Image Credit: Courtesy of Chris Montgomery for Unsplash
Around 20 audience members gathered on Zoom Thursday evening for the University of Maryland SGA’s sexual health town hall, a dual effort between the organization’s health and wellness committee and Sex Week, a student group dedicated to providing the campus community with reliable, inclusive information regarding sexual health and wellness. The group of panelists consisted of Grace Fansler Boudreau, coordinator of outreach and assessment at CARE to Stop Violence; Penny Jacobs, nurse practitioner at the University Health Center; Dr. Mona Mittal, associate professor with the Department of Family Science; Ashlyn Nikles, president of Sex Week at Maryland and Tucker O’Donnell, senior director of education and engagement at the Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C.
The discussion was open to student questions and the first topic covered was contraceptives.
“The types of contraceptives that are available basically can be divided into a couple of subcategories: There are hormonal birth control methods, there are non-hormonal birth control methods, there are short-acting methods, there are long-acting reversible methods and then there are permanent methods,” said Jacobs, noting that almost all of them are offered at the Health Center. Available options include condoms, dental dams, IUDs, pills, patches and rings.
Jacobs also mentioned the non-sexual uses of combined hormonal contraceptives - which include acne care, managing mental disorders, lessening heavier periods, cramping, androgen suppression and suppression of ovarian cysts - and the potential health risks, such as slightly increased risk of blood clot, heart attack or stroke.
The conversation then moved on to STI prevention and treatment. Apart from using condoms and dental dams, Nikles mentioned that another important aspect of STI prevention is just “being open and honest with your sexual partner.”
PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, was also brought up. PrEP is a medicine that can help prevent contraction of HIV, and Jacobs said that it is offered at the Health Center “for any person who feels like they may be engaging in any kind of sexual activity that may put them at risk for HIV.”
The importance of getting tested for sexually transmitted infections was emphasized by several panelists. “A lot of these STIs don’t have symptoms…if you feel even unsure, it’s helpful to go to the health center to just talk about that,” Mittal said. “The earlier that you find out and the earlier you get treatment, the better it is for your health and the health of your partners.”
The Health Center offers tests for many different types of STIs - including gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, syphilis, herpes and HPV - and some of these tests are free.
The last topic covered in the town hall was healthy relationships and consent. Boudreau explained that CARE identifies the five components of a healthy relationship as “mutual respect, trust, empowerment, consent and communication,” pointing out that these apply not only to romantic and sexual relationships, but also to those between friends and family.
Panelists also emphasized the importance of setting boundaries and effectively communicating with your partner. “The idea is not to suppress our strong feelings or emotions or our unhappiness or our anger,” Mittal said. “The idea is that we need to be able to figure out how to express these things without being hurtful to other people.”
Mittal suggested that taking a “timeout,” or asking for time to cool down during a conversation or argument, can be a really effective way to make sure you’re in the right headspace before coming back to a meaningful discussion.
The town hall ended by recapping the various resources that are available to UMD students. Sex Week has put together a document compiling these resources, which can be found here.
The topic of health and wellness for transgender students resurfaced several times throughout the town hall. According to Nikles, Sex Week wanted to include this in the town hall because a lot of sexual health information is targeted towards cisgender, heterosexual students. “The sexual health of other marginalized communities is just as important, if not more important, because it's been brushed to the side for so long,” she said.
If there’s one takeaway she hopes people logged out of the town hall with, it’s this: “Sexual health education is for everyone and it doesn’t have to be a scary thing.”