Writing's on the wall for sexual diseases

February 23, 1996

No you will not contract a sexually transmitted disease from a toilet seat. Though if you sit on one of the lavatories at one Canadian university regularly you can read why.

The University of Manitoba has been running a programme where students with questions on sexuality and health are encouraged to write them down on lavatory walls.

The Bathroom Betty and Johnny programme answers question on a broad range of issues, from herpes to date rape. Student volunteers find the answers, then post them up in the 50 cubicles the following week. The programme seems to have found its success in the anonymity of the cubicle.

"There are not a lot of places to go where you can ask these kinds of questions without feeling embarrassed," said Dana Geisel, one of five student volunteers working with the Peer Advisor Office and University Health Service.

A participant for two years, Ms Geisel has seen all breeds of questions, from the naive to the nervous scrawled on a blank sheet, posted below answered questions from the previous week. Can I get AIDS from kissing? Can I get pregnant if I have sex during my period? What is a dental dam and how is it used during sex?

Bathroom Betty and Johnny seems to be on target for the demographic of its reading service. Recent Health Canada findings claim the highest rate of infection for STDs for women is between the age of 15 and 19 years of age and for men between 20 and 24 years.

Ms Geisel says, for the 75 per cent of students who in a recent survey claimed to be sexually active, the programme gives them information to "make informed choices".

Many questions ask what their odds are of getting an STD if they have unprotected sex. Ms Geisel said odds do not work when you can contract an STD after one unprotected sexual encounter. "It's Russian roulette," she said.

The idea came from a defunct AIDS-awareness project at a nearby community college and costs no more than the price of a photocopy. Ms Geisel says Bathroom Johnny and Betty has been a boon to support services on campus and in the community.

One man questioning his sexual orientation gave her and the team the opportunity to refer him to the gay and lesbian group on campus. University Health Services doctor Patricia Mirwaldi, who co-ordinates the project and oversees all the answers, told Ms Geisel she has seen people come into her office as a direct result of the advice on the wall.

"Even if someone doesn't write a question, by sitting there reading these answers they become aware of these services," said Ms Geisel, a fourth-year undergraduate student in social work.

But no question is too small for the team. The team simply responds to what Ms Geisel sees as a lot of misinformation. Even joke questions can be addressed, like the one that asked if it is okay to masturbate between classes.

The team took poetic and medical licence with that one, changing the question to: "Is it okay to masturbate?"

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