This article discusses about sex education and may not be suitable for readers under 16 years old.
While HIV/AIDS* might seem like a forgotten epidemic, it remains a major public health concern. After Sub-Saharan Africa, the ASEAN region carries the second largest burden¹. In 2020, ASEAN recorded approximately 3.7 million people living with HIV, 100,000 new infections, and 82,000 deaths².
This epidemic has also significantly impacted the LGBTQIA+ community, especially men who have sex with men (MSM). In fact, MSM are at higher risk of getting HIV/AIDS within the community as sex between men frequently involves unprotected anal intercourse³.
Across the globe, studies and key players in the health ecosystem including government officials and NGOs have recognized that the lack of access to comprehensive sexual education is a significant driver for this burden, with the World Health Organization (WHO) citing it as a fundamental “human right”4.
In culturally-diverse regions like ASEAN where certain attitudes and beliefs are more conservative, all-rounded and inclusive sexual education and the importance of sexual wellness may not be topics that are widely or openly discussed.
This begs the question – As sex continues to be an innate part of our lives and the HIV/AIDS epidemic remains at large, how we can we spearhead open conversations on the importance of sexual wellness and encourage safe practices?
In a recent survey conducted by Reckitt’s sexual wellness brand, Durex, involving 400 youths in Singapore between ages 18 to 29 years old, it was revealed that there lies a significant knowledge gap when it comes to STIs including HIV, and majority of them continue to have problematic misconceptions around sex. In the same survey, it was also reported that poor knowledge and misconceptions about sexual health may lead to increased rates of STIs and unwanted pregnancy.
These insights demonstrate that open conversations and education around safe sex are paramount in tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and in boosting sexual wellness and well-being. This is so as it can lead to more responsible sexual behaviours, including STI testing as well as status disclosure which could reduce the risk of HIV transmission.
How sex education in schools can help…but don’t
In a previous conversation with Rachel of Ooh Lah Lah, we talked about how formal sex education all around the world does not fully educate on sexual wellness as youths are only taught the basics of sex education, of which most topics focus on heteronormative sex practices. Furthermore, conversations surrounding sexual health and well-being are also not talked about enough between parents and children, as well as partners.
And sadly, with the high accessibility thanks to the internet, many turn to porn to learn more about sex and/or their sexuality, and this can then create unhealthy views about sex and relationships among young people. Safe sex is rarely shown in porn and watching such unrealistic portrayal of sex may lead youths to engage in emotionally and physically risky behaviours, which does nothing to lower the risk of HIV and STD transmission. And…don’t get us started on how porn often doesn’t portray what most bodies look like, how it is mostly geared around the unrealistic male fantasies and how that affects women’s body image.
This is why educators do need to relook at how sex is taught in schools so that youths are aware that porn is not realistic, how to better protect themselves in any sexual encounters they may eventually engage and how to have effective communication between their partners and themselves. Perhaps parents should also play a more active role in this area, instead of merely outsourcing the educating to the schools. Yes, it may be awkward and embarrassing, but there are coaches and counsellors who will be able to help you better communicate this topic with your child and ensure that they practice safe sex.
Could technology help lower the risk of HIV transmission?
In a regional survey by Gilead Sciences based on responses from 1,531 respondents (comprising of 787 people living with HIV and 744 individuals-at-risk) across nine countries and territories in Asia Pacific done during June to September 2022, it found that:
Half of the people living with HIV (PLHIV) and individuals at-risk (IARs) surveyed in the region increased their usage of telehealth services over the past year; this is driven by the availability of new telehealth services during pandemic
Top factor impacting usage of telehealth services for PLHIV is data privacy (43%), while lack of personal contact is the primary concern for IARs (47%)
Around 1 in 3 respondents chose telehealth services provided by healthcare providers (HCPs) as the most trustworthy source for HIV prevention and care information
With the increasing usage of such apps, the survey results only goes to show how telehealth services can be improved to ensure equity of access to encourage more people who may be embarrassed to see the doctors over sex-related diseases.
Open communication with partner before sexual act is extremely important
It is important to have open communication with your partner before engaging in any sexual activity. This can help ensure that both partners are on the same page, feel comfortable and safe, and are able to give their full consent. It is especially important to have open communication about boundaries, preferences, and any potential risks or concerns.
It is also a good idea to discuss protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancy. Especially if either you or your partner is living with HIV, seeking professional medical advice from medical practitioners (be it in person or via telehealth services) is highly encouraged.
Nevertheless, encouraging open conversations and shifting paradigms on the importance of sexual health and wellbeing cannot be achieved overnight. Having open and honest communication with your partner can help create a positive and enjoyable experience for both of you.
The onus does not only lie within governments or educational institutions. Multi-sectoral collaborations are needed as everyone, including families, healthcare professionals, and private organisations has a role to play in order to have those conversations on safe sex.
Note: *HIV impairs immune system function, and it can progress to AIDS and AIDS-related death
² WHO. HIV/AIDS global data and statistics. Geneva: World Health Organization. Available from:https://cdn.who.int/media/docs/default-source/hq-hiv-hepatitis-and-stis-library/keyfacts-hiv-2020.pdf?sfvrsn=582c3f6e_13