Sexual health can be a sensitive and awkward topic to discuss. But it is important to talk about it so that we know how to keep ourselves and the people around us safe. International students can struggle to find the right information about contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy, or where to get help if they’re sexually assaulted.

To answer common questions that international students have about sexual health, Study Melbourne Ambassador Darren Lee spoke with Carolyn Mogharbel. Carolyn is Team Leader at 1800 My Options, an anonymous and confidential Victoria-wide phone line for contraception, pregnancy options and sexual health information.

DL: How can we debunk myths about sexual health such as getting STIs from a toilet seat and, where can we seek reliable facts and resources?

CM: Evidence shows that young people all over the world generally ask their friends or the internet for information about sexual health. These can be great sources of information, but sometimes what they say is inaccurate, or not based on the latest evidence.

Unfortunately, if people follow inaccurate information, they may be putting themselves or their loved ones at risk of infections or unplanned pregnancies.

For trusted, evidence-based information about sexual health there are some very reliable sources of information in Victoria:

  • 1800 My Options has a free and confidential phone line where you can ask your specific questions, as well as a website.
  • The Better Health Channel is another reliable source of information and has some multilingual resources.
  • Specialised organisations like Family Planning Victoria and Melbourne Sexual Health Centre have excellent information too.
  • People can also speak confidentially to their doctor or nurse. If they’re not sure who they should speak to, 1800 My Options can help them find trusted doctors and other health care providers that are experienced in sexual and reproductive health.

DL: Why is social stigma a huge concern and how can international students overcome this?

CM: Yes, a lot of people feel worried or scared or ashamed to seek help around sexual health issues. And they really don’t want their friends or family to know about their concerns.

Often, if we get our concerns checked out quickly, they’re easier to manage – but if we leave them too long things can be more complicated. It’s never too late to seek help, but it’s often easier to get help if you ask earlier.

Seeking help for sexual health issues is part of looking after your overall health, and all health professionals must treat their patients confidentially, and without judgement. Anybody who is sexually active in any way should get a sexual health check-up every 6-12 months, or as advised by their doctor.

Sometimes it’s hard to know who to talk to or how to start conversations about sexual health – that’s why 1800 My Options exists, We provide a confidential and free place where people can start talking about their sexual and reproductive health concerns, and then get help to figure out what to do next and where to go to get the services they need.

DL: Do you know of any sexual health support services that may offer multilingual resources or practitioners for international students who aren’t eligible for Medicare?

CM: A lot of international students tell us that they’re worried about accessing sexual health services when they’re ineligible for Medicare. They are understandably worried about the cost of services.

1800 My Options has a database of over 300 sexual and reproductive health services across Victoria, many with multilingual staff members, and many of which regularly help international students.

We speak to many international students every week and we help them find the services they are looking for. We’ll ask a few questions about what they need, and about their circumstances, and provide details of services that they can contact for help for their specific needs. If an international student is worried about their sexual and reproductive health, they should call us – we will be able to help them find what they need.

DL: In your opinion, what is considered good sexual health and how can we get started to achieve that?

CM: Great question! Good sexual health is not just about avoiding infections or unplanned pregnancy. It’s about feeling safe and comfortable to express your sexuality, to enjoy sex, to have respectful and positive sexual relationships, and to access appropriate health services.

Good sexual health is important for everybody, no matter their age or relationship status or sexual orientation. We can achieve good sexual health by getting educated – know how to look after ourselves and our sexual partners both physically and emotionally and know how to seek help for any questions or issues we might be experiencing.

Some simple strategies that people can use to look after their sexual health include:

  • Getting a sexual health check-up where you can make sure you’re as sexually healthy as possible, talk about any issues you might have, and make sure that your preventive health measures like contraception or PrEP are meeting your needs.
  • Talk to your sexual partner/s about staying healthy – physically and emotionally. Check in with them regularly to make sure that everybody is feeling safe, comfortable and well.
  • Educate yourself, and your friends and sexual partners. Find good sources of information and use them, as well as sharing them amongst your networks.
  • Seek help when you need it. There are lots of services that can help you achieve good sexual health. 1800 My Options is a good place to start to find the services that can meet your needs.

For more information on services offered by 1800 My Options, call 1800 696 784, visit 1800myoptions.org.au or email info@1800myoptions.org.au