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Erin Nguyen: UCLA should make available a variety of inclusive sexual health products

UCLA installed a health vending machine in Ackerman Union earlier this week. The machine offers products such as condoms, pregnancy tests and miscellaneous school items. UCLA needs to diversify the products sold in these machines, though, to cater to all students. (Kathy Zhou/Daily Bruin)

By Erin Nguyen

Oct. 19, 2017 10:40 p.m.


OK, now that I have your attention, let’s talk about a serious problem affecting college students.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report saying the number of sexually transmitted infections in America reached a record high, with college-aged people composing half of the affected population.

Luckily, UCLA has been at the forefront of tackling this issue. The university’s latest project to provide safer sex measures was the installation of a vending machine in Ackerman Union earlier this week. The machine is currently stocked with condoms, pregnancy tests and other miscellaneous school items such as index cards and phone chargers. UCLA also intends to add Plan B, an emergency contraceptive pill, for $20, said John Bollard, chief of operations at the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center.

UCLA is one of a handful of universities, such as University of California, Davis, that now has vending machines of this nature. However, the machine’s current setup is not entirely accessible to students. Though Ackerman is a central location, the machine is not available after the building closes at 11 p.m. on the weekends.

As such, UCLA should place multiple health vending machines on the Hill, where they can be readily available to students 24/7. It should also expand its selection of products to ensure all students can benefit from the machine.

UCLA’s health vending machine was installed to provide an alternative resource for over-the-counter products commonly sold at the Bruin Health Pharmacy, Bollard said. The available items are great measures for preventing pregnancy. If the intention was for the machine to be a contraceptive dispenser, UCLA did an excellent job. However, sexual wellness isn’t just about preventing pregnancy. It also includes the aspects of sexual health, preventing STIs, consent and pleasure.

The only type of condoms available in the machine are external condoms, or condoms for people with penises. External condoms protect against STIs for penetrative sex, but that is not the only sexual act students engage in. The machine should diversify its offerings and dispense products such as aspirin, menstrual products, lube, internal condoms for people with vaginas, dental dams as barriers for oral sex and gloves for manual sex. UCLA needs to be mindful of not prioritizing certain bodies over others.

And there definitely is a need for a wider variety of products. Until last spring, the LGBT Campus Resource Center was the only center on campus that offered the aforementioned products to members of the community. The LGBTQ center found at least 946 students took these products in the 2016-2017 academic year. This statistic comes from students who voluntarily checked in at the center’s kiosk to access its resources, including sexual health and menstrual products – meaning the actual number of student using these products is potentially much higher.

“If the sexual health products are only centered with a pregnancy prevention focus, where does that leave oral sex, protection from STIs or other types of barriers?” said Megan van der Toorn, the assistant director of the LGBTQ center.

Products like lube might seem extraneous, but lube is incredibly important in preventing the spread of STIs by reducing the likelihood of fissures, especially for anal sex, said van der Toorn. It’s imperative that UCLA make its products inclusive and not restrict what body parts can be used with these products, she added.

It’s also important to note that sex education tends to be rigid. Normalizing and destigmatizing pleasure is just as important as safer sex. Perhaps the vending machines can also offer small, affordable vibrators, as frequent orgasms have been known to help prevent certain infections and improve cardiovascular health, mood and immune function in men and women.

Of course, not everyone has had comprehensive sexual health education before coming to UCLA. Some students might even be surprised to learn these products exist. The machine can be decorated with posters containing information on how to use the products, their side effects and effectiveness, such as how Plan B is only effective if used within 72 hours of having sex. These pamphlets are critical as some students may not know how to safely use sexual health products.

And while it might seem like it’s not UCLA’s responsibility to provide these products or install multiple machines on campus, these resources can make a difference when students are in need of emergency contraceptives.

“The common scenario (for when students need Plan B or condoms) is that a condom broke during sex and they need to get Plan B, or that they’re about to have sex and realize that neither person has a condom,” said Julia Anderson, a second-year economics student and certified sex educator under the Student Wellness Commission.

Pharmacies like CVS, which operate 24 hours a day, offer these products but are far from campus and only restock every so often, significantly lowering the effectiveness of drugs like Plan B, which must be taken within a short window of time.

Students are having sex anyway and it’s important for them to have an abundance of options. Ackerman isn’t always open, making it clear why multiple machines should be accessible 24/7 in places like the Hill.

Students are at an age when they are learning about themselves. Health vending machines are a step in the right direction to reach out to students about the impact of their sexual health on their daily lives and make them comfortable with their own bodies.

UCLA needs to take into consideration accessibility and inclusivity when designing a product that benefits all students.

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Erin Nguyen | Alumnus
Nguyen was an Opinion columnist.
Nguyen was an Opinion columnist.
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