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What Schools Should Teach Queer Women About Sex

Yes, women who hook up with women can get STIs. But it's still a subject a lot of us aren't fully clued up on.

by Daisy Jones
30 September 2019, 1:38pm

Collage: Marta Parszeniew

What do you remember about sex-ed at school?

Most people recall putting condoms on bananas or looking at diagrams of naked bodies as if they were cuts of meat. I don't really recall anything. Maybe some stuff about AIDS? A few positions drawn on the whiteboard by a woman with dangly earrings? Either way, I absolutely did not learn anything about sex between women. And at that age, I definitely assumed women didn't need sexual health checks unless there was a penis involved.

I’m not the only one. Last year, as VICE reported, it was revealed that a worrying amount of queer teen girls in the US had no idea that they could pick up STIs from other girls or people with vaginas. We also know that LGBTQ sex-ed is a hugely contentious subject in the UK – and won’t become mandatory until September, 2020 – meaning kids still aren't learning about this stuff. Throw in the fact that queer women are less likely to disclose their orientation to a healthcare provider and, unsurprisingly, a lot of specific concerns are flying under the radar when it comes to sexual health.

But despite what we've been taught growing up, queer women do need to think about their sexual health – just like all genders and orientations. With that in mind, here's a simple guide to all the shit queer women should have been taught in school.

YES, QUEER WOMEN CAN GET STIS TOO

Cishet relationships seem so high maintenance, don't they, with their coils and condoms and multiple sexually transmitted infections – especially considering the fact that straight men so rarely get their dicks checked. It's such a relief that queer women who are having sex with other women don't have to worry about that stuff, right? Wrong! Women can contract STIs from other women or people with vaginas – just not every single one.

"It is possible for women to contract most – but not all – of the STIs from other women," Eleanor Draeger, a Sexual Health Doctor and Medical Writer, tells me over the phone. Which ones? "Warts, genital herpes, chlamydia and also HPV, which can lead to cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancer. All of those things can be passed on. Another thing common among queer women [who are sleeping with other women] is bacterial vaginosis, which isn't classed as an STI, but does seem to be passed between women. And it can cause symptoms, which need to be treated. It is also biologically plausible for women to catch gonorrhoea, but rare."

But how is it possible to transmit STIs during queer sex in which there isn't a penis involved?

"With herpes, warts and high-risk HPV – all of those are spread by skin-to-skin contact," Draeger explains. "So if you're using your fingers on yourself, then on your partner, for instance, it can be passed on. It doesn't need to be penetrative sex. [STIs] can also be passed on with the use of sex toys as well."

SO QUEER WOMEN SHOULD ALSO BE GETTING SEXUAL HEALTH CHECKS?

If you're sexually active, you should be getting sexual health checks – regardless of your gender, sexuality or what genitals you have.

Queer sex educator Ruby Rare recommends getting checked "a minimum of every six months. But obviously, if you've had sex and part of that sex has been unprotected, then it's really important to get checked afterwards. There is a window period – if you test with bacterial STIs – two weeks after you've have sex, where you're very likely to come up with a false negative. So you need to wait two weeks after having sex before getting tested."

Draeger agrees that she would give the same advice to anyone when it comes to sexual health checks, regardless of who you are.

"You should be checked ideally before you have unprotected sex with a new partner," she tells me, adding: "We recommend having a chlamydia screening up to the age of 25 on a yearly basis. Otherwise, it would be a change in partner, or if you have any symptoms."

CIS WOMEN AND TRANS WOMEN MIGHT HAVE DIFFERENT CONCERNS WHEN IT COMES TO SEXUAL HEALTH

Basically, when we talk about sexual health, it's not really to do with your gender or orientation, necessarily, but more to do with your anatomy and who you're sleeping with at that time. So if you're a trans woman, you will have slightly different health concerns to those of cis women. "Your sexual health depends on what anatomy you have," Draeger clarifies. "If you're a trans women who hasn't had genital surgery, then you're at risk for a different constellation of things than if you're a trans woman who has had genital surgery."

If you're a trans woman who has had genital surgery, Draeger says, it's still possible to catch some of the same STIs as cis women, but not all of them. "You could still catch herpes and warts, for example, because it's skin-to-skin. But if you don't have a cervix, then it would be biologically difficult to catch certain things." In other words, a person being cis or trans has nothing to do with it. But it's important to know which STIs you might be at risk of, depending on your body.

THERE ARE WAYS QUEER WOMEN CAN PROTECT THEMSELVES

If you're hooking up with other women or people with vaginas, there are a number of precautions you can take to ensure you have safer sex. The NHS website recommends that "if you're using sex toys, use a new condom for each partner or between penetration of different body openings. Sex toys should be washed with soap and water between sessions." They also point out that "some infections can be transmitted by hands, fingers and mutual vulval rubbing. Wash your hands before and after sex."

Rare says it's also really important to keep communicating with your partner(s): "People can feel really nervous about bringing up STI testing. There are still lots of myths about how asking people if they've had an STI test is to assume they've had sex with lots of people, or they're likely to have an STI or whatever. So people should practice those conversations, so they can experience them in real life. There should also be partner notification [when it comes to STIs]. The ripple effect of STIs still affects people who are only sleeping with people with vulvas."

IT SHOULDN'T ALL BE DOWN TO YOU THOUGH

When it comes to making sure queer women have healthy sex lives, it shouldn't all come down to queer women themselves. When I ask Draeger if she thinks GPs need more adequate training when it comes to their sexual health, she immediately says yes, referring to a Stonewall report from 2008.

"Over half of the lesbian and bisexual women surveyed had never been for a sexual health check up," she says. "Three-quarters of those said they didn't think they'd be 'at risk'. One in ten said they were too scared. And 4 percent said they were told by healthcare workers that they didn't need a test – which is a small percentage, but it's important that all practitioners know that lesbian and bisexual women with a cervix still need a smear test, for example."

"It's about not making assumptions," Draeger continues. "What I always used to say when I was teaching medical students is that it's important to think about the person in front of you. It's not to think about how they identify, but to think about what sex they've had, with what people and which organs were involved."

Also, it sounds obvious, but it's worth repeating that kids at school should be receiving adequate sex education that encompasses the whole gender / sexuality spectrum, rather than just vaguely learning about sex between cishet people. Because the more young people know, the safer they'll be when it comes down to it. "The reality is that it's still quite unlikely that we're going to be seeing adequate advice on sexual health for queer people," sighs Rare. "Particularly queer women, who get left out of these conversations."

But it doesn't need to be this way. To find out more information on how you can personally speak up for LGBTQ-inclusive sex education, head to the Stonewall website or quickly and easily email your local authority now.

@daisythejones / @m.parszeniew

Tagged:
Sex
sexual health
STDs