Navigating Sexual Health Education and Opportunities During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Among the many ways Swarthmore organizations have tried to make progress in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent shipment of condoms and other safe sex materials to campus might not seem like the most important news. For the college’s Sexual Health Advocates (SHAs), however, the shipment represents a hopeful return to more normal operations.

“I’m overjoyed,” SHA Nina Robinson ’23 told The Phoenix. “It makes things so much easier, and I feel like we actually have a purpose again after most of our work happening behind the scenes this year.”

During a normal semester, the roles of the SHAs include distributing contraceptives and offering fun and educational programming on relationships and safe sex. This year they have still worked to conduct virtual office hours and events — including the recent SHA quizzo on March 26 — but have run into challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic raised many challenges for sexual health, with uncertainty around sexual activity spreading the virus, and social distancing upending the dating process for many. It also forced one of the world’s largest condom manufacturers, Karex Bhd, to close for an extended period last spring.

Karex Bhd recently bought U.K. condom-maker Pasante, which supplies the National Health Service, Tesco, and Costco, U.S. condom brand ONE, known for its hip, arty packaging and young customer profile, and a U.K. bespoke condom-maker called TheyFit. Its own Carex brand is already a leading mass-market condom brand in the Middle East. 

The closure of Karex Bhd’s operations in Malaysia last spring led to concerns over a potential global condom shortage. These fears were compounded by delays in trade and mailing from the pandemic that prevented the SHAs from distributing safe sex materials for much of the fall semester.

The shipment that arrived on April 5 contains important supplies like external condoms, lube, dental dams, and instructional safe sex booklets. Usually, these materials would be placed in residential areas where students could take them as needed or given to SHAs and Residential Advisors on campus from whom students could ask for supplies.

The SHAs are changing their distribution methods on campus in order to comply with COVID-19 worries and navigate social distancing. According to the Garnet Pledge, students are expected to wear a mask and socially distance with other students on campus, although a student can host one other residential student in their dorm room. It is unclear whether or not sex is a violation of the Garnet Pledge.

Residential students have experienced difficulty with the culture around sexual health in the midst of COVID-19 concerns. 

“There definitely should not be a stigma to having sex on campus right now,” a student who preferred to remain anonymous told The Phoenix. “The Garnet Pledge should not be a reason for safe sex resources to be less accessible on campus.”

The SHAs hope that the recently delivered supplies will allow students to access safe sex resources without excessive worrying about COVID-19 concerns. SHAs Mrinali Taskar ’22 and Shirley Liu ’22 described how the communal boxes of supplies in residential areas used in previous semesters will be changed to accommodate social distancing.

“We had some initial difficulty thinking of how to distribute contraceptives without promoting cross-contamination with everyone on a hall grabbing stuff from a single receptacle,” they wrote to The Phoenix. Instead, the SHAs are putting supplies into individual bags for students to grab as needed.

Students can also talk to or message a SHA as well as find supplies at Worth Health Center and the Public Safety building. The SHAs are still determining  other buildings in which they might be able to distribute individually bagged supplies.

To remain accessible during the pandemic, the SHA program adapted to a virtual format. Taskar and Liu expressed the challenges they have faced while trying to serve the student body off campus, including trying to direct them to the right college counseling resources if needed.

“Counselors are licensed by the state, so the students off campus cannot be directed to the same resources as the students on campus due to legal restrictions,” Taskar and Liu wrote to The Phoenix. “We were also unable to send contraceptives and supplies to students off campus due to COVID-19 restrictions, and we had to reconfigure our distribution methods for students on campus.”

These hurdles have made it difficult for SHAs to feel completely connected with all students, but the virtual format of this semester has also presented opportunities for growth.

“I think the virtual format has certainly had its challenges but has also allowed the exec board, SHAs, and myself to be more communicative as a whole,” Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate Hillary Grumbine, who works with the SHAs, wrote to The Phoenix. “It has also helped us format training in a way that can be made up because we can record them on Zoom which is ultimately more accessible for folks.”

Even as the SHAs deal with virtual separation from each other and from campus, they want students to know that the program is not just meant for distribution of materials or conversations about safe sex.

“I feel like we get boxed into this idea where it’s like, safe sex, but it’s a lot more than that, and we just want to make sure students know that whether they’re on or off campus,” Robinson told The Phoenix. “[Students] have us as resources, and we are glad to talk to them about anything they might need to talk about.”

The organization is planning to launch an “Ask a SHA” anonymous Google Form for students to contact SHAs to talk or ask questions, offered as an alternative to the normal SHA office hours. Robinson hopes that this will provide another space for students to interact with SHAs on all different kinds of topics.

Other SHA initiatives this semester include programs revolving around sustainable menstrual products, LGBTQ+ sex-ed, and STI awareness. The SHAs are also focused on applying for PrEP and PEP grants to encourage HIV prevention on campus.

Image courtesy of Doug Plummer.

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