In Northern Ireland we really struggle to talk openly about sex and sexual health. There is a culture of embarrassment and shame about it which makes it easier to just avoid talking about sex and sexual health altogether. I call it the Northern Ireland effect – it’s founded in our conservative and often faith based beliefs around all things sexy!.
That’s why Sexual Health Week is so important. It takes place in Northern Ireland every February and gives us the opportunity to have open and honest conversations about sex and sexual health.
What is it that causes people to become so embarrassed and so unwilling to talk about their sexual health?
There’s a whole host of reasons and one blog isn’t going to be anywhere near long enough to talk about all of them.
We are aware that many people have shunned getting tested for HIV due to the stigma that surrounds even going to the GUM clinic for a check up. We have to be more open and accepting of our own sexual health and the sexual health of those around us otherwise we could be contributing to a situation where hundreds of people are unaware that they are living with HIV, and not accessing services.
If we’re going to encourage people to get tested, if we want people to take ownership and control of their sexual health, then we really need to combat the stigma that surrounds sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV.
A lot of that stigma comes from old outdated beliefs about HIV. It’s important that we widen sex education to challenge the myths around sexual health. Far too many people still believe that HIV can be transmitted through kissing or that it only affects gay men. Yes, it disproportionately affects men who have sex with men, but it can affect anyone, and it spreads through unprotected sex or sharing infected needles.
The most prevalent myth though, is that HIV is a death sentence. I deal with people every day who are living with HIV and it’s important for people to understand it’s no longer the death sentence it once was in the 1980’s. It’s a lifelong condition but a perfectly manageable one and many people living with HIV go on to live long, full, lives. What they tell me is that the stigma, the social isolation and the negative attitudes from other people are more difficult to deal with than HIV.
Sexual health week is a great opportunity to remind ourselves that it’s time to stop letting embarrassment and stigma prevent us from taking care of our own sexual health.
Most of us book our car in for an annual service and MOT – why would you not take the same care with your sexual health?