The bulk of my service at the Allegheny County Health Department involves providing sexual health education to patients over the phone and promoting condom usage at outreach events. My day-to-day looks very different from a normal nine to five job, and when I tell people what I do on a daily basis, they often don’t know how to react. The truth is, sex and sexual health can be awkward things to talk about due to the sensitive and personal nature of the subject matter, and for this reason many people may feel uncomfortable with the topic. This can often make my position difficult, as I try to reach out to new patients and organizations to promote the Health Department's services and educate the general public.
According to the National Conference of State Legislators, only twenty states currently require public schools to provide students with medically, factually, or technically accurate sex and/or HIV education. Pennsylvania is not one of those states. Sadly, this means that many people never receive a formal sex education and don’t learn the information and skills they need to make healthy, informed decisions about sex. One in two sexually active people will contract an STD before they turn 25, and this number could be drastically reduced by better education and understanding (ASHA). As I’ve seen first-hand, lack of knowledge perpetuates falsehoods and myths about STDs and can lead to people engaging in risky behaviors that could have severe consequences.
Often, when patients call the Health Department clinic they are scared; scared to open up to a stranger about some of the most intimate details of their lives, and scared because they are afraid they may have been exposed to an STD. When I provide these patients with sexual health education, I hope to give them a safe, non-judgemental environment where they are free to ask any questions they may have. By listening to patient’s concerns, I can help provide them with harm reduction strategies and action steps that they can implement to make both them and their partners safer. I focus on ensuring my patients have accurate knowledge they can use to make informed decisions about their sexual behaviors.
While the Health Department’s clinic does provide free STD testing and treatment to those who need it, I hope that better health education will ultimately reduce the number of people who need those services. Until Pennsylvania (and other states) choose to take the necessary steps to create a comprehensive sexual health education curriculum for schools, I hope to fill in any gaps in education people may have. Sexual health is a crucial facet of overall health, and it is important to teach people about sexual health rather than to stigmatize it.
This post was written by NPHC member Jordan Besch.
Jordan serves at ACHD STD/HIV Program as an Outreach Coordinator.