Why women should be prioritising our sexual health – now and always
Missed smear tests, sexual safeguarding and LGBTQ+ targeted services – let Jill Hardie introduce you to Newcastle’s community health project, SHINE
By Becky Hardy
Tell us about SHINE.
SHINE provides a tailored and bespoke service specifically for women, by women. All women have sexual health needs, and we’re a fully inclusive service working across cultures, languages and backgrounds, with all sexualities and female gender identities. We have access to interpreters and have translated our leaflets into community languages, too. We empower women by providing quality information in a way that is appropriate and accessible, enabling them to make the right choices for them around their sexual health and wellbeing.
Trust is vital, and we’re a small, friendly and professional team that works hard to provide confidential, non-judgemental information, advice, and support, either as a one-off query or through longer-term one-to-one support.
How has SHINE adapted so that you can still provide support, despite the lockdown restrictions?
We’ve changed the way we work and now provide more support to women online, using email and social media to communicate. When we went into lockdown back in March 2020, we were prepared for remote working and all members of staff had access to HIV and STI testing kits, instructions, postage, and packaging ready to send out. We’ve been able to provide telephone support to talk people through the testing process and have continued to offer general support and advice around any sexual health concerns. We’ve also been able to offer online support and sessions to community groups through various online platforms, such as Zoom and WhatsApp.
Are people putting off seeking help from the clinic because of COVID?
It can be hard enough to access sexual health support, never mind during a pandemic! So there may well be people putting off contacting us at the moment. This could be for a number of reasons: they may not know we’re still open, they may be worried about contracting COVID at the clinic, or they may be concerned that they could pass the virus on at the clinic.
We provide a confidential, non-judgemental service and do our upmost to support women through these difficult times. We encourage all women to prioritise their health – now and always.
Missed cervical screenings are a big problem right now. Can you bust any myths around smear tests?
Cervical screening is so important, and something that lots of women feel uncomfortable about. But we hope that having open conversations about it can help make it all easier. One of the biggest myths we hear around cervical screening is that if you’re not having sex, then you don’t need to have a smear test – and also if you aren’t having sex with a man then you don’t need a smear test. That just isn’t the case, in either scenario. Everyone over the age of 25 should have a smear so try not to put it off – it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer.
You dedicate a portion of your services to supporting mental health – why is this particularly important?
We work holistically and understand how different aspects of our health and wellbeing work together. Sexual health and mental health are closely linked; sex isn’t something that happens only in our bodies, but in our minds too. How we’re feeling can really impact how we feel about ourselves, our bodies and the choices we make. Really common mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety for example, can impact desire and arousal.
February is LGBTQ+ History Month, and sexual health issues – particularly among women in that community – often get overlooked or ignored. What should be some of the biggest considerations among LGBTQ+ women looking to practise safe sex?
To remember that everyone has the same rights to excellent quality sexual health and wellbeing services, in a way that is appropriate and relevant to them. Also, everyone having sex can be at risk of sexually-transmitted infection. And most importantly, that our sexual identities are unique to us and that we all have the right to be safe and free from prejudice and harm.
Women who sleep with women are less likely to mention their sexuality to health staff and are less likely to seek sexual health advice at all. Why do you think that is?
It’s complex, but it boils down to the fact that there has been the inherent assumption within mainstream healthcare services that people are heterosexual and, therefore, that women are having sex with men. Many women who don’t identify as heterosexual and who have sought sexual health advice have reported that they’ve been asked inappropriate or insensitive questions, or have experienced discrimination and stigma. There’s also the assumption that women having sex with other women don’t have sexual health needs or don’t need to access to certain sexual health services – smear tests, for example. Which isn’t true.
How important is it to open up general discussions about sexual health and safety?
So important! Safeguarding is everyone’s business and we must be able to discuss this openly, as a way of keeping more people safe and to provide better support. Women in the adult sex industry face increased stigma and discrimination when it comes to sexual health services, for example, which needs to be challenged.
Domestic abuse and sexual assault are often hidden crimes – a survey published last March by the Crime Survey for England and Wales reported that 1.6 million women in the UK are thought to have experienced domestic abuse from 2019–2020.
By having open and honest conversations around the realities of something like rape, we can hopefully reduce the beliefs around certain myths and break some of the stigma. So many myths exist around rape – and they will continue to exist until we talk about it openly, as a society, to challenge them.
How important would you say sexual health is to our overall wellbeing?
It’s vital! It is so important for people to have access to sexual heath information that is relevant to them. Sexual health needs can change over a lifetime, but what is important is that women have an awareness of their sexual health, their rights and how to take care of themselves and their bodies.
And how can we work together to break any stigma around women’s sexual health?
By normalising conversations around sex and sexual health and by continuing to talk about key issues, such as consent, choice and pleasure. Talking, listening and sharing information is key!