and practices regarding conception, pregnancy and reproductive health.”

And even though I sounded decidedly shame-y in my headline and in my first paragraph, I want to say, clearly, that burden for this ignorance doesn’t lie on individual women.  So much of the information we receive about women’s health and women’s bodies revolves around shame, misinformation and fear, especially when we’re younger. I mean, I’m 28 years old and I just learned about a year ago that my cervical fluid is indicative of my fertility. WHAT? How did I not know that? I’m a feminist who considers reproductive health and reproductive rights as a personal interest, and only after deciding to practice the Fertility Awareness Method of birth control did I really and truly learn about my cycle. I feel like many women, even educated ones, don’t really learn the ins and outs of fertility and how it works until they’re actually trying to get pregnant.

I assume that most of the beginning information about health and reproduction starts in school, as most schools have at least some kind of health curriculum. And honestly, how much do you remember from middle school health class? Were you seriously paying attention to the weird movie about menstruation or trying not to blush bright red because holy hell, this is awkward and I have a body and boys are in the room? Ok, maybe that was just me. But still.

Also, our society is one where many women take hormonal birth control from an early age, sometimes starting as a teenager or even tween. While I am 100% in favor of hormonal birth control for any and every woman who wants it, I know that when I started taking the pill at age 18, I didn’t give a second thought to what hormones were doing what to suppress ovulation or anything like that. I definitely didn’t have a good knowledge base of what the pill actually did to my body to make sure I didn’t get pregnant. I just thought, “Ok, this makes me not get pregnant! Great!” That is, undoubtedly, on me. That said, I know I’m not the only woman who went into her sexually-active years with that mindset, with what I thought was enough knowledge of eggs popping out and blood once a month and the crossed-finger, squinty-eyed wish that everything would just be fine until I actually wanted to have a baby. I also think that care providers could certainly be more explicit when prescribing and discussing reproductive options, especially as to what is actually happening in the body both when you are using hormonal birth control and when you’re not.

Another issue I think could be at play in the results of this study is how incredibly overworked and over-scheduled doctors are, both primary care providers and women’s health specialists. I know I’m not the only one who has sat in my gynecologist’s waiting room for an hour with a list of well-thought out questions and then experienced a quick-as-lightning Pap smear, in-and-out in fifteen minutes, with most of my questions still unanswered. How are you supposed to get information or share about the most private areas of your body and your life when you’re made to feel like a number, like a cog, like an appointment to cross off the list? That’s not necessarily the fault of individual doctors, either, but an indication of how our healthcare system is just, for the most part, not working.

This study, more than anything, clearly highlights the ways in which our healthcare system is not serving women. The results might be surprising in some ways, but not in others, because ultimately, the percentages are indicative of a world where ignorance about women’s bodies (and the desires of some people to control the bodies they seemingly don’t understand) continues to run rampant. This study shows how that ignorance really and truly affects women.

Photo: UIG via Getty Images