A NEW TECH STARTUP wants to give people with vaginas a never-before-seen level of insight into their reproductive health. NextGen Jane’s “smart tampon” collects and analyzes menstrual blood to monitor fertility and alert individuals to diseases that might otherwise go undetected. And, I have to say, it’s pretty badass.
Often, when companies devise new products for women, it’s clear that they probably haven’t met one. Just take this “smartphone for women,” for example. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a new, woman-themed business advertise itself as being the solution to a common problem, only to find that most of us don’t need help with the issue they’ve targeted.
In a weird, infuriating, patriarchal world that consistently undermines women’s abilities, NextGen Jane stands out. The tech startup has identified a flaw in the way we manage vaginal health, and might have a body-positive way to fix it.
The gynecological hiccup lies in the way we have chosen to monitor the reproductive health of people with vaginas. For individuals with no other health concerns, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends annual assessments, which it says “should include screening, evaluation and counseling, and immunizations based on age and risk factors.”
This routine works fine for millions of people every year. But there are a number of places within this system that are primed for disaster. If a person with a vagina contracts an STI or STD immediately after their well-woman visit, it could potentially go undetected for a year or more.
Many individuals mistakenly believe that their gynecologists test for sexually transmitted conditions when they perform Pap smears. But, unless your doctor collects urine and blood samples at your annual visit, they aren’t doing a complete STD workup — one that includes testing for HIV.
It’s also quite common for some people to go years between gynecological exams, under the assumption that they have nothing to fear. Individuals may believe that their sexual habits — monogamy, celibacy, or barrier-protected sex — offer them some aegis against reproductive cancers, pelvic inflammatory disease, and infertility. But these fallacies all operate on the assumption that a gynecologist has pronounced the individual as disease-free at a previous checkup, that their partners are also disease-free, and that barrier methods work 100 percent of the time.
We’d all like to think that we’d notice if something were to go awry. The facts, unfortunately, say otherwise. We’re all at risk for sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and an astonishing percentage of those conditions present with no symptoms at all. What’s more, many people with vaginas are shockingly ignorant about their bodies, so the rare symptom can go unnoticed until a person’s next pelvic exam.
In college, a years-long break from hormonal birth control gave me the opportunity to monitor my cervical mucus and positioning, and track my natural cycles on a handy phone app. When I had a question, I went to the only other people doing what I was doing: the folks who were trying to conceive (TTC).
The TTC community is a funny, supportive little microcosm that calls to mind the communal midwifery of the colonial U.S. Their message boards answer every question you can possibly imagine, from cheery requests for middle name suggestions to mounting terror at the possibility of a miscarriage. But for every well-thought-out statement about the luteal phase, there’s a person who scoffs at the idea of personal monitoring, and — erroneously — believes it’s impossible or unhealthy to touch your own cervix.
That’s what makes NextGen Jane’s smart tampon, and any similar products that might follow, so important. Not only would the tracker allow for monthly fertility and vaginal health monitoring, but the reusable tampon design would put individuals in regular, intentional contact with their vaginas and menstrual blood: an essential, and often overlooked, aspect of personal health.
And personal health — that is, taking charge of your reproductive health — isn’t optional. If you’ve ever found yourself believing that you’d notice if something were wrong, trust me: you can’t be expected to know that something’s up, without having some concept of what your normal is. Yes, your normal can, and will, change over time, but having a general baseline of knowledge can alert you to early changes in your body brought on by a sexual health issue.
No amount of personal health monitoring can replace regular treatment by a licensed physician. But there’s no good reason why people with vaginas shouldn’t take charge of their reproductive health.
Getting more comfortable with your body in an everyday setting makes it that much easier to talk with your gynecologist about potentially embarrassing problems. Even if your worries turn out to be baseless — which, fortunately, they often do — opening up the lines of communication with your doctor gives you the opportunity to learn more about your reproductive health. And that, as I said, is badass.