LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

Sex, sexual and reproductive health and access to information

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sexual health

By Tony Furlong, METRO Charity

Access to information around our sex lives and sexual health can be thought of in two distinct areas: 

  1. Public access to information – where we get information from regarding our sex lives and sexual and reproductive health
  2. Professional access to information – where and how professionals working in sexual and reproductive health access information about us

Public access to information regarding our sex lives and sexual and reproductive health is an area that has changed considerably over the last decade. Due to the internet we now have more access than ever before to information regarding our sexual health. On the one hand, the increased availability of information can be a positive thing, the public is, arguably, more informed than ever around their sexual health and empowered and able to make decisions more autonomously. We are better able to make decisions around our sexual health, including alternatives to medical care. This, in turn, makes services more accountable to the public they are providing services for. As Gray (2002) argues ‘By empowering patients with knowledge, the internet is reshaping the relationship between doctor and patient: increasingly patients accept responsibility for their health and view doctors as partners in, rather than providers in their health care’.  In addition, the internet has increased the availability of advice and emotional support options from both professionals and peers. Think about the increase in health forums and ask a doctor websites in recent years. This increase in knowledge has potentially helped improve sexual and reproductive health. 

On the other hand, the sheer volume of information and uncertainties regarding the credibility of information can leave the public confused and sometimes overwhelmed. The internet must be used carefully. For example, when giving someone a positive HIV diagnosis at METRO Charity, we direct clients to a few reputable websites for information, rather than suggesting they scour the internet when they could come across misinformation and worst-case-scenarios. Despite the risk of misinformation, it would be hard to argue against more knowledgeable patients who are taking increased responsibility for their own sexual health. Perhaps this is even more the case among queer communities where perceived and experienced discrimination from professionals often represents a significant barrier to discussing issues and behaviours that affect our sexual health, such as HIV risk, anal sex and the use of 'chems'. 

Professional access to information regarding our sexual health varies by country.  In health care systems such as the NHS in the UK, there is a recognition that sexual health is a sensitive area and patients might not want to share or have information shared between professionals, including those outside sexual health services. For this reason those seeking treatment at sexual health clinics in the UK are made aware that tests and diagnoses are kept under a separate identification number and not accessible by others within the healthcare system, such as doctors. Whilst there are arguments that increased accessibility to this information by other professionals could be valuable, and even help improve patient care in some instances, consensus is that a confidential sexual health service, where information is kept separate from other health records, is beneficial for the patient, and actually encourages patients to engage in discussions around their sexual health, and increase the likelihood of engaging in behaviours that encourage good sexual health, such as regular HIV testing. 

Encouraging public access to free, anonymous and confidential treatment for STIs and advice around their sexual and reproductive health, as well as ensuring the public are as informed as possible and feel empowered to make decisions around their own sexual health surely should be at the centre of attempts to promote good sexual health among queer communities, and more generally. 

Tony Furlong is Emerging Communities Health and Wellbeing Lead for METRO Charity in London.

Disclaimer: The ILGA-Europe Blog is a place for views, ideas and debate. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily reflect the policy of ILGA-Europe, or the views of its board members or staff.