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Events, Mental Health, Sexual Health, Stanford News, Women's Health

Women’s health experts tackle mood disorders and sexual assault

Women's health experts tackle mood disorders and sexual assault

3131235412_fa7f528735_zEarlier this week I reported from the Women’s Health Forum, held on Monday for the sixth year running. The hardest part about attending the event was deciding which among all the interesting talks to attend.

Among the many sessions, the two that most piqued my interest focused on women’s mental health. Katherine (Ellie) Williams, MD, spoke about mood disorders related to the menstrual cycle, and Laraine Zappert, PhD, discussed the psychological impact of sexual assault. Both are from the school’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Williams’ talk began with a cartoon of a dishwasher bursting with dishes, clothes, a phone, a vacuum – above a caption quip about PMS. The out-of-control energy of the sketch conveys the affective thundercloud often associated with women and their “hormones.” Williams identified three periods when this thundercloud may be an actual mood disorder, as opposed to “normal” fluctuations: pre-menstrual, perinatal, and perimenopausal.

Technically speaking, “PMS” is about physical symptoms and is fairly common, whereas pre-menstrual dysphoric disorders (PMDDs) is all about mood and affects less than 5 percent of women. The disruption happens in the luteal phase of a woman’s cycle, usually the two weeks after ovulation – this is a big chunk of time we’re talking about, nearly 50 percent! Treatments for disorders in all periods include exercise, acupuncture, and diet supplements, and pharmaceuticals like certain birth control pills and antidepressants (which interestingly work differently for women with PMDD than for people in general – when taken only during that luteal phase, they have fast onset time and cause no withdrawal symptoms).

Researchers are learning more about how to predict and prevent cycle-related mood disorders, and increasingly it is clear that life context plays a major role. Stressful life events, interpersonal conflicts, marital tension, and previous mental-health instabilities (from being a perfectionist to having suffered childhood abuse or major depressive breakdowns) are the primary risk factors. This knowledge means clinical practitioners have to think much more broadly about how to help women, particularly in terms of prevention, Williams said.

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Global Health, Mental Health, Research, Sexual Health, Women's Health

Exploring links between domestic violence, depression and reproductive health

Exploring links between domestic violence, depression and reproductive health

abused womanIt’s no surprise that domestic violence has effects that ripple outward in a victim’s life, beyond physical traces of abuse. Research into just what those effects are can help physicians provide better counseling and treatment, and two new studies show striking correlations between domestic violence, mental illness, and contraception use.

The first study, published in Depression and Anxiety, enrolled a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 mothers with no previous history of depression, and assessed them over 10 years. It was headed by Isabelle Ouellet-Morin, PhD, researcher at the University of Montreal. Thirty-three percent of the women reported being the victim of violence from their partner, and these women had a twofold increase in their risk of suffering from new-onset depression (after controlling for childhood maltreatment, socioeconomic deprivation, antisocial personality, and young motherhood). Compared with women who had never been victims of violence, women who were abused both in childhood and adulthood were 4-7 times more likely to suffer from depression. The results were similar for psychotic symptoms.

Louise Arseneault, PhD, co-author and professor of developmental psychology at Kings College London, is quoted in PsychCentral:

Health professionals need to be very aware of the possibility that women who experience mental health problems may also be the victims of domestic violence and vice versa. Given the prevalence of depression in these victims, we need to prevent these situations and take action. These acts of violence do more than leave physical damage; they leave psychological scars as well.

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Global Health, Pediatrics, Sexual Health, Women's Health

Rape prevention program in Kenya attracting media attention, funding

Rape prevention program in Kenya attracting media attention, funding

stop rape signI’ve written previously about No Means No Worldwide, a non-profit that has partnered with several Stanford researchers to document the success of their self-defense programs for preventing rapes of girls in Nairobi, Kenya. Over the last week, the program has garnered some wonderful news coverage of its complementary program to educate boys about their responsibility for stopping rape, including a Reuters story that describes how some schoolboys halted the sexual assault of a young girl:

Having been trained to defend girls against sexual assault, the boy called other young men to help him confront the man and rescue the child.

“It would have been fatal,” said Collins Omondi, who taught the boy as part of a program to stamp out violence against women and girls in Nairobi slums. “If this man would have assaulted this kid, he would have thrown her inside the river.”

The Reuters story also mentions some very heartening news: Thanks to funding from the British government, all of Nairobi’s 130,000 secondary school students will undergo the six-week No Means No Worldwide programs for girls and boys by the end of 2017.

Upworthy has also covered the programs’ success. From their story:

In many parts of the world, assault prevention starts and ends with what women can do to avoid putting themselves in “high-risk” situations. These are not effective.

Researchers used Kenya’s scenario to test the two methods. One group of women received the No Means No [empowerment and self-defense] training while the other took a life-skills class. Girls who received the No Means No training saw a nearly 40% decrease in rapes in the year following the program. Girls who took the life-skills offering were raped at the same rate.

Not only is teaching women how to avoid “high-risk” situations ineffective, but it shifts the blame to the victim for being raped instead of putting it on the rapist for actually committing the crime.

Committing a crime is a choice, and the No Means No program empowers young boys to choose not to commit that crime.

Previously: Empowerment training prevents rape of Kenyan girls and Self-defense training reduces rapes in Kenya
Photo by Steve McClaughin

LGBT, Medicine and Society, Research, Sexual Health, Stanford News

Asexuality: “That doesn’t mean there is something wrong”

Asexuality: "That doesn't mean there is something wrong"

7719085120_8119b3bfbe_zAs a scholar with ties in both humanities and medicine, I’m always interested when those realms intersect. Medical understanding of sexuality has been heavily influenced by social science and humanities research, and now a new frontier in sexuality studies, asexuality, is being pioneered at Stanford. 

Karli Cerankowski, PhD, who graduated from Stanford’s Program in Modern Thought and Literature last year and is a lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, is working on broadening our perception of healthy sexuality by including lower levels of sexual or romantic desire. Her work, recently spotlighted by Stanford News, traces people who might now identify as asexual through historical and pop cultural works, analyzing how they and society have interacted. She’s quoted in the Stanford News piece as saying that “society has normalized certain levels of sexual desire while pathologizing others. In a sense, it’s the social model that’s broken, not asexuals.”

Asexuality is a very new field of study, which exists under the wide umbrella of sexuality and gender studies. Cerankowski and her co-editor, Megan Milks, recently published the second book ever to be written on the topic. Thinking about the ways people experience their sexuality, desire, and gender informs how science and medicine understand optimal human health. Although sex and sexuality occupy a prominent place in our culture’s understanding of bodies, they are not prominent for every individual.

Cerankowski, again quoted in Stanford News, says:

If we recognize the diversity of human sexuality, then we can understand that there are some people who just don’t experience sexual attraction or have a lower sex drive or have less sex, and that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them… We sort of prioritize sexual pleasure and sexual fulfillment in our lives, but we can think about the other ways that people experience intense pleasure, like when listening to music.

Pleasure and desire are important aspects of being human, but they don’t have to be tied to sex, or even to romance. On the wide spectrum of asexuality, there is room for those who engage neither in sex nor romance, as well as those who enjoy a romantic partnership and may engage in sex for reasons other than personal desire. This spectrum intersects with other aspects of sexuality that have also, though activism, become recognized as spectrums: sexual orientation, sexual identification, and gender identification.

Previously: Med students want more sexual health training, Changing the prevailing attitude about AIDS, gender and reproductive health in southern Africa and Living with disorders of sex development
Photo by trollhare

Genetics, In the News, LGBT, Medicine and Society, Research, Sexual Health

Sex biology redefined: Genes don’t indicate binary sexes

Sex biology redefined: Genes don't indicate binary sexes

14614853884_3d6d1d662a_zImagine being a forty-six-year-old woman pregnant with her third child, whose amniocentesis follow-up shows that half her cells carry male chromosomes. Or a seventy-year-old father of three who learns during a hernia repair that he has a uterus. A recent news feature in Nature mentioned these cases as it elaborated on the spectrum of sex biology. People can be sexed in a non-straightforward way and not even be aware of it; in fact, most probably aren’t. As many as 1 person in 100 has some form of “DSD,” a difference/disorder of sex development.

The simple scenario many of us learned in school is that two X chromosomes make someone female, and an X and a Y chromosome make someone male. These are simplistic ways of thinking about what is scientifically very complex. Anatomy, hormones, cells, and chromosomes (not to mention personal identity convictions) are actually not usually aligned with one binary classification.

The Nature feature collects research that has changed the way biologists understand sex. New technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that chromosomal sex is a process, not an assignation.

As quoted in the article, Eric Vilain, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at UCLA, explains that sex determination is a contest between two opposing networks of gene activity. Changes in the activity or amounts of molecules in the networks can sway the embryo towards or away from the sex seemingly spelled out by the chromosomes. “It has been, in a sense, a philosophical change in our way of looking at sex; that it’s a balance.”

What’s more, studies in mice are showing that the balance of sex manifestation can be shifted even after birth; in fact, it is something actively maintained during the mouse’s whole life.

According to the Nature feature, true intersex disorders, such as those from divergent genes or the inability of cellular receptors to respond to hormones, yield conflicting chromosomal and anatomical sex. But these are rare, about 1 in 4,500. For the 1/100 figure, they used a more inclusive definition of DSDs. More than 25 genes that affect sex development have now been identified, and they have a wide range of variations that affect people in subtle ways. Many differences aren’t even noticed until incidental medical encounters, such as in the opening scenarios (the first was probably caused by twin embryos fusing in the woman’s mother’s womb; the second by a hormonal disorder).

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Global Health, In the News, Pediatrics, Public Safety, Sexual Health, Women's Health

Stanford research shows rape prevention program helps Kenyan girls "find the power to say no"

Stanford research shows rape prevention program helps Kenyan girls "find the power to say no"

The San Francisco Chronicle has a great story today about a collaborative project that is reducing rape and sexual assault of impoverished girls in Kenya.

The story highlights the combined efforts of activists Jake Sinclair, MD, and his wife, Lee Paiva Sinclair, who founded nonprofit No Means No Worldwide to provide empowerment training to Kenayn girls, and the Stanford team that has been analyzing the results of their efforts. As we’ve described before, this work is a great example of the academic chops of Stanford experts’ being combined with on-the-ground activism to make a difference for an urgent real-world problem.

As the article explains:

The girls and hundreds of others like them have participated in a rape-prevention workshop created by Jake Sinclair and Lee Paiva, a San Francisco doctor and his artist wife who have been working in Kenya for 14 years.

Their program is working, and that’s not just according to the dozen or so testimonials online, the couple said. Two studies out of Stanford – one published in April this year, one the year before – have found that girls who have gone through the couples’ classes experience fewer sexual assaults after the workshops.

More telling, perhaps: More than half of the girls report using some tool they learned from the classes to protect themselves, from kicking a man in the groin to yelling at someone to stop.

“It’s great to see the girls just find their voice, to find the power to say ‘no,’ ” Sinclair said. “It’s so enlightening. You can see it in their eyes, that something’s changed.”

Stanford research scholar Clea Sarnquist, DrPH, who has played an important role in the project, adds:

“A lot of these girls are using voice and verbal skills first,” Sarnquist said. “That’s one of the key things, is teaching the girls that they have the right to protect themselves – that they have domain over their own bodies, and they have the right to speak up for their own self interest.”

The whole story is definitely worth a read.

Previously: Empowerment training prevents rape of Kenyan girls and Self-defense training reduces rapes in Kenya

Ethics, Research, Sexual Health, Sports, Stanford News, Women's Health

"Drastic, unnecessary and irreversible medical interventions" imposed upon some female athletes

"Drastic, unnecessary and irreversible medical interventions" imposed upon some female athletes

Four female athletes were required to undergo “partial clitorectomies” and gonadectomies (removal of gonads) as a result of the current gender-policing polices of major sports governing bodies, according to an article published this week in the British Medical Journal.

The article, co-written by Stanford bioethicist Katrina Karkazis, PhD, raises concerns that new policies that use testosterone testing to determine eligibility for elite female athletes accused of having “male-like attributes” have resulted in unnecessary interventions that are both “invasive and irreversible.” The paper was timed to coincide with an editorial that she and Barnard College’s Rebecca Jordan-Young, PhD, wrote for the New York Times, which was previously discussed here.

Karkazis told me that both the journal article and the editorial were written in response to a case study published last year in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism by physicians who conducted the medical procedures on the four female athletes. The athletes, ages 18-21 and all from developing countries, had tested high for naturally occurring testosterone levels. Their identities remain confidential, but the physicians who performed the surgeries and wrote the report acknowledged that there was no medical need for the procedures, which have been used as treatments for intersex conditions. Karkazis and colleagues argue that not only is there no medical benefit to such procedures, they also make no difference to athletic ability. From the journal article:

Clitoridectomy is not medically indicated, does not relate to real or perceived athletic “advantage,” and is beyond the policies’ mandate. Moreover, this technique is long eschewed because it has poor cosmetic outcomes and damages sexual sensation and function. Clitoral surgery should have no role in interventions undertaken for athletes’ eligibility or health.

Karkazis and her colleagues go on to refute the logic of using testosterone level testing in women as grounds for exclusion from competition as having no scientific grounds, and quote sports officials as saying that female athletes with unusually high naturally occurring testosterone levels have no more competitive advantage that other elite athletes. Karkazis and Jordan-Young wrote in the Times:

Sports officials (the report does not identify their governing-body affiliation) sent the young women to a medical center in France, where they were put through examinations that included blood tests, genital inspections, magnetic resonance imaging, X-rays and psychosexual history… Since the athletes were all born as girls but also had internal testes that produce unusually high levels of testosterone for a woman, doctors proposed removing the women’s gonads and partially removing their clitorises. All four agreed to undergo both procedures; a year later, they were allowed to return to competition.

Quite simply, these young female athletes were required to have drastic, unnecessary and irreversible medical interventions if they wished to continue in their sports.

Previously: Arguing against sex testing in athletes, Is the International Olympic Committee’s policy governing sex verification fair? and Researchers challenge proposed testosterone testing in select female Olympic athletes

Global Health, Sexual Health, Women's Health

Sex work in Uganda: Risky business

Sex work in Uganda: Risky business

We step across a sewage channel to enter an unmarked, tin-roof building, leaving the bright sunlight for the dark corridors of a 23-room inn in a busy commercial district in Kampala, Uganda. More than a dozen women huddle on the mud floor in a small rectangular courtyard whose walls are charcoal-black. We gradually come to realize that we’ve arrived at a brothel, the destination for our field tour with the Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy, a prominent group that fights for the rights of Uganda’s sex workers.

One woman in her 30s, dressed in a black head scarf, does much of the talking for the women at the brothel, speaking in her native Luganda while the manager of the inn translates. The woman says she lost her husband and had no source of income to support herself and her children. “I almost committed suicide,” she says, but a friend encouraged her to try sex work to earn money. “My friend said, ‘I will show you what to do.’” Behind her, three wooden doors lead to squalid, closet-sized rooms where the women live and work their trade.

The women, we learn, have turned to sex work as a matter of survival. Many have lost husbands or partners on whom they depended for income, and they lack the education or skills to find other jobs that pay a livable wage.

“If they turn away from sex work, how will they feed their children or pay their school fees?” one WONETHA official says.

But the work comes with a price. The women frequently face client abuse, beatings and harassment on the streets, even police brutality – including rape, beatings and extortion – and the ever-present risk of HIV.

“Sex workers are facing a health and human rights crisis in Uganda. Despite this, little is being done to protect the most basic human rights of sex workers,” declares a pink banner at WONETHA’s headquarters in central Kampala.

The largest organization of its kind in East Africa, the group works to provide the women with better access to medical care, legal and social services, job training and freedom from violence and arbitrary arrests.

I met with members of the nonprofit group in February as a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service, an international development organization that aims to end poverty and promote human rights in the developing world. I was among 15 fellows from the Bay Area who spent nine days in Uganda learning about the work of human rights organizations that advocate for women, girls and the LGBT community.

One of WONETHA’s goals is helping prevent HIV among the sex workers and obtain access to medical care for those who are infected with the virus. Sex workers are the greatest at-risk group in the country, with an infection rate of 37 percent in 2010, according to the Uganda AIDS Commission.  At the national level, Uganda was particularly hard-hit by AIDS early on, with the disease reaching epidemic proportions in the 1980s. Between 1992 and 2000, however, there was a dramatic decline in incidence – from an estimated high of about 18.5 percent to 5 percent. In recent years, the number of infections has begun to rise again in what many see as a disturbing trend; the infection rate reached 7.2 percent in 2012, according to the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS.  Lax attitudes regarding safe sex and a lack of condom use are among the factors cited in the trend.

WONETHA distributes condoms to help protect sex workers against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. A dozen large boxes of Chinese-made condoms, supplied by the United Nations Population Fund, occupied a cool space in the group’s headquarters on the day of our visit – some 100,000 of them ready to be distributed to various locations around town.

But condom use, we are told, is not always guaranteed. Clients may resist using them or pay more for a condom-free encounter. A program manager with the group told me that even in marriages, many men resist use of condoms but continue to have multiple partners – putting their wives and the other partners at risk.

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Cancer, Infectious Disease, Pediatrics, Public Health, Research, Sexual Health

Girls don't have riskier sex after the HPV vaccine

Girls don't have riskier sex after the HPV vaccine

HPV vaccineWhen the first vaccines were introduced against the human papillomavirus, some people worried that this anti-cancer vaccine would give young women the wrong idea. The vaccines, which protect against common cancer-causing strains of HPV, don’t guard against other sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies. But some parents and physicians thought that vaccine recipients might forgo condoms more often, have more sexual partners or otherwise engage in riskier sexual behaviors than women who were not vaccinated.

However, a study published today in Pediatrics says that’s not the case. According to the new research, young women don’t change their sexual behaviors after receiving the HPV vaccine. The researchers asked more than 300 girls and women, aged 13 to 21, about their risk perception and their sexual behaviors when they received their first dose of the HPV vaccine. They followed the group over time, repeating the questions 2 and 6 months later, when the vaccine’s booster shots were delivered.

“Most participants in this study did not perceive that they had a lower risk for STIs other than HPV, and most believed that safer sexual behaviors were still important,” the study’s authors wrote. Later, they add, “These findings contribute to the growing literature suggesting that HPV vaccination is unlikely to alter sexual risk behaviors in young women.”

I asked Stanford’s Sophia Yen, MD, for her take on the results. Yen provides HPV vaccinations in her role as an adolescent medicine specialist at the Teen and Young Adult Clinic at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. “The findings are not surprising and re-emphasize what other studies have shown,” she told me, adding that she hopes the study will be repeated in males, since boys have now begun receiving the HPV vaccine, too.

In the meantime, Yen plans to continue using this and other scientific evidence to reassure parents about the value of the vaccine. “I hope that the findings of this study and its many other predecessors will become widely known to parents and other non-adolescent medicine specialists who see adolescents, and to policymakers,” she said. “Let’s prevent STDs and cervical cancer together.”

Previously: Study shows racial disparities in HPV vaccination, Packard Children’s adolescent and young-adult specialist offers tips for college-bound students, HPV-associated cancers are rising, HPV vaccination rates still too low, new national report says and Only one-third of teenage girls get HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer
Photo by wintersoul1

FDA, Health Disparities, Sexual Health, Women's Health

Female sexual health expert responds to delay in approval for "Viagra for women"

Female sexual health expert responds to delay in approval for "Viagra for women"

As announced yesterday, Sprout Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of flibanserin, dubbed a “female Viagra,” is appealing the Food and Drug Administration‘s decision requesting more information on the drug before approving it for use in the U.S. Leah Millheiser, MD, director of Stanford’s Female Sexual Medicine Program, writes an appeal of her own on her blog, DrLeahM.com, in response to the FDA’s delay.

From the post:

Many of us in the field of female sexual medicine felt that Flibanserin had the best shot at being the first FDA-approved “Viagra for Women” – the holy grail for women with persistent low sexual desire in whom other treatments have failed (relationship therapy, sex therapy, off-label medications,etc). With this latest rejection, I ask you to consider the following: 43% of women in the US compared to 31% of men suffer from a sexual function complaint. There are currently 2 drugs that are FDA-approved for female sexual dysfunction (both for the treatment of postmenopausal painful intercourse due to vaginal dryness) compared to over 10 FDA-approved treatments available to men.

Previously: Speaking up about female sexual dysfunctionYoung, single, dating – and a breast-cancer survivorAsk Stanford Med: Director of Female Sexual Medicine Program responds to questions on sexual health and Shining the spotlight on women’s sexual health

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