In my role at Allegheny County Health Department, the majority of my service involves providing safe sex materials and education to residents of Allegheny County. One of my main focuses this year is to track prevalence of various sexually transmitted diseases (STDs*) throughout the county and see if there is any correlation between areas where STDs are more common and health services offered in those areas. To no one’s surprise, there is a relationship between the two: zip codes that have less access to medical services tend to also have higher STD rates. Lack of access to safe sex materials is just one of many barriers that affect STD rates, but it is one that I am hoping to address throughout my year of service.
In my position, I manage the Condom Distribution Program (CDP) at Allegheny County Health Department. The goal of the CDP is to increase access to free safe sex materials out in the community, particularly in areas where their distribution will be most effective. The majority of our CDP partners tend to be medical clinics and hospitals. However, in the areas where STD rates are high and health services like clinics and hospitals offered are low, I had to get a little more creative about who to reach out to in the community to add as partners. In order to determine how to increase access to free safe sex materials, I looked at services offered in these zip code areas. Looking at any public spaces that do not currently sell condoms, we came up with some ideas about where to reach out. Within the next few months, we are hoping to add partnering sites at local food pantries, barber shops, bars, schools, and libraries.
Another factor that is important to consider is why individuals are not using the safe sex materials that they have access to. Many times, one foregoes usage because materials do not fit correctly, oftentimes being uncomfortable to wear. Because of this, we have started to offer a wider variety of brands and sizes of condoms, and distributing them in packs where you can try an assortment to see what fits best. Certain brands, such as ONE® Condoms, even offer fun packaging that often includes jokes and pick-up lines. Though this is a small change, it often encourages individuals who were hesitant to take condoms to grab a handful “because they are funny.” Sex is not a subject that many are open to talking about with complete strangers, but the amount of conversations I have had simply because the packaging on the condoms made passersby stop and take a second look has created many learning experiences.
One of the biggest influencers on why many do not use safe sex materials (or use them incorrectly) is due to a lack of education surrounding this topic. I could go on for hours about issues surrounding the poor sex education that is presented within the United States, but I think that John Oliver does an excellent job summarizing it in 21 minutes and 4 seconds in this video (1). Education is imperative. Through outreach and education events I have attended, it is amazing how different everyone’s levels of knowledge is on this topic. There is a lot of misinformation about STDs and prevention methods, so it is vital to get out and educate as many people in the community as possible. There is always the issue of stigma surrounding talking about these topics, which is why, as a health educator, it is a unique experience getting to be a third party giving the information. Overall, people tend to be more willing to listen to and ask questions of someone they know they will never see again, as opposed to asking an adult, such as a parent or teacher.
There are many barriers that prevent one from acquiring and using safe sex methods in order to prevent exposure to STDs. Acknowledging these barriers and addressing them appropriately, as I have continued to do in my position at the Allegheny County Health Department, is the best way to help prevent STDs as well as many other health disparities.
This post was written by NPHC member Gigi DeWeese.
Gigi serves at the Allegheny County Health Department as an Outreach Coordinator in the Sexually Transmitted Diseases & HIV/AIDS Program.
*Also referred to as Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)