A new study says that not only are queer women at more risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) than they realize, they’re also more complacent about safer-sex practices than queer men.
Published in March in the journal Perspectives On Sexual And Reproductive Health, the study found that queer women, long considered to be the demographic least at risk for contracting STIs, lack knowledge about sexual health and have a difficult time finding supportive and knowledgeable healthcare providers.
Anecdotal evidence in Toronto echoes the findings of the Seattle-based study. “[Many women] don’t come out to their doctors and when they do it is assumed, on the doctor’s part, that they are not at risk,” says Jane Greer of the Hassle Free Clinic.
The study, led by researcher Jeanne Marrazzo of the University Of Washington, asked how common and acceptable queer women consider a variety of sexual practices including use of lubricants, sex toys and the cleaning of sex toys, as well as knowledge of how STIs could be transmitted between women. In addition it looked at the attitudes that motivated or deterred women from engaging in risk-reducing behaviour during sex.
For example, almost all of the women interviewed acknowledged that condom use, especially when it came to sharing sex toys, was a good thing. However, participants said they were unlikely to use condoms because they made things too impersonal, were a turnoff or interrupted sex.
Many women also see themselves as not at risk for STIs precisely because they are having sex with other women. Participants responded that condoms were appropriate for having sex with men and preventing pregnancy. Similar views were expressed about the use of latex gloves for protection.
“It makes it feel like more of a doctor’s visit than a sexual thing,” responded one participant.
In addition, the study looked at vaginal health and found a high occurrence of bacterial vaginosis (BV) among lesbians. BV is a mild infection caused by a change in the bacteria of the vagina. Symptoms can include a clear or coloured discharge, burning or itching near the vagina and an unusual smell, particularly after sex. The exact cause of BV is unknown, but it is not considered a sexual transmitted infection and is treatable.
Based on the perceptions and experiences of women interviewed, the researchers behind the study are questioning the efficacy of safer-sex campaigns targetted at women specifically in reducing STI transmission. They argue that safer-sex messages aimed at lesbian and bisexual women should emphasize personal responsibility and care for partners’ wellbeing, target common sexual practices and promote healthy sexuality.
Greer agrees that more education and awareness is needed, particularly in the absence of a major safer-sex campaign targeted at queer-identified women in the city. “STI risk needs to be assessed by behaviour and not sexual orientation,” cautions Greer.
Perhaps most pressing, given the number of women who believe that STIs can only be contracted from men, is education that asserts STIs are a reality for women with female partners. While the latter message in particular is aimed specifically at lesbians, the study doesn’t consider how bisexual women may relate to their sexual health when it comes to relationships with both men and women.
“Sexism and homophobia are both in operation,” says Rose Gutierrez, director of community programming at Planned Parenthood Of Toronto. “What messaging is going to go out to the community and what money is going to get allocated to the women’s community when it comes to STIs? It’s because we don’t see women; women aren’t studied in the same kind of way and women aren’t even seen. There is no consistent, accurate information for lesbians, which perpetuates the myth that lesbians are not at risk, which queer women themselves buy into.”