When was the last time you and your boyfriend talked about sexual health? Can he say "vagina" out loud without giggling? And would you trust him to notice if something was wrong down there? Unless you do a lot of yoga, most of us physically can't get a good look at our own vulvas all that often. So you'd hope that our sexual partners are at least keeping an eye on things.
However, despite their ideal vantage point, only one in five men feels confident enough to mention a change in their partner's vagina, and more than half of them aren't comfortable discussing gynecological health at all. That's according to a survey of 2,000 people, published by UK gynecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal.
Several years ago, my boyfriend—bless him—asked me to explain the difference between a womb and a uterus (FYI: they're the same thing). That boyfriend is now my husband. Naturally, he was the first person I turned to while researching this article.
"What's the difference between the vagina and the vulva?" I text. "The vagina is the whole lot, the vulva is just one part of it," he responded. "Other way round, babe," I told him. Cue embarrassed emojis, and a quick educational chat once he got home from work.
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My husband's actually pretty clued up on sexual health, but he's far from alone in getting all the vital parts confused. Just half of the men surveyed by the Eve Appeal were able to correctly identify the vagina on a diagram, while nearly two-thirds couldn't pick out the vulva.
And sure, we've all had snickered at men who don't know the clitoris from the cervix or squirm whenever periods or Pap smears are mentioned—but isn't it pretty alarming if the person who sees your vagina more than anyone else doesn't know enough to tell you if something's changed?
"It's really concerning. Women need to be having this conversation with the men they share their bodies with," says Dr Tracie Miles, a gynecological cancer specialist nurse at the Eve Appeal. "It's an age-old taboo, but boyfriends and husbands are really well-placed to help identify early warning signs of gynecological cancers and other sexual health issues," she adds.
Of course, it's pretty obvious why this conversation isn't happening. Twenty-one per cent of men aged 18-44 said it was "too embarrassing," while just 17 per cent felt they had a good understanding of how their partner's vagina works.
"I'd have to admit I know very little, but I'd like to think I'd notice if there was something visibly different, or a change in smell or taste," 27-year-old Harri tells me.
He's been with his partner more than five years, and says, "I absolutely feel like it's important for us to discuss, so I'd definitely mention it. I'd probably feel a bit awkward though—it's uncomfortable pointing out a health concern to anyone, especially when it's related to genitalia."
Plus, he adds, "I'm not an expert on gynecological health, so I'd hate to ruin an intimate moment by raising a false alarm"—a concern that's understandably echoed by all the guys I spoke to.
Miles says that timing is key. "Of course you don't want to ruin the mood during sex, but that lovely, cuddly period afterward, when you're feeling all loved up and you've had a good time, can be an ideal moment," she says.
Having a bit of knowledge clearly helps men feel more confident, too. Joe, a 26-year-old trans man, says: "I know a lot more than most men—partly because I wanted to be a midwife for some time, and I'm interested in sexual health more broadly. Oh, and partly because I used to have a vagina myself—no big deal!"
Joe's been with his wife for four years and says that he's mentioned things in the past, like when it looked like she might have thrush. "I'd know to look out for infections, cysts, or inflammation more generally. Or if she was having abdominal pain or pain during sex, that might be a sign of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)," he says.
Likewise, 27-year-old Alex says: "My partner works in the NHS, so anatomy isn't really a taboo subject for us, even around sexual health. Three out of four of our parents have had cancer too, so I think we'd be even more cautious if we ever felt something wasn't right."
Caroline Presho, 43, opted to have a preventative double mastectomy and oophorectomy (ovary removal) after discovering she carried the BRCA genetic mutation that puts her at risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The oophorectomy triggered surgical menopause and, as a result, she's grown used to the once-difficult conversations with her husband Conal.
"Early on in our relationship, we didn't talk about it at all—even with things like thrush, I'd skirt around the issue, saying 'I just need to put some cream on,' without mentioning where or why," she says. Now, she's even used the words "vaginal dryness" on breakfast TV when she spoke on Good Morning Britain about sharing the same health condition as Angelina Jolie, who also opted for a double mastectomy.
"We'd already had four children, which definitely demystifies things, but now we're much more comfortable talking about vaginas and sexual health," Conal says. "I think a lot of the problem is that men just don't talk about these things. We don't even talk about our own health—there's this attitude of 'if I ignore it, it will go away.'"
For him, the key is openness and normalizing the conversation, both as a couple and with their children. "If you're talking about these things in an open and completely normal way, at least the man doesn't have to go in cold if he does notice something wrong," he says. "Women can definitely help by raising the subject, and making it okay to talk about together."
Reassuringly, all the couples I spoke to agreed (albeit with varying degrees of discomfort) that keeping each other healthy should be a team effort. "Obviously it's her body, and any action is ultimately her choice, but it's a shared responsibility to watch for any negative changes," says 35-year-old Rich.
Whether it's abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, a lump, or changes to the vulva's appearance, taste or aroma, Miles says anything unusual down there is worth getting checked out. "Ninety-nine point nine per cent of the time it's got nothing to do with cancer, but it's always sensible to ask a GP and get things treated if necessary," she says.
And if your partner can't talk about gynecological issues without wincing, it's definitely time to introduce the word "vagina" to your romantic vocabulary. He'll get over it.
For more information on all the signs and symptoms of the five gynecological cancers, visit eveappeal.org.uk.