The good, the bad, the ugly: UK universities’ sexual health services

sexual health services
Many students are forced to travel far by bus to be seen by a sexual health nurse. Source: Shutterstock.

Pretty much every student will need to visit the university doctor at some point over the course of their degree.

And whether they admit it or not, a portion of those visits will likely be due to sexual health concerns. Whether it is for contraception, STI testing, am I normal queries, or menstruation problems, escaping a visit is possible but unlikely.

Sexually active or not, adequate sexual health services are important for the safety and comfort of the student body. So what do the UK universities’ sexual health services really look like?

It seems to be a mixed bag. While some universities advertise their services and provide easy and judgement-free advice and help, others do much less.

Winnie Rose, a student in London, said her university’s services were wonderful.

“My uni was doing a research project to investigate the feasibility of ‘online’ STI checks,” she told Study International. “Basically you signed up online and they posted you a kit, [then] all you had to do was a swab and a finger prick and post it back.”

She explained the results were available to her online within a week or so. She was rewarded not only with the knowledge she was totally STI-free but also with a £10 financial incentive.

“Basically they were trying to remove the stigma and awkwardness of going to a clinic,” she said.

And it worked. Rose said many of her peers were delighted with the idea. They gained a bit of extra cash and knew they were making safe decisions about their sexual health.

In the South of England, however, some students found greater difficulty with sexual health clinics.

Sarah Rutter told Study International she visited her university’s clinic twice during the course of her three-year degree.

“The first visit was for the morning after pill,” she said. “I was incredibly nervous and uncomfortable and the nurse was very judgmental.

“She was unwilling to believe a condom could break and preached abstinence.”

Her second visit to the clinic was more positive, however.

“The second time I went, it was for something related to my sex life. The nurse was very kind and showed no judgement. She really made me feel a lot better.”

Paul Nicolson, also in the South of England, found his university’s services pretty much nonexistent.

“A friend and I thought it would be sensible to get tested for STIs,” Nicolson explained. “When we arrived we were told the uni doctor only tested for chlamydia, which I had already done prior to starting university through a free DIY kit.”

Nicolson and his friend were told instead they would have to travel to the local hospital for testing at a public clinic.

The pair were shocked when they discovered the hospital was miles out of town on a long bus journey.

“You are unable to book appointments there and have to wait for hours,” Nicolson said. “If I remember correctly, the service opens at 6am so you have to be there around 5.30am to even have a chance of getting an appointment.”

“It is so dangerous to make things so difficult for students to get tested [for STIs]. It puts people off, making the problem worse.”

Discouraged by the trouble he would have to go through just to get tested, Nicolson said he decided against doing it and instead waited until the end of term to visit his clinic back home.

“While it was fine for me, it could be the difference between healthy students and a mass infection spreading. STIs are so common in students and so many go undetected so it seems pretty bad the university aren’t doing anything to stop this.”

Nicolson likely isn’t off the mark. According to Clinical Consultant Jasper Mordhorst in The National Student:

“Young people tend to change partners much more than other age groups, so transmission rates of STIs are much higher.”

Mary Kitchener, a student in the West of England, went through a similar struggle.

“I haven’t, and I don’t know anyone who has, visited the uni’s sexual health clinic,” she said. “We have all had to go to the normal doctors instead.”

“Our clinic is on a totally different campus,” she explained to Study International. “Travelling there would be a two hour round trip for me or any of my flatmates or course mates because we, like the majority of students, live in the city centre.”

“I don’t even know anything about the one on [the other campus],” Kitchener said.

However, a graduate from the same university claimed she had a more positive experience of the sexual health services there.

“I remember [the university] offering chlamydia testing,” she said, noting that it was free.

She added a friend of hers received “tonnes of help” while she went through an abortion.

The problem therein lies in the inconsistency of UK universities’ sexual health practices.

Mordhorst said: “Providing a standardised sexual health service to all students” would be a great “step forward.”

“Universities are in a prime position to communicate, educate and encourage testing and should focus on making sexual health services easy to access, multi-cultural and educational.”

* All names of students have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.

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