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Why is it important to have sexual health education at universities?
Some people say that the ‘uni years’ are a time in your life, or a place in your life, where you’re having more sex than everybody else. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, I just think the main thing about uni students is that they’re predominantly young people and young people are those most at risk when it comes to sexual health.
Universities are places that bring together young people as equals and it’s particularly powerful because you’ve got people in a context where they’re here to learn. The risk of people not getting sexual health information when they’re young is so obvious every time you open the infectious diseases bulletin and look at the rates of Chlamydia, Syphilis and other STIs amongst young people.
Can you tell us what a university health promotion office looks like and the kind of info you provide to students?
We provide a lot of online information in the form of fact sheets and updates through our social media and internal communication channels. We also distribute free condoms, dental dams and lube at about a dozen sites, mainly through the student union. On top of that there’s a confidential email advice service and we also work with external organisations, like YEAH, who come to campus to provide what we can’t do. That gives us a workforce of energetic and enthusiastic health promoters who are appropriate and well suited to the younger audience.
At the end of the day it’s nice to be a bit edgy and a bit tongue in cheek but it’s not always possible when you work for an organisation like a university or a local government so having external people to help out with that is great.
Do you provide general information about sexual health or do you address specific needs or demands you’ve noticed in the student population?
The information and services we provide through the health promotion office are usually quite general. When it comes to connecting people to services, that’s when specifics can come into it a bit more. But we’re biased because usually the people that are coming to you for help are the ones that don’t have hugely comprehensive sexual health knowledge, so we may be seeing a subset of the student population that’s not necessarily representative of everyone.
Are there any common myths or misconceptions that you come across?
Many students have very poor biological knowledge. A common myth that we always try to dispel is “you can’t get pregnant if you have sex standing up”; many people still believe that’s the case. Last year we ran a 12-week Women’s Health program and one of the weeks’ topics was sexual health. Some of the misconceptions people had about their own bodies were quite scary.
Sexual health is a tricky one because you can’t go into a conversation assuming people have a basic knowledge around it. A lot of the time people stereotype that and think it’s mostly international students whose cultural backgrounds might mean sexuality is very taboo and not spoken about, but we also see a lot of local students needing help as well. For instance, we had a very confident, local, well-off student who recently went up to an Engineering lecturer after class and asked him how to put a condom on as he had a date that night and wasn’t feeling confident. The lecturer sent him our way and we helped him out, but there’s a lot of examples that remind you that you can’t rest on your laurels with anyone.
Sexual health is very personal for a lot of people which means they’re often very eager for information. The way they receive that information can have a profound effect on them, an effect which has the potential to be either really positive or really negative. So we have to be careful to make sure it’s not negative.
If there was one message that you’d like to see receiving more attention, what would it be?
I’d really like the message of regular testing to get out there more. I’d like it if when doctors were seeing young people, even if it was for a sprained ankle from playing sport or something entirely unrelated, they would still offer them a sexual health test. Studies show that when offered, young people will usually accept a sexual health test, but it’s much less common for them to ask for one of their own accord. That’s probably because they’re embarrassed but if someone brought it up for them, then we’d have a whole generation of young people who were getting regular testing.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the sector?
I actually used to be a sexual health peer educator when I was at university in New Zealand. That inspired me to do my Masters in Public Health and that’s how I ended up here!
Members of YEAH’s amazing Melbourne volunteer group will be joining David and the health promotion team at RMIT’s city campus re-orientation day on April 11. Click here to find out more about RMIT’s Health Promotion Office.