First, the good news: sex still exists, even in the age of COVID-19.
That fact alone may be of comfort to Manitobans who have been making sacrifices in other parts of their lives in response to the pandemic.
Nevertheless, COVID is having an impact on healthy sexuality, particularly in terms of access to education, harm reduction supplies and resources, the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted and/or blood-borne infections (STIs/STBBIs), and yes, a potential for increased exposure to COVID during dating and sex.
At the Sexuality Education Resource Centre MB (SERC), we know sexual health is no less important now than it was before COVID. So, while we understand the shift in public attention toward the pandemic as a more pressing issue, we encourage everyone to remain informed and vigilant with respect to making healthy, informed choices about their sexuality.
Epidemics and outbreaks that pre-date COVID – including those associated with STIs/STBBIs such as HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia — still exist, and underlying social factors such as poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia, have exacerbated the situation even further.
At the same time, access to important prevention methods such as asymptomatic testing, sexual health counselling and sex education in schools, community-based organizations and the home, has been reduced.
It’s also worth noting that access to harm reduction supplies at clinics, resources centres, and schools — even basics such as access to free condoms — is lower now than it was prior to the pandemic, a fact that alarms those of us who work with the mantra of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." It’s a situation that could lead to a rise in STI rates and the stigma that comes with it.
The importance of healthy sexuality goes far beyond the fundamentals of disease prevention, however. It includes our relationships, thoughts, feelings, culture and traditions, as well as what we learn and teach.
As they come of age during the pandemic, youth have had to adjust to new learning environments, less frequent access to their peers, and reduced social supports that make it far more difficult for them to find answers to fundamental questions such as, "Am I normal?" and, "Who can I talk to who really understands what I’m going through?"
To help see them through these challenges, we’ve retooled our educational resources to meet their needs. We’ve developed online videos and webinars for youth who are home-schooled or who want to increase their access to sexual health information. We’ve moved the vast majority of our programs and services from our Winnipeg and Brandon offices online, and have even started mailing condoms and other harm reduction supplies.
Adults and youth alike can access a vast array of SERC resources at serc.mb.ca and teentalk.ca. There they will find everything from advice on how to have "the Talk" with your kids to youth-friendly content on topics that include sexual health, mental health, body image, substance use and dating relationships.
Our Facts of Life program, available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, is experiencing increased demand, and allows anyone with an email address to ask questions without the need for in-person contact. The program offers complete anonymity, and responses are typically supplied within two business days.
We’ve always believed that, in a perfect world, conversations about sexuality would be normalized and open for everyone, and we worked toward creating a society that celebrates sexuality throughout life. Our core belief remains that sexual health is an integral part of overall health. It matters.
So, even in this time of pandemic, we encourage you to make your sexual health a high priority. If you have questions, ask. We’ll be happy to put our more than 85 years of experience in healthy sexual and reproductive health education to work for you.
For more information about SERC and healthy sexuality, visit serc.mb.ca.
Jared Star is Co-Executive Director of the Sexuality Education Resource Centre MB (SERC), a community-based, non-profit, pro-choice organization dedicated to promoting sexual health through education.