All women face certain health risks. However, sexual minority women, such as those who identify as lesbian or bisexual as well as women who have sex with women, have some specific health concerns.
Although your individual risks are shaped by many factors beyond your sexual orientation and practices — including family history and age — it's important to understand common health issues for sexual minority women and steps you can take to stay healthy.
Safeguard your mental health
Sexual minority women are at higher risk of depression and anxiety. Contributing factors include social alienation, discrimination, rejection by loved ones, abuse and violence. The problem might be more severe for sexual minority women who are not "out" to others and those who lack social support.
If you think you might be depressed, talk to your doctor or seek help from a mental health provider. If you're reluctant to seek treatment, confide in a trusted friend or loved one. Sharing your feelings might be the first step toward getting treatment.
Protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections
Certain sexually transmitted infections — such as human papillomavirus (HPV), bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis — can spread between women. Oral sex and sexual behavior involving digital-vaginal or digital-anal contact, particularly with shared penetrative sex toys, can spread infections as well.
Female sexual contact is also a possible means of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. There's no cure for HIV/AIDS and many sexually transmitted infections, such as HPV and genital herpes. The best way to stay healthy is to practice safer sex.
To protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections:
- Get tested and have your partner tested. Don't have unprotected sex unless you're certain you and your partner aren't infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted infections — whether you have sex with a man or a woman. Testing is important because many people don't know they're infected, and others might not be honest about their health.
- Practice safer sex. During oral sex, use a small piece of latex (dental dam) or latex barrier. Wash sex toys with hot soapy water between uses or cover them with a fresh condom. During digital vaginal or anal penetration, consider using a latex glove.
- Be monogamous. Another reliable way to avoid sexually transmitted infections is to stay in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who isn't infected.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you drink, and don't use drugs. If you're under the influence, you're more likely to take sexual risks. If you choose to use injectable drugs, don't share needles.
- Get vaccinated. Vaccinations can protect you from hepatitis A and hepatitis B, serious liver infections that can spread through sexual contact. The HPV vaccine is available to women up to age 26.
Seek help for substance abuse
Sexual minority women report higher rates of tobacco use and alcohol and drug dependence.
If you have a substance abuse concern, remember that help is available. Local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health, mental health or community centers often provide substance abuse treatment. Organizations such as GLMA also might provide referrals.
Recognize domestic violence
Domestic violence can affect anyone in an intimate relationship. Sexual minority women might be more likely to stay silent about this kind of violence due to:
- Threats from the batterer to "out" you by telling friends, loved ones, colleagues or community members your sexual orientation
- Fear of discrimination
Staying in an abusive relationship might leave you depressed, anxious and hopeless. If you don't want to disclose your same-sex relationship or sexual identity, you might be less likely to seek help after an assault.
Still, the only way to break the cycle of domestic violence is to take action — the sooner the better. If you're a target of domestic violence, tell someone about the abuse, whether it's a friend, loved one, health care provider or other close contact.
Consider calling a domestic violence hotline and creating a plan to leave your abuser.
Make routine health care a priority
Some sexual minority women struggle to find a doctor knowledgeable about their specific health issues and with whom they feel comfortable discussing their needs and concerns. The GLMA website is one place to find referrals for doctors.
Look for a doctor who is curious, empathic and respectful of your specific needs. Share your sexual orientation with your provider, and ask about routine screenings recommended for women in your age group — such as blood pressure and cholesterol measurements and screenings for breast cancer and cervical cancer.
If you're not in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship, schedule regular screenings for sexually transmitted infections. Share any other health concerns you might have with your doctor as well. Early diagnosis and treatment help promote long-term health.