Too Little Too Late?
Emma Halahan explains why the Students’ Union campaign, Let’s Talk About Sex, did little to address any of the immediate threats to students sexual health.
The Students’ Union’s campaign, Let’s Talk About Sex, replaced the much loved Sexual Health Advice and Guidance (SHAG) Week that we have seen run previously. Vice President Welfare and Diversity, Willow Wong’s, new initiative was meant to make our sexual awareness weeks more inclusive of all orientations on our campus. Whilst the week was certainly more applicable to a wider range of sexual preferences, it failed to adequately deal with the elephant in the room – our closed sexual health clinic.
In the summer of last year, our sexual health clinic closed due to a restructuring and privatisation of the branch of the NHS that served our campus. Subsequently, students requiring STI and HIV testing or post assault support now must travel miles off campus for such services. The college have remained silent on the issue and despite outrage and concern from many of our most vulnerable communities, the SU has been relatively slow to mobilise the student body into any kind of lobbying campaign.
Let’s Talk About Sex in the midst of all its make your member workshops did indeed host just one two hour period of free STI testing on campus. Hosted in Tommy’s Lounge, there wasn’t a single anonymous booth or quiet space that mimicked a sexual health clinic. Not only was anonymity completely missing from the event, but any awareness of the sensitivity of getting tested. Instead of being a day where those who had been worried about their status could finally grab a free kit and get tested quietly, their experiences were largely trivialised by a competition.
At the Student Opportunities conference, clubs and societies were informed that those who bought the most people along to the clinic would get a plethora of goodies. It sounds like a great idea right? Get the most people possible to use the service during its limited availability. But there is a difference between breaking down stigma and turning what can be a turbulent time for young people into a game. If our campus had a functioning sexual health clinic, then such a drive to encourage testing would be sensible. But when we have not even the basic level of comprehensive testing (only chlamydia and gonorrhoea tests are available for collection at the SU help desk) available on campus, it becomes another trivialisation of the experiences of our most vulnerable.
And to further the blow, one of the most urgent needs by students, HIV test kits, which the Students’ Union have claimed are too expensive to buy themselves, were not available – a significant disappointment as most HIV transmissions occur when someone is not aware of their status. This came just days after a lengthy Facebook argument occurred on VP Willow Wong’s official page after she suggested that the SU could shuttle bus people to HIV testing sites, with little understanding of why such a breach of anonymity posed a massive security risk. It seems an understanding of the sensitivity of sexual health testing has been replaced by tokenistic efforts to meet student demand with little thorough thought applied.
Yes, the Students’ Union are not meant to plug the gap left behind by the closure of our sexual health clinic. But their one day of testing could have at the very least been inclusive to the most vulnerable communities on our campus. Instead its trivialisation and ignorance of the anonyminity and security that sexual health clinics work hard to provide did little to solve the most pressing sexual health concern on campus.
VP Willow Wong responded:
“I agree that the closure of the STI clinic on campus has caused a lot of problems for students on campus and that the shortcomings of the limited service that we can provide at RHSU do not do enough to solve the problem. However, over 122 students participated and supported the STI testing day, which is such a strong turnout that will benefit our lobbying objectives to prove to the university that a full-time STI clinic on campus is a top priority for students, and therefore for the college.” •