“For our communities, sexual health is often a difficult or invisible discussion with health professionals”

BY CLAUDIA CARVELL. IMAGE THE GENDER SPECTRUM COLLECTION

Today marks Lesbian Day of Visibility, and this year it could not be more crucial.

The needs of lesbian, bi and queer women are often marginalised in conversations around LGBT sexual health and women’s health focussed on heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions.

From our experience delivering one of the only community development programmes for lesbian and bi women in the country, we’re used to hearing about assumptions around low or no sexual health risks for this group – mostly based on inaccurate ideas about the types of sex LBQ women are having and possible routes of transmission, meaning any investment in this area overlooked. 

Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection

For our communities, sexual health is often a difficult or invisible discussion with health professionals, let alone with family or friends.

Many lesbian and bi women are used to tuning out of conversations about sexual health, because after years of misinformation and silence, they don’t feel it includes them. 

Most cisgender LGB+ women respondents have reported that they had not accessed sexual health services over the last year, while only 13% of lesbian and 38% of bisexual women had accessed these services.

Lesbians are also more likely to experience inappropriate curiosity from healthcare professionals.

Last year, we conducted The National Sexual Wellbeing Survey for Women. One of the main goals of the survey was to grow the evidence base around women who have sex with women and increase visibility of the needs of lesbian, bi and queer women.

A lack of evidence around LB women’s needs is often cited as the reason for not funding projects, so we weren’t expecting a record-breaking response. When we launched the survey, a reasonable but ambitious estimate of around 300 responses was made.

By the time it closed, we had almost nine times that amount with over 2,5000. More than anything, this level of engagement made it clear to us that this research was not only important but that it is necessary.

We chose to centre the survey around “sexual wellbeing” as of the little that exists, current research in this area focuses purely on the sexual health of lesbian and bi women from a clinical perspective and fails to discuss other factors influencing health and wellbeing, such as pleasure, exploration, confidence and consent.

LGBT Foundation, Manchester

In our first stage of analysis, we’ve found some really positive messages: 81 per cent of WSW felt aware of the kind of sex they enjoy and desire, with almost 70 per cent feeling comfortable to communicate with their partners about the sex they want to have.

However, lots of the findings also made for quite difficult reading. When asked how confident they felt saying no and denying consent, 21 per cent selected “somewhat comfortable” but almost 10 per cent selected either “not at all” or “not so much.” 

A third of respondents don’t feel confident about how their body looks during sex, with another third saying “it depends.” Reasons cited for changes in confidence include body hair; whether the lights are on or off; whether they have taken drugs and or alcohol, or feelings of gender dysphoria.

Our most difficult finding, but one that was consistent with what we know anecdotally about our communities through years of working with them, was that 43% of WSW and non-binary people who answered our survey had experienced sexual violence.

Only 26% accessed support, and of that, only 8% said that support met their needs. 

So what’s the next step from here? The most important thing is that the conversation does not stop. We want women to share their stories of accessing services/giving consent/negotiating the sex they want to have, so we can use this to build our evidence base, contribute to our report (coming soon to services near you!) and share the learning with professionals across all sectors

If you’ve got a story you want to share, it doesn’t matter if it’s positive, negative or somewhere in between. The needs of lesbian women and our wider queer women’s communities need to be on the agenda, if we are to move towards a more equal and more pleasurable future for us all. 

To share your story anonymously, please click here

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