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Work to be done for international students’ sexual health

Understanding cultural differences, building peer networks and engaging in difficult conversations were among suggested actions to address international students’ sexual health concerns at the inaugural sexuality symposium on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Budi Sudarto, Alison Coehlo and Shanton Chang say understanding cultural nuance can improve international students' sexual healtBudi Sudarto, Alison Coehlo and Shanton Chang say understanding cultural nuance can improve international students' sexual health.
Photo: The PIE

"Individuals identify with their peers, hence they're more successful than professionals in passing on the information"

The symposium, which was held during 2017’s ISANA/ANZSSA joint conference, overviewed the sexuality and sexual health needs of both international and domestic students, outlining the requirements of both groups.

“The problem we constantly have, if we work with one lot of students, they finish their studies. They move on”

“In Australia, we take it for granted that most young people receive [sexual health] information,” Alison Coelho, Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health, co-manager told delegates.

“When young people arrive to do their study, they often haven’t had sexual health education… and depending on where they arrive from, the idea of discussing sexual health is often taboo.”

Speaking with The PIE News, Coelho said in many cultures, lack of discussions around reproductive health meant some international students could have significant and surprising gaps in their knowledge bases.

While often sensitive in subject matter – examples included younger, female students experiencing their first menstrual cycle while abroad rushing to a hospital’s emergency room because they didn’t understand what was occurring – she argued educators needed to have difficult conversations to ensure students felt safe.

University of Melbourne associate professor Shanton Chang agreed, adding educators needed to become more comfortable with the facts of life, and that students often didn’t live up to stereotypes.

“What’s the reality and what’s the myth is absolutely crucial to unpack as we go along in this space,” he said.

“For a number of years, the rates of new diagnoses of HIV in this population group have represented 50% of Australia’s new diagnoses between particular ages”

“We have myths like they are very vulnerable and they have no idea what they’re doing. Yes for some, but there are some who come very experienced. The presumption of innocence, that they are all angels; they’re not.”

According to Coelho, international students were also almost twice as likely as the general population to identify as LGBTQIA+, partly due to those students using study abroad as an opportunity to explore their sexuality in a more open society.

Cultural differences in these instances created serious sexual health concerns for students.

“For a number of years, the rates of new diagnoses of HIV in this population group have represented 50% of Australia’s new diagnoses between particular ages,” she said.

“That is shocking. These young people are coming to Australia for an education, but they are so vulnerable, do not understand about safe sex, [and] are often told… there is no HIV here, we don’t use condoms.”

For those already with sexual health competency, however, a new setting could also have a significant impact on their wellbeing, according to diversity and inclusion consultant Budi Sudarto.

“Some of them come with very good knowledge around STIs, sexual health, HIV,” he said.

“The main concern for them is more about how do we apply the knowledge in a new setting. How do we communicate bits of the same things in Australia where English is not their first language?”

To combat these issues, CCEH’s community engagement and projects officer Aditi Sharma told delegates to encourage peer networks, a point reflected in the wider conference.

Speaking on the success of the organisation’s Sex, Study, Safety Peer Education Project, a program which trained eight peer mentors to engage with the wider student cohort, she said peers often bettered educators in information delivery.

“How do we communicate bits of the same things in Australia where English is not their first language?”

“Individuals identify with their peers, hence they’re more successful than professionals in passing on the information,” she said.

“Peers act as a positive role model and can reinforce learning through ongoing support.”

Importantly, however, Sudarto said there was no silver bullet in addressing sexual health for international students.

“The problem we constantly have, if we work with one lot of students, they finish their studies. They move on.”

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