Don’t lose sight of sexual health during a pandemic
First, the good news: sex still exists, even in the age of COVID-19.
That fact alone may be of comfort to Manitobans who have been making sacrifices in other parts of their lives in response to the pandemic.
Nevertheless, COVID is having an impact on healthy sexuality, particularly in terms of access to education, harm reduction supplies and resources, the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted and/or blood-borne infections (ST/BBIs), and yes, a potential for increased exposure to COVID during dating and sex.
At the Sexuality Education Resource Centre MB (SERC), we know that sexual health is no less important now than it was before COVID. So, while we understand the shift in public attention toward the pandemic as a more pressing issue, we also know that everyone should remain informed and vigilant with respect to making healthy, informed choices about sexual health.
Epidemics and outbreaks that pre-date COVID – including those associated with ST/BBIs such as HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia – haven’t stopped, nor has the sexual activity through which they spread. Furthermore, the structural factors that also influence and shape the spread of ST/BBIs, such as poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more, have exacerbated the situation even further over the last 11 months due to COVID upending our grasp on how we understand and address the social determinants of health.
COVID-19 has, understandably, been a priority for our health system over the last year; but that shift in priorities has affected the accessibility of important prevention methods, including asymptomatic testing, sexual health counseling, and of course – sex education in schools, community-based organizations, and the home.
Without access to these resources, STI rates will increase as are gaps in the education of younger generations who are already adjusting to virtual learning environments, reduced peer and social supports, and the added stress of it all on top of growing up. Without these natural and important supports they will, in their search of information, turn to the Internet or social media for answers to important questions like “Am I normal?” and “Who can I talk to who really understand what I’m going through?” While we support all people, including youth, to ask questions and get answers, we know that the internet can be a less-than-trustworthy source of accurate, up-to-date, accessible information about sexuality. As we grapple with the increase in reliance on technology to stay connected to school and work, we also have to grapple with the increase in risk that comes with the open terrain of the world wide web.
It’s also worth noting that access to harm reduction supplies at clinics, resources centres, and schools – even basics such as access to free condoms – is lower now than it was prior to the pandemic. Rightly so – with stay-at-home orders in place, it seems we’ve put sexual health on the backburner, which alarms us who work within the mantra of “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
With the health care system focused on COVID, the data that normally informs much of what we do in sexual health education is also harder to come by. Though the numbers have yet to show up, we’re getting feedback from our community partners and the healthcare system as a whole that STI rates are starting to climb. If that’s true, those rates – along with the stigma that comes with it – may prove a challenge to get under control post-pandemic.
Sexuality is more than this, however. Outside of the nuts and bolts of disease transmission, it includes our relationships, our thoughts and feelings, what we learn and what we teach, our culture and our traditions. We are also aware that domestic violence and mental health challenges are on the rise as indicated by a sharp increase in requests for youth mental health education. Youth are good at telling us what they need… and COVID is making it harder to respond.
Young people – in many cases – despite the dedicate effort of passionate teachers and community leaders, will have missed an entire year of vital and necessary comprehensive sexuality education, which in some cases actually saves lives.
The silver lining: we haven’t given up. We’ve re-tooled our entire organization to continue meeting the need, and will always do this because we believe in what we do. We’ve developed online videos and webinars for youth who are home-schooled, or who just want to know. We’ve moved the vast majority of our programs and services across both of our offices (Winnipeg and Brandon) online and have even started mailing condoms and other harm reduction supplies direct to community. Anyone can access a vast array of resources on the SERC and Teen Talk websites (www.serc.mb.ca and www.teentalk.ca). There you will find everything from “How to have ‘The Talk’ with your kids” to youth-friendly content on topics that include sexual health, mental health, body image, substance use, anti-oppression and dating relationships.
Our Facts of Life program, available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, is experiencing increased demand, and allows anyone with an email address to ask questions without the need for in-person contact. The program offers complete anonymity, and responses are typically supplied within two business days.
We’ve always believed that, in a perfect world, conversations about sexuality would be normalized and open for everyone, and we strive towards a society that celebrates sexuality throughout life. In that context, while COVID has put a spotlight on the ongoing need for community-based responses to sexuality education, our core belief remains that sexual health is an integral part of overall health. It matters.
Even in this time of pandemic, be sure to make your sexual health a high priority. If you have questions, ask. We’ll be happy to put our more than 85 years of experience in healthy sexual and reproductive health education to work for you.
For more information about SERC and healthy sexuality, visit serc.mb.ca. If you’re passionate about work too, consider donating online at www.serc.mb.ca/donate. Every $10.00 raised supports a youth to attend a workshop on consent and healthy relationships.