Sexual Health Roundup: Study Reveals Lack of Access to Emergency Contraception; DC’s Successful Female Condom Program


Welcome to our new Weekly Sexual Health Roundup! Each week, writer and sexual health expert Martha Kempner will summarize news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STDs, and more.  We will still report in depth on some of these stories, but we want to make sure you get a sense of the rest and the best.

Study Finds Problems with Access to Emergency Contraception for Teens

Last year, before the fight over health care coverage for contraception began, the Obama administration made the somewhat shocking decision to overrule an FDA panel recommendation that Emergency Contraception (EC) be available to young people under age 17 without a prescription. Now a new study has found that even 17 year-olds (who should have access EC over the counter), may have trouble getting it from their local pharmacy. 

The study, which appears in Pediatrics, surveyed 943 commercial pharmacies in Austin, Cleveland, Nashville, Philadelphia, and Portland. Each pharmacy was called twice, once by a researcher identifying herself as a “17-year-old girl” and once by a “physician.” Researchers spoke to pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, or unidentified pharmacy staff. Four in five callers were told that the pharmacy had emergency contraception in stock but 19 percent of 17-year-old callers were told that they could not obtain emergency contraception under any circumstances and three percent of physicians were told that their 17-year-old patient could not obtain it. In pharmacies that didn’t have emergency contraception in stock, slightly more than half of staff members said they could order the medication, but about one-third offered no additional information about how girls or doctors could get it.  

Pharmacy access to EC is very important because to prevent pregnancy this method must be taken within 120 hours after unprotected intercourse and is more effective the sooner it is taken. Researchers do not know if  pharmacy workers intentionally misled the girls, or if they simply didn’t know what the law actually says.

Even Young Teens Can Understand How to Use EC Correctly

The finding that pharmacies are not giving 17-year-olds access to EC is even more disturbing when paired with another new study that found that girls younger than 17 can safely use EC without a prescription.    

Researchers tracked girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who came into health clinics in five cities for EC. The girls read the information on the product’s box and then told the study’s staff whether or not they still wanted to use it. The girls who still wanted to use the drug filled out surveys on why they wanted to use it and about their medical history.

Based on their answers, the staff decided that 311 of the 340 girls who participated (about 92 percent) correctly identified the criteria to choose to use or not use the drug. Thirteen of those girls decided not to use the drug because the window during which it would be most effective had passed. The study’s staff gave the 298 girls who correctly chose to use the drug the single-dose pill. Of those, 274 used the drug correctly.

The study, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, was part of the FDA panel’s decision last year that was then overruled by the Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius.

Free Female Condoms Reduce HIV Transmission in DC

A program in Washington, DC that distributes free female condoms in areas of the city with high HIV rates is being hailed as a success. After two years, nearly half a million female condoms have been distributed. The project also trained peers, including hairstylists at beauty salons, to talk about sexual health. 

A new study published in AIDS and Behavior examines the program’s first year and found that the District gave away 200,000 female condoms. Researchers estimated that 65 percent or 130,000 were used during sex. Based on this and the prevalence of HIV and STDs, they calculated the probability of infection and the effectiveness of female condoms in protecting against infection. They determined that the program prevented 23 HIV infections in the first year.  

Although this might seem like a small number, it translates into monetary savings of $8 million dollars when the costs of the program are deducted from the life-time HIV medical-care cost (which is widely believed to be $367,134 per individual). The program is a public-private partnership between the city and the MAC AIDS Fund, and researchers concluded that for every dollar spent on the program, $20 was saved. 

Female condoms have never been that popular in the United States as women complained that they were unpleasant to use and expensive.  The DC program is “the first big public health push using the second-generation of female condoms,” which is made out of newer materials. As one of the study’s co-authors explained: “We’re finding very good use and uptake for it,” he said. For women who are HIV-positive, he said, “they’re saying, ‘I can have sex again.’ ”

Yet Another Reason to Exercise: Spontaneous Orgasms

I’m about a month into my resolution to exercise at least five days a week (so far I’ve made it up to three). I’m doing it for the classic reasons; I’d like to lose weight, lower my cholesterol, increase my energy level, and generally be less of a couch potato. New research out of Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion, however, suggests I might have even more incentive. It confirms anecdotal evidence of women having orgasms during exercise absent any sexual thoughts or fantasies.  

The results are based on online surveys completed by 124 women who reported orgasm from exercise and 246 women who experienced exercise-induced sexual pleasure. The women ranged in age from 18 to 63, most were in a relationship or married, and about 69 percent identified themselves as heterosexual. The study did not determine how common it is for women overall to experience exercise-induced orgasm or exercise-induced sexual pleasure but the authors believe it is not rare and noted that “it took only five weeks to recruit the 370 women who experienced the phenomenon.”

What the research did determine was that about 40 percent women who had experienced either orgasm or sexual pleasure induced by exercise had done so on more than 10 occasions. It also found that the most common activities associated with exercise-induced orgasm were abdominal exercises, climbing poles or ropes, biking/spinning, and weight lifting.   

The researchers said the mechanisms behind exercise-induced orgasm and sexual pleasure remain unclear but that, in future research, they hope to learn more about triggers for both. In the meantime, maybe I will up my dates with the elliptical machine to at least four times a week and see what happens.

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