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Recent study shows lesbians, bisexual young women less likely to seek reproductive healthcare despite risks

Young, bisexual and lesbian women are less likely to tend to their reproductive health than straight women, a new study finds.

Not only are they less likely to get annual Pap exams, bisexual women have the added risk of being diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases, heightening the risks for both groups for cervical cancer.

According to lead study author Brittany Charlton, lesbians and bisexual women "report having sex at a younger age and with more people." Charlton is a epidemiology graduate student at Harvard School of Public Health. "It's really important that they are screened."

Some other interesting facts and results of the study:

  • Authors reviewed the results of 4,224 females aged 17 to 25 from surveys conducted in 2005.
  • Of the study group, 93 percent of the respondents were white, and of those, all but nine percent were sexually active.
  • Only 70 percent of the lesbians, which made up one percent of the total number of women surveyed, said they had received a Pap in the previous year, compared to 88 percent of heterosexual women.
  • Results showed lesbians are less likely to take the tests that would uncover sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer and other medical conditions.
  • Twenty-two percent of bisexual women said they had a previous diagnosis of a sexually transmitted disease, in comparison with 11 percent of those who were heterosexual and 8 percent of lesbians.
  • Women who have sex with other women are at lower risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases than are women who have sex with men, although some of the diseases can spread between women.
  • Although young women may identify as lesbian, they are still likely to have had sex with a male at some point in their lives. The study suggested that 75 percent of sexually active lesbian-identified adolescents had sex with men, while 96 percent of identified bisexuals did.

The study appears online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Charlton stated that many lesbians and bisexual women may assume they are at lower risk for infection or the need for a Pap smear, and many are also uncomfortable speaking to doctors about their sex lives or sexual orientation. On the contrary, research has shown that women can indeed sexually transmit the human papillomavirus (HPV) to each other. This is the virus which can cause cervical cancer, something that requires regular check-ups in order to catch early enough.

Many lesbians and bisexual women also don't seek reproductive healthcare because they have no intention of getting pregnant or obtaining birth control.

“Regardless of their sexual orientation, women need to find a doctor or nurse practitioner they trust and get checked,” Charlton said. “That’s important to their life overall. And medical professionals need to be sure to screen all their patients regardless of their sexual orientation.”

For more information, visit the Journal of Adolescent Health website or review documents available on the Center for Advancing Health.