Your sexual rights

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Sexual rights are crucial to the realization of overall health and equity. They are essential to safety and dignity and to live free from discrimination and harm. The realization of sexual rights is essential to all human rights, empowerment, and freedom. For more information on how sexual rights are related to young people’s human rights and evolving capacities, visit Your Sexual Rights.

Sexual Rights and Health Care: What can you expect as a young person?

To take care of our sexual health, we need to be able to access health care.

Access to sexual and reproductive health services can be unequal because of things like where we live or our immigration status. Not every town or neighbourhood has a sexual health clinic or a clinic that offers youth-friendly care. 

For teens, it can be complicated to get the health care you have a right to. Maybe you’re not sure if your parents need to give you permission, you’re nervous about the doctor telling your parents that you came in to get a prescription for the pill or to get an STI test, or your parents keep your health care card.

Young people have the right to go to the doctor and get care without parental consent or permission from an adult. Young people also have a right to confidentiality (with a few exceptions)and privacy with healthcare providers.

Even when all goes well, going to the doctor can still leave us feeling vulnerable, unsure, or full of questions. Read on for tips to help you feel more confident accessing sexual health care, including limits to confidentiality and how to make the most out of your appointment.

Non-discrimination and Respect: What does this mean?

No matter our age, we have a right to be treated with respect and dignity. This means we have a right to access care (including sexual healthcare) that affirms who we are, our experiences and what we choose to do with our bodies.

As teens, we may become used to adults not taking us or our concerns seriously, but this is a form of disrespect and discrimination based on our age. Other forms of discrimination such as racism, slut-shaming, transphobia, homophobia, fatphobia, ageism, or ableism are also not okay when accessing care.

Health care free from all forms of discrimination is the bare minimum. The term “culturally competent care” is health care that doesn’t make assumptions about our lives and identities (including being a teen!)

Cultural competence includes things like having your chosen name and pronouns respected; not having your relationship to a culture, religion or language assumed based on your race; and being spoken to directly if an interpreter is present.

In other words, we have a right to be heard and treated with non-judgment and kindness in all aspects of our lives, including when we go to the doctor, nurse, or psychologist.

Privacy and Confidentiality: What to expect?

We all have the right to privacy and confidentiality when we go to the doctor. This means that no one but us has to know when, why, or if we see a healthcare provider.

When we’re young, it can feel like our visits to the doctor are still managed by our parents or other adults in our lives. Maybe your parents keep your health card in a secure location, your doctor is friends with your family, or you must get a ride to the clinic from someone old enough to drive. Being young presents unique barriers to accessing care but know that you always have the right to access sexual and reproductive health care without parental permission.

Sometimes, knowing that we have this right isn’t enough. We want to know that we will not be turned away at a clinic without a health card, or that we can get to our appointment on our own. We also want the security of knowing that our parents or other adults in our lives will not find out what we talked about with our doctor. This is even more important if we’re seeking out sexual and reproductive healthcare.

Doctors, nurses, psychologists, and other healthcare providers must uphold patient confidentiality but there are a few legal limits to this confidentiality.

It’s helpful to know about these limits so that we can make informed choices about what and when we disclose to healthcare providers. For more information on these limits visit  Going to the Doctor: Privacy and Confidentiality.

Choose and Refuse: What are the exceptions?

As young people, we have a human right to make informed choices about all aspects of our health.

For instance, we have the right to know about the risks and benefits of medications, procedures, and tests before making a choice. Based on the information we receive, we can choose the course of action that is best for us, including refusing care. If we refuse care, healthcare providers must explain what consequences this choice will have so that we can make an informed decision with all the available information.

It is important to know that there are a few exceptions to refusing care in Canada. In most provinces and territories there is no defined age when health care can be refused. Instead it is defined as “maturity” and the ability to understand the risks before deciding. The two exceptions to this are in Quebec (age 14) and New Brunswick (age 16). An informed choice is related to informed consent. For more information on informed consent, check out our section on Privacy and Confidentiality.

We do not owe anyone an explanation for any choice we make. This includes asking for a new healthcare provider and refusing to have a student or observer present. We can also share as much or as little information with healthcare providers as we wish without explanation. For instance, if we get an STI test because we had sex without a condom, we do not owe the doctor an explanation about why we decided not to use a condom. While we do not owe explanations for our choices, the amount of information we provide can impact the kind of care we receive.

If a healthcare provider is not able to provide the treatment or test that we request, they must provide a timely and relevant referral to another provider. Some doctors do not provide abortion care based on religious objection but if this is the care that we need and request, doctors must provide a timely referral to another provider. For more information, see our section on conscientious objection.

What Happens if my Rights are not Upheld?

 Anyone can report a provider that does not uphold any of these rights. There are a few different ways to access clear and fair reporting processes:

  • Each clinic has its own complaint and reporting procedures. If you would like to file a complaint with a healthcare provider, you can ask the front desk staff for the email of the Human Resources (HR) department. If they do not have an HR department, you can ask for the contact info of the clinic manager. If there is no clinic manager, you can go through the provider’s professional college.
  • Every healthcare provider is accountable to their professional college. In Canada, there is usually a national body and provincial/territorial organizations that providers are accountable to. For example, the Medical Council of Canada sets the national standards of care that medical doctors must uphold but provincial/territorial colleges are who regulate professional conduct. For a complete list of doctor colleges, check-out this resource. Each profession has their own (i.e., nurses, doctors, and psychologists) professional college.
  • Each province and territory have a human rights code and courts that can rule on complaints brought forward.

While accessing safe and confidential healthcare is part of our basic human rights at any age, having access to youth-friendly care when we’re young can make a huge difference in how we experience the medical system and our ability to take care of our health.

Youth-friendly Sexual Health Care

Youth-friendly health care is non-judgmental and stigma-free. The goal is to reduce barriers that are unique to young people, like hours of operations or the need for a health card.

Ideally, every interaction you have with the health system should leave you feeling confident, supported, and respected.

This is one of the reasons that Action Canada created a youth-friendly sexual health care directory.

Whether we see a youth-friendly provider or not, there are some things we can do ourselves to help our health care experience feel more satisfying and empowering. 

Making the Most out of Your visit

It might feel intimidating the first time we visit a new healthcare provider. It can be helpful to remember that doctors/nurses/midwives/counselors are experts on medicine and science but we have expertise to contribute too: on ourselves, on our lives and circumstances, and on our communities.

Here are some tips and strategies to help manage appointments with health care providers, to keep track of important information that we are given (or we want to share), and to ensure we get the information we need to participate in our own care.

Prepping for Your Appointment: What do I need to think about ahead of time?

Your appointment might go by very quickly. It can be helpful to prep in advance to ensure that you’re getting all the information you want and need. Here are some quick tips for prepping:

  • If you can, gather important documents ahead of time like your health card and a list of medications/supplements/hormones you’re currently taking.
  • If you don’t have access to your health card, call the clinic ahead of time and ask if they will see you without one. (Some clinics on our directory will see you without a health card but it’s best to call ahead of time to confirm).
  • If possible, keep your health card, vaccination records, and information on your medications in one safe place. If you don’t have a place to store these, ask someone you trust (a family member, a friend, a counselor, an outreach worker, etc.) to keep them for you.
  • Use your note app or a pen and notepad to take down important information during your appointment (including the date of your next visit).
  • Jot down your list of questions. It’s OK to keep asking questions until you fully understand. It’s OK to ask for simpler answers. You have a right to understand your own health care.
  • Make a list of your goals for your appointments. Do you want to be tested for all STIs? Is there a question or topic you want to focus on? Do you want to leave with pamphlets or a referral for something you may have been dealing with?
  • If this would make you feel safer, more in control or would be helpful, take a family member or friend with you during your appointment. (NOTE: this may not be possible with COVID-19 protocols in place at many clinics. Call ahead to find out more).

What Should I Share?

The information you share with providers is completely up to you. You can disclose as much or as little information as you feel is comfortable and necessary.  Info that might be relevant and helpful to share includes: 

  • Current health issues and whether you are being treated for them
  • Symptoms – how long have you had them? Have you done anything to make them better and has it worked?
  • Any recent changes in your life or routine ( change in diet, sleep habits, a break-up, the death of a loved one, etc.)
  • Any allergies (to medication or to foods as some vaccines or medication may contain traces of allergens)
  • Medications you are taking
  • Whether you have ever been hospitalized or had surgery (for what and when)
  • Any family members who have or had major health issues
  • Tobacco/alcohol/drug use
  • Personal circumstances or preferences that are important to share (for example, any cultural or religious beliefs that may influence treatment options)

What Should I be Tracking During my Appointment?

During your appointment, you may need to answer some important questions. You may feel rushed, overwhelmed, intimidated, or simply forget some of what you wanted to talk about. Here is a list of things to think about, ask, and track during your appointment:

  • If there is a diagnosis, write down the name (scientific terms and in plain language) and the name of medications (and how to take them safely and effectively)
  • If there is a need for a treatment, a follow-up, or a surgery, write down the next steps. Some questions to ask:
    • What are the risks and benefits of this medication/treatment/surgery?

    • How soon will I start seeing results from the medication/treatment?

    • Are there alternatives to using this particular treatment/medication?

What to Ask Before Leaving your Appointment: What does follow-up look like?

During appointments, we can receive a lot of new information. Here is a series of questions that might help you make sure you know what you need to know:

  • Do I need follow-up tests? If so, what are they? Where can I get them done?
  • How soon do I need to decide about getting a test or starting a treatment?
  • What might happen if I delay or avoid treatment?
  • What should I watch out for in terms of symptoms?
  • Do I need to schedule an appointment with someone else or fill a prescription?
  • What can I do at home to care for myself?
  • Can you recommend any resources about this diagnosis/test/medication?
  • Can you recommend any types of supports to be able to follow through with this treatment?
  • Do I need to come back for a follow-up appointment? If so, when?
  • When or who should I call to report any new or continuing symptoms?

In between your appointments, it might be helpful to write down any questions that come up and keep track of any follow-up visits, further tests, or dates to get prescriptions filled. There are calendars, day planners, and phone apps that can help you keep track of appointments and sometimes clinics will give you a business card with your next appointment date.

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