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This year Sexual Health Week runs from 13 to 19 September. Many LGBTQ+ people will be more aware of HIV Testing Week and World AIDS Day, but Sexual Health Week is a great time to reflect, not just on HIV, but on sexual health more broadly.

A lot of sexual health services had to temporarily shut when the coronavirus pandemic first hit the UK and during the successive lockdowns, although almost all clinics are now back to business. While this did make testing for blood borne viruses, such as HIV and Hep C – in addition to STIs – more difficult, organisations responded quickly to increase the availability of home testing. This was the case not just for HIV, but also for chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis.

One positive which we can take from the past 18 months is that, while a large number of us will go back to our usual visits to the Sexual Health Clinic, others have used home testing for the first time. As campaigners we always knew home testing was an important tool. It became even more important during the lockdowns and the increased familiarity with and awareness of this form of testing will be a lasting legacy. It remains vital that testing, including home testing, is normalised, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, ethnicity or HIV status.

As the Terrence Higgins Trust explained to me, the groups most impacted by STIs are young people, gay and bi men, people of Black ethnicity and people living with HIV. The national data set relating to STIs from 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, showed a continuous upwards trend in terms of STIs across the UK, although HIV diagnoses were falling and the prevalence of hepatitis C declining.

Public Health England recently released their STI statistics for 2020. There was a fall of 32% compared to 2019, although it is unclear if this was as a consequence of decreased sexual activity or because of limited access to in-person testing at Sexual Health Clinics. Many people may have fallen through the gaps and could be living with undiagnosed and untreated STIs. It therefore still remains difficult to say exactly what the implications of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns will be for STIs. 

Overall STI diagnoses remain high and the true effect of the coronavirus pandemic on STI rates may not be apparent until we see next year’s statistics (or even the year after). This would give a better sense of whether diagnoses dropped due to complications with accessing services, or due to changes in behaviour resulting from the lockdowns. 

Photography: Mareike Günsche

Either way, as Fraser Wilson from the Terrence Higgins Trust emphasised, we cannot wait for a global coronavirus pandemic to facilitate a drop in STIs. We all need to be more aware and take action now. The Government has a key part to play in all this with its reproductive and sexual health strategy due out later this year. It must be properly funded, ambitious and finally prioritise people’s sexual health. 

Sexual Health Week provides a platform to highlight a wide range of issues. Brook, the sexual health charity, is leading on Sexual Health Week. Brook’s services are primarily aimed at young people (the under 25s). They also work with other age groups as well. They have some of their own Sexual Health Clinics and were able to keep these open throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Brook work across a range of communities, including advocating and providing services for young LGBTQ+ people. Since March this year, the “Everyone’s Invited” campaign has been empowering survivors, particularly from schools, who have shared their stories to expose and eradicate coercion, sexual harassment and rape culture. Building on this momentum, Brook has selected “consent” as this year’s Sexual Health Week theme.

Brook take a sex positive approach to Relationships and Sex Education (RSE). This also extends to LGBTQ+ students. A vital part of healthy relationships is having open conversations, which includes how RSE is taught in the classroom. Brook emphasise that RSE often takes a heteronormative format and the discussion needs to move beyond vaginal intercourse. 

It should also be noted that in terms of people receiving unsolicited nude images, air dropped to mobile phones or on dating apps, complainants of this are not limited to women. Twenty-six per cent of men aged 18 to 34 reported being sent an unsolicited sexual photo.

As we emerge from this difficult 18 months, we need to keep sexual health at the forefront of our minds. Sexual Health Week provides an opportunity for us to educate ourselves and, if you would like to follow the conversation on social media, this year’s hashtag is #SHW21.

Click here to find out more information from Terrence Higgins Trust about Sexual Health Week.

Click here to find out more information from Brook about Sexual Health Week.