News, University News

U. groups spread sexual health awareness

Student groups focus on destigmatization through free resources, education for community members

Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2017

As rates of sexually transmitted diseases in Rhode Island hit a 10-year high, Brown student groups are working toward spreading sexual health awareness.

University groups that work with Brown students, Providence high school students and Providence middle school students aim to not only educate students on sexual health, but also provide these communities with free resources and advising.

At Brown, the peer education program Sexual Health Awareness Group helps educate University students by providing safe sex supplies, a confidential Q-and-A texting service and hosting workshops, along with other outreach projects.

“People often feel uncomfortable talking about sexual health, and that’s why it’s important to have these conversations and resources like the texting service,” said Conor Millard ’19, current member of SHAG and incoming coordinator.

Recently, SHAG has been focusing on the destigmatization of STDs in an effort to help people “approach STDs as a health concern and handle them in a practical way,” said Naomi Ninneman, staff advisor for SHAG. The stigma around the illness can lead to health issues as people don’t seek out testing because they’re ashamed or embarrassed, Millard said.

“One thing that our educators get a lot from students is just the relief that they’re not being judged in any way, they’re being encouraged and helped and given resources,” Ninneman said.

While SHAG focuses on providing resources and education to the Brown community, Sexual Health Advocacy through Peer Education is expanding University attention to sexual health beyond College Hill. SHAPE focuses on educating high school students by creating and teaching classes on sexual health at high schools in Providence once per week.

“It’s an important time to have those conversations,” said student coordinator Karishma Swarup ’19. “You’re getting closer and closer to adulthood and closer and closer to independence.”

SHAPE, like SHAG, is underscoring the importance of destigmatizing STDs in light of the 10-year high rate in Providence, Swarup said.

“We want to make the curriculum more inclusive by not making it just about scaring them (about STDs),” she said. “We need to keep doing what we are doing and try to expand our efforts.”

In addition to reevaluating the curriculum, SHAPE is undergoing structural changes. The group is in its first year of a partnership with Planned Parenthood, which allows for them to distribute educational handouts and free safe sex supplies as well as have monthly meetings with a representative from Planned Parenthood.

“Our partnership with Planned Parenthood has made our work a lot better,” Swarup said. “We have access to resources and actual professionals in the field who can help us with sex ed.”

But Brown’s sex education groups work with younger students as well. Brown University Sexual Health Educators provides middle school students in downtown Providence with an after-school, optional, comprehensive sex education. The lessons, which run twice a week, cover sexual health, puberty, gender and identity and more.

The group wanted to work with middle school students because high school can sometimes be too late, said Spenser Anderson ’18, co-leader of BRUSHE. In addition to middle school students who may be engaging in sexual activity, it’s also important to talk about puberty because “middle school is when you’re starting to search for your identity and go through bodily changes,” Anderson said. “It’s tough, and by having facilitators in college rather than teachers, students can relate more and be comfortable asking questions.”

The fact that the facilitators are younger than teachers has made students surprisingly receptive, Anderson said. Many of the middle school students have asked questions that are personal or very specific, he added.

The increase in Rhode Island STD rates may not have completely negative connotations — it might actually be an indicator that this education is paying off. Although people may be participating in more activities that put them at risk or using less protection, the rising rates may also be a sign that more people are seeking out testing, said Philip Chan, director of Miriam Hospital’s STD clinic.

One of the biggest spikes this past year is in gonorrhea and chlamydia among teenagers between ages 15 and 19, he added.

“We need more education and awareness given that these STDs tend to affect younger adolescents,” Chan said, lauding Brown’s efforts to spread sexual health education to various communities, but emphasizing the need for Rhode Island as a state to improve. He also stressed the importance of open discussion among politicians and those in the clinical field in moving forward with sexual health.

Improving access to care and resources is also crucial, Chan said. At Brown, all students can order safe sex supplies online for free to their Brown mailbox through “Ship n SHAG.” Besides getting tested at Health Services, students can also get tested at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, the Miriam Hospital STD clinic, AIDS Care Ocean State and AIDS Project Rhode Island, as listed on the BWell website.

— Additional reporting by Emily Davies.

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