What we’ve learned about how to support sexual and reproductive health rights during a pandemic

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Sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) enable us to make personal choices about our own bodies, without judgement. They’re a bedrock of gender equality and women’s human rights. Leaders around the world have recognised the importance of protecting SRHR through COVID-19.

Consensual sex and intimacy are as important as ever! Some people have found a new love for self-pleasure and sex toys. Many people would be benefiting from pleasure during this stressful time. But some would also need barrier protection during sex, or they may be finding contraception more difficult to access. Some people may have changes to their menstrual cycle, have recently realised they are pregnant, or may not yet realise that their sexually transmitted infection could lead to chronic health issues. For others, they may be experiencing sexual abuse. It could be months or years before we have a better understanding of the full picture of our current access to SRHR.

Even then, we have already learned some important lessons about how to maintain access to sexual and reproductive health and rights during a pandemic. SRHR has often been led by pro-choice activists and advocates, so while there’s important lessons for our clinicians and policy-makers, there have also been some takeaways at the grassroots:

Be unapologetically pro-choice

Being pro-choice is supporting somebody to make a decision about their own body and their own healthcare, even if you wouldn’t make that decision yourself. Choice is all about options — for pleasure, contraception, sexually transmitted infection prevention, conception, pregnancy, birthing and mental health. Options include how, when and where to access health information or care, which aspects of health are prioritised, and who provides health care. Options enable decisions. Decision-making is not linear. Being pro-choice is as simple as listening to someone who wants to discuss their sexual and reproductive health options with you, supporting the decisions they make and not shaming them for the option they choose.

During the pandemic our choices have been limited and our options are less clear, but decisions remain time-critical. It has been more important than ever to be unapologetically pro-choice.

Prevent reproductive coercion

Physical distancing has restricted our lives and movement in new ways. Suddenly, just going outside and for a trip to the shops has become an event. As our lives have become smaller, the risk of reproductive coercion increased. Reproductive coercion is when a person is restricted from making choices about their own body, sexuality and reproductive healthcare. For example, a person may have their access to condoms, dental dams or contraceptive prescriptions controlled by someone in their household. It’s easy to see how this risk becomes greater when our actions are so restricted.

We’ve learned that you can help prevent reproductive coercion by being a resource for other people. If you think someone in your life might be at risk, you can check in on them. You can resource yourself to support others, for example, you can have condoms, dental dams, emergency contraceptive pills or pregnancy tests available. If it’s appropriate and safe, you can link people at risk of harm with support services. Defending sexual and reproductive health rights starts with ourselves.

Normalise enthusiastic consent

During COVID-19, dating has gone online by necessity. Some people have been having sex online, including sending nudes or phone sex, maybe for the first time. Enthusiastic consent should be at the core of all sexual activity and pleasure, even when it is online. Effectively, it means when a person makes sure the person they’re having sex with is excited and eager about the interaction.

Online sex is still sex, and everyone has a right to safe, empowering and pleasurable sexual experiences that are free from violence. Sexual violence can also happen online, by sharing nudes or links to pornography without consent. Negotiating enthusiastic consent through respectful and open communication, including to send nudes or during phone sex, is important for autonomy and to prevent online sexual violence.

The pandemic has shown the power of our communities, and of starting conversations about consent in our online lives through every platform we have available, whether social media or an old-fashioned phone call with a friend. We can help each other understand our rights online, options for support, and be models of consensual behaviour.

Support healthcare providers to survive and thrive

Sexual and reproductive healthcare providers may be a specialist clinic, or they may be located within a hospital or local GP clinic. They work in partnership with local pharmacies and may also provide telehealth care. Some of the work they do includes referring patients to all-options pregnancy counselling services, who discuss options of abortion, adoption, care, kinship care and parenting. The crisis has emphasised existing challenges that sexual and reproductive healthcare providers face.

To support SRHR, you can help by learning who your local and online sexual and reproductive health providers are, not only for yourself but also for family and friends. You can contact a clinic and ask if they need anything to stay open throughout the pandemic, such as pro-choice clinic escorts, abortion doulas, condom and dental dam distribution or personal protective equipment (PPE) donations.

Work with others to create change

Many organisations and networks in Australia and internationally are working in solidarity to protect SRHR during the pandemic. On March 26, organisations and individuals across the world logged on to a Tweetstorm #InMyPower to increase awareness of pro-choice options internationally. Many members of Equality Rights Alliance, an Australian network of feminist organisations, have come together during the pandemic to make a statement on Health Rights, and to advocate for appropriate political responses.

Knowing your Federal, State or Territory laws, and understanding what barriers they create is critical to supporting SRHR during a pandemic. Whatever the scale, working with your networks to raise awareness in your communities, and among decision-makers has helped to protect SRHR.

Decolonise sexual and reproductive health care

Globally, communities are becoming increasingly empowered to lead and self-administer their own healthcare. Our sexual and reproductive health systems are diversifying. Healthcare skills shortages have forced us to look beyond medical hierarchies and colonial methods of accessing care. Community leadership in healthcare is being elevated, online and offline.

At any time, this work can be supported by respectfully amplifying the voices of others. During a pandemic, it’s more important than ever, because crisis and emergency management can overtly and covertly reinforce colonial practices. Provide Elders with respect, solidarity, space and resourcing to self-determine sexual and reproductive health justice. Know when you are at risk of abusing the power you have.

As we shift to new models of living, learning, and livelihoods, consider every opportunity to improve our models of care. Regardless of whether a COVID-19 vaccine is possible, we know this is not our first or last pandemic. In working towards healthy futures for all, we need to learn from our recent and intergenerational histories. If we invest in reflection and planning now, future generations can be healthy and empowered in their own bodies, relationships, sexuality and reproductive choices.

Romy Listo is a feminist researcher and advocate working across a range of fields crosscutting with gender. She is the Project Coordinator for Equality Rights Alliance, a national network of over 60 women’s and feminist organisations bringing women’s voices to national policy. In her other life, she is a PhD candidate researching the role of energy and electricity in women’s collective organising and empowerment. You can follow Romy on Twitter.

Bonney Corbin is an urban and regional planner working at the intersections of health and social policy. She is the Senior Policy Officer at Marie Stopes Australia where she collaborates with doctors, nurses, midwives and counsellors to advocate for sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice. Bonney is also Chair of Violence Prevention Australia and on the board of the Australian Women’s Health Network. You can follow Bonney on Twitter.

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