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Removing the stigma of sexual health issues

Louise Skelly

It goes without saying that sex is a fundamental part of healthy relationships and life. As a society we are becoming more comfortable about talking about sex, about issues of consent and about how to look after our sexual health. However, there is still some work to be done.

In recent years, young people have contacted the Patient and Client Council concerned about their experience of accessing sexual health services - particularly following a sexual health crisis.  

The things that were concerning them were in respect of how to get help in a crisis, access to information and advice on sexual health services, and issues to do with confidentiality in reception areas.

They also spoke about the embarrassment of queuing for genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinics and about how to get a timely appointment.

They were at pains to point out, however, that the services were excellent once they were able to access them.

This week we read in the local news about the publication of the Stand Together survey, which was a student-led survey.

The study was overseen by a board that included QUB academics and external organisations, such as the Public Health Agency, Nexus NI, the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and the Rowan sexual assault referral centre.

Almost 170 students at Queen's University, Belfast (QUB) said they had been sexually assaulted.

A further 246 students said that they had been the victim of an attempted sexual assault.

Almost 3,100 students - 12.5% of the QUB student population - answered the survey on non-consensual sexual experiences.

In another UK survey by the Family Planning Association (FPA) the findings gave a great insight into the attitudes of young people.

For example, 26% said they had not been for a sexual health test because they were too embarrassed or were embarrassed about the possibility of other people finding out.

One fifth reported not going for a check-up as they were too scared to find out the result. Feeling worried or embarrassed is not uncommon, especially among younger age groups.

Other key findings from the FPA’s survey of sexually active 16-to-24-year-olds included:

  • 47% reported never having had a sexually transmitted infection (STI) test
  • More than a quarter (28%) said buying condoms can be embarrassing
  • Only one third (32%) said they learnt how to talk confidently to a partner about using condoms during their sex and relationships education.

In Northern Ireland the health service has improved open access to sexual health services that provide free contraception, testing and treatment. In addition, information and advice is now more widely available on the internet.

It is really important for healthcare providers to understand any of the barriers that young people may experience when it comes to practicing safe sex and engaging with sexual health services.

Having a better insight of these can help provide more information and education to allay concerns.

How good is the sexual health information that’s available? How accessible is it? How could it be improved? 

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Unknown 29-Aug-2017 at 14:17 hrs

There was an agreement that all patients would receive travelling expenses to any Northern Ireland GUM from anywhere in N Ireland - not means tested The GUM clinic staff @ one hospital were nasty & unpleasant & unhelpful in relation to matter. The senior nurse - commented that I should spend my time watching TV rather than having sex. The manager instructed him to tell me to go to another GUM clinic. I attempted to make a formal complaint but nurse didn't want me to do that & when I didn't the complaints team was very difficult. I went to another GUM clinic - none of the staff knew anything about signing the travel expense form. The travel expense office nor the line manager knew anything about GUM clinic app travel being not means tested - won't pay without benefit entitlement - I asked to have this checked but the line manager did not return my call to confirm this. It's the young people with limited resources should not be denied their entitlement to encourage to attend but senior management don't want to pay.


Joy scott 25-Aug-2017 at 20:23 hrs

More clinlics like Brook are needed


Charlie Lynn 25-Aug-2017 at 19:17 hrs

I am amazed at the amount of alleged sexual assaults that was reported in the survey. I think sex education is much more available now with the amount of what we can learn online, it's so different from my days at school in the 1970's. I'm still trying to put a police cushion behind me for giving children chocolate so maybe if they would spend more time investigating the real sex offenders the number of sexual crimes could be reduced. Just to mention the latest cuts in the health service, there is never any shortage of money for weapons of war or to bail out greedy bankers.


Emma Shaw 25-Aug-2017 at 15:48 hrs

Sex education is not accessible enough for users. Many youngsters learn from what they hear from friends or family which is not always factual or correct. We need to remove the stigma associated with discussing sexual health. As a student at Queens I'm aware of the survey you have cited and as a follow on from these findings our SU are running sexual consent workshops for students (which were requested by students). While this is excellent I feel that as 18 yr old this information should be accessible earlier. Perhaps you could liase with QUB SU after the workshops and adapt for 5th year pupils at schools?