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Taking the awk out of the talk

Why it’s easier than ever to fill the gap in properly understanding anatomy in practical terms, for all brains and abilities.

As teenagers are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of their own bodies and identities, sex education needs to keep pace. Teens shouldn’t be learning from the internet without having the opportunity to fact-check and have safe discussions with trusted adults.

Providing sex education at school is a tough ask, no matter how many times you have done it. And while the basics haven’t changed, there are still some large gaps in general knowledge. For example, it is extremely rare for anyone to have been taught about the underlying anatomical structures of the clitoris – until now.

School News spoke with Anita Brown-Major, Occupational Therapist and founder of Cliterate about their new interactive anatomical model.

“The history of the clitoris anatomy is quite the story. The clitoris has been discovered, removed from literature and then rediscovered many times over during the last several centuries. It has not been in medical textbooks until more recent times. In 1998, Australian Urologist, Dr Helen O’Connell released a ground-breaking article about the size and shape of the clitoris. Interestingly, Viagra was released the same year and seemed to secure a lot more airtime! The flow-on effect is that most medical professionals are not taught clitoral anatomy.”

That lack of knowledge and understanding has had a knock-on effect on the education provided at schools. The existing models and diagrams available to the education sector are both inaccurate and unrelatable, leading to Brown-Major and her team at Cliterate to design and develop an interactive model that shows the relationship between the clitoris, vulva and pelvis.

Cliterate, image supplied

“The pull-apart model helps people learn and make sense of the puzzle in any educational setting. We know brains can be wired differently so this interactive learning is really important,” explains Brown-Major. “Cliterate is deliberately stylised, textural and colourful to enable all brains and abilities to feel comfortable to discuss what has traditionally been a tad awkward. We want educators to finally have a resource that supports respectful conversations about vulva anatomy.”

The model can be used for different aspects of sex education, from anatomy, pregnancy and barriers, intimacy and explaining tampon/menstrual cup insertion. “Overcoming the awkward is crucial for educators and students alike,” explains Brown-Major. “I used Cliterate during sessions with a 13-year-old child with Autism who lived in out-of-home care. The child asked, ‘where do you put the tampon?’ and I was able to explain using the Cliterate model. No awkward conversations and lots of learning.”

Part of taking the ‘’awk” out of the sex talk is encouraging and modelling the use of proper names. This has also been shown to improve protective behaviours, self-confidence and communication between children and adults.

“Education is power and body autonomy is very important for safety,” says Brown-Major. “We know it’s important to teach children from a very young age correct anatomical language for their own safety. Using correct terms enables anatomy to destigmatise anatomy and hopefully allow it to become everyday language. Anatomy should not be considered rude or inappropriate. We’d like to see all people with a far improved understanding of vulva anatomy from an early age so we have improved health outcomes over time.”

While informed by international research, the model is the combined efforts of a local team of therapists and designers in conjunction with RMIT University.

“This project started as a passion project and has taken three years to arrive at this point,” explains Brown-Major. “The idea burst to life pre-COVID and encountered the obvious challenges we all faced during the last couple of years. We spent a lot of time in the design process, with considerable feedback consults with health professionals and educators. The incredible RMIT industrial designers employed human-centred design principles and focussed on an outcome that ensured accessibility for all learners. An interesting challenge was choosing a colour scheme for the model. Connections who work with neuro-diverse people shared that the original blue colour scheme was too hard to understand. Our final colour decision is more representative of our diverse community rather than the white skin typically seen on medical anatomy models.”

“For some time, I have been frustrated by the lack of resources to teach clients about vulva anatomy, adds Brown-Major. “I strongly believe in education for all brains and abilities and hope Cliterate will help everyone understand vulva anatomy, [and] bridge the gap in the teaching resources and enable more conversations… without the awks.”

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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