By Amanda Parkinson
Women often skim over the gory details of issues that lurk under the covers, but the reality is sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise. Statistics show genital herpes is the most common STI, affecting 1 in 6 Australian women.
ACON is New South Wales’ sexual health promotion organisation based in the LGBT community, committed to creating programs and services which are firmly based on the principles of social justice, diversity and inclusion.
“As a community based organisation, ACON’s programs and services are peer driven, meaning that our services are designed and delivered by and for women… ACON is dedicated to ensuring that lesbians are at the forefront of providing input to the development and delivery of these programs,” says Veronica Eulate, ACON’s Planning and Evaluation Manager.
The bi-annual Sydney Women and Sexual Health Survey (SWASH) is collaboration between University of NSW, Sydney University and ACON. Initially the survey was funded to investigate the HIV and STI risks of lesbians closely connected to the gay community, but has broadened its scope to enquire about a range of health issues: alcohol and drug use, sexual health, smoking, mental health, obesity, violence and health care service satisfaction.
“It’s a great piece of research that gives us insight into the health and behaviour of a diverse range of women. A preliminary analysis of SWASH data since 2006 shows a number of persistent issues likely to produce inequitable health outcomes in this group of women,” says Veronica.
An official report culminating results from 2006 to 2010, reveals evidence that lesbians experience significant health disparities and worse health outcomes when compared to their heterosexual peers. “What we are seeing, specifically in Sydney, is significantly higher rates of smoking and more dangerous drinking among lesbians and same-sex-attracted-women (SSAW) than in the general community,” says Veronica.
The study also indicates smoking and drinking rates are higher among younger women. 56 per-cent of survey participants admitted to drinking at levels that put them at risk of an alcohol related disease or injury over their lifetime. Rates of illicit drug use are also much higher than in the general community.
Veronica said while the survey showed more of us are getting pap smears there is still a high proportion of lesbians and SSAW who are either overdue for screening or who had never been screened before. “Just over half of the sample had ever been screened for STIs and HCV despite relatively high rates of reported injecting drug use and sex with men.”
Lesbians and SSAW experience lower health outcomes compared to heterosexuals but the ACON community continues to demonstrate considerable strength and resilience. “We have a long history of creating and participating in networks and communities dedicated to building safe environments focused on cultures of care for each other,” says Veronica.
ACON is moving into a new era of activism as it moves away from traditional models of marketing. It is looking to develop new engagement frameworks using a range of tools such as peer education, social media and new web portals that encourage dialogue between ACON and the community.
Veronica says ACON are in the process of working on a new project called KINK, a highly targeted project focused on sexually adventurous women who are sexually active with other women. “We are working on developing a range of resources and an interactive website in collaboration with key community partners to provide ways in which safe sex can be practised. The website will incorporate many opportunities for interaction amongst users themselves as well as with ACON.”
ACON is committed to delivering a range of successful programs which promote health and has expanded its service provision to lesbians and SSAW in several areas. In recent years ACON has run ‘Slip it on,’ a STI prevention education and social marketing campaign. It also continues to run programs to support SSAW through the development of a LGBT mental health literacy project and the Young Women’s Project, which is popular with young women coming out.
“We are constantly trying to find new ways of engaging with this sub-group of the LGBT community and promotion via groups like the F Collective is a really great way for us to increase our reach and reputation with these women,” says Veronica.