LGBTQ Health

Lesbian and WSW Health

Welcome to the lesbian and women who have sex with women (wsw) health page of the Health Education web site. The web site is designed to be sensitive to lesbian students on every page and to address the health information needs of lesbian students throughout the site, not just on this page. For example, we use gender neutral language in the Sexual Health section (unless we're talking about things like pregnancy), and our dating violence pages include information on same-sex dating violence and resources for LGBTQ students. This page was designed as an introduction to some health issues for lesbians and women who have sex with women and as an easy way to find information, links, student groups, and campus resources.

What do the terms "lesbian" and "wsw" mean?

Women who identify as lesbians are a diverse group, but are generally women who are sexually and romantically attracted to women. Women who have sex with women (WSW) refers to women who engage in sexual activity with other women, regardless of how they identify themselves; many choose not to accept social identities of lesbian or bisexual. The term WSW is often used in medical literature and social research to describe a group for clinical study without considering issues of sexual self-identity. 

How do I prepare for a visit to Health Services as an LGBTQ student?

Sometimes you might feel uncomfortable seeking health care because of a fear of homophobia. This can make it harder to seek health care when you need it. This problem may be compounded if you are a person of color and fear racial prejudice. Health Services works hard to be a safe space for LGBTQ students to seek appropriate, sensitive, non-discriminatory health care.

What you can expect
On a visit to Health Services you can expect to receive comprehensive care that is sensitive to you as an LGBTQ person and knowledgeable about health care concerns you might have. This includes, but is not limited to, concerns you might have about sexual health and sexuality. Questions about sexual activity are not intended to stereotype you and are not based on assumptions about how you behave. Rather, they're a standard part of care at Health Services. A good medical provider will ask questions about your health behavior in a sensitive way, not making any assumptions, but assessing your level of risk. However, if you ever don't feel comfortable answering a question, just say so. Remember that your visits to Health Services are covered by medical confidentiality laws.

Patient-provider communication
You play an integral part in the health care you receive. Communicating openly and honestly with your medical provider is an important way to receive comprehensive and sensitive medical care. This includes talking about issues like sex and gender identity. It's also important that you feel like you can ask questions of your provider. We suggest that you find a provider at Health Services that you feel comfortable with to take the lead on your medical care. While all providers are available to you, this provider can come to know your history well, and, by building a relationship with this provider, you will optimize your health care and feel safer discussing your concerns and issues. You can ask around about which providers your friends use or make a point of meeting different providers when you schedule appointments. You can always request a specific Health Services provider by name or request a provider by gender.

Prepare for your visit
One way to approach a trip to Health Services if you're nervous is to do some research before you come in. Check out our pages on health issues and concerns for women who have sex with women, men who have sex with men, bisexuals, and trans* students. If you have questions for your provider, write them down and bring them in -- sometimes it's hard to remember all of your questions once you're in the exam room. Remember that you can tell your provider that you are nervous and they can help you through the questions.

Give us feedback
Finally, patient comments are very important to us. If you have any feedback about our services, good or bad, please fill out a patient comment form and put it in the boxes that are in the waiting rooms. We address all complaints, and the more specific you are, the better we will be able to fix the problem. If you choose to leave your name, we will follow up with you.

Health Services is located at 13 Brown Street on the corner of Brown and Charlesfield Streets. Call 401.863-3953 to make an appointment. 

How do I respond to homophobic harrassment?

Homophobia is a term used to describe the fear of or aversion to homosexuality, or discrimination against LGBTQ people who are homosexual or perceived to be homosexual. It can also mean hatred, hostility, disapproval of, or prejudice towards LGBTQ people, sexual behavior, or cultures.

It's a shame that we have to deal with this sort of thing, but sometimes we do. Homophobic words, threats, or even violence can be very damaging to our sense of safety. It's good to be prepared with a response before it happens.

Each person's response will be unique and may be different from situation to situation. Addressing homophobia without escalating the situation is the best option, but that's not always possible if you feel intimidated, threatened, or if you're not out of the closet. Fortunately at Brown you have allies in students and student groups, in the administration, and in the faculty. Here are some ideas for ways to handle these situations:

  • Assess your situation. Are you alone? Are you in any physical danger? Do you feel comfortable addressing the homophobia/biphobia or do you have a more immediate need to see to your safety?

  • If you feel that you're in any danger, try to leave the situation and get to a blue phone to call Public Safety (401.863-4111). If that's not possible look around and see if there's anyone else's help you can enlist. Don't be afraid to be loud and draw attention to yourself.

  • If you feel you can respond safely, try to respond in a way that does not escalate the situation. Insulting your harasser or casting aspersions on his/her own humanity or sexuality typically isn't a good method either.

  • You can also report homophobic and biphobic harassment to Brown through the Office of Student Life (401.863-3800 Dean Carla Hansen) or the Special Victims Unit of the Department of Public Safety (863-2542).

  • Get support from the LGBTQ Center (863-3062, Faunce House, Room 321) or the student group Queer Alliance.

Remember that if you've been harassed it's normal to feel upset, angry, or sad. Talk to someone you trust to help you work through your feelings and decide if there's something more you want to do. There is help on campus for getting through this including Counseling and Psychological Services, and the Office of Student Life.

What health concerns are specific to lesbians and women who have sex with women?

Lesbians and women who have sex with women are a diverse group with diverse health concerns. Your own specific circumstances and behaviors determine which health issues it makes sense to research further. Generalizations about lesbian health necessarily rely on generalizations about identity and behavior. The list of health concerns below, therefore, is not prescriptive, but for your information. It may be that some or even many of the health issues do not apply to you simply because you identify as lesbian. It is most important to find a medical provider that you trust to respond to your questions and concerns.

The Journal of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association has identified the following top 10 health issues. Click on the heading for a more in depth discussion of these issues.

  1. Substance use

  2. Alcohol use

  3. Sexual health

  4. Tobacco use

  5. Cancer

  6. Nutrition, fitness and weight

  7. Heart health

  8. Depression and anxiety

  9. Social support and emotional well being

  10. Self harm 

Health concerns for lesbians and women who have sex with women

1. Breast Cancer

Lesbians have a greater concentration of risk factors for this cancer than any subset of women in the world. Combine this with the fact that many lesbians over 40 do not get routine mammograms, do breast self-exams, or have a clinical breast exam, and the cancer may not be diagnosed early when it is most curable. Click here for information on breast self-exam.

2. Depression/Anxiety

Lesbians have been shown to experience chronic stress from homophobic discrimination. This stress is compounded by the need that some still have to hide their orientation from parents, friends or professors, and by the fact that many lesbians have lost the important emotional support others get from their families due to alienation stemming from their sexual orientation. At Brown, Counseling and Psychological Services can help with these problems.

3. Gynecological Cancer

Lesbians have higher risks for some of the gynecologic cancers. What they may not know is that having a yearly exam by a gynecologist can significantly facilitate early diagnosis associated with higher rates of curability if they ever develop. Click here for more information on gynecological exams.

4. Fitness

Research confirms that lesbians have higher body mass than heterosexual women. Obesity is associated with higher rates of heart disease, cancers, and premature death. What lesbians need is competent advice about healthy living and healthy eating, as well as healthy exercise. Our nutrition section includes information on healthy eating, sports nutrition, eating concerns and campus resources.

5. Substance Use

Research indicates that illicit drugs may be used more often among lesbians than heterosexual women. There may be added stressors in lesbian lives from homophobic discrimination, and lesbians need support from each other and from health care providers to find healthy releases, quality recreation, stress reduction, and coping techniques.

6. Tobacco

Research also indicates that tobacco and smoking products may be used more often by lesbians than by heterosexual women. Whether smoking is used as a tension reducer or for social interactions, addiction often follows and is associated with higher rates of cancers, heart disease, and emphysema - the three major causes of death among all women.

7. Alcohol

Alcohol use and abuse may be higher among lesbians. While research has found that 1 drink a day may be good for the heart and not increase cancer or osteoporosis risks, heavier drinking can put you at risk for being injured or being a victim of crime.

8. Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is reported to occur in about 11 percent of lesbian homes, about half the rate of 20 percent reported by heterosexual women. But the question is where do lesbians go when they are battered? Shelters need to welcome and include battered lesbians, and offer counseling to the offending partners.

9. Osteoporosis

The rates and risks of osteoporosis among lesbians have not been well characterized yet. Getting enough calcium, not being underweight and doing weight-bearing exercise as well as the avoidance of tobacco and alcohol are the mainstays of prevention. Getting bone density tests every few years to see if medication is needed to prevent fracture is also important. Click here more more information on bone health.

10. Heart Health

Smoking and obesity are the most prevalent risk factors for heart disease among lesbians; but all lesbians need to also get an annual clinical exam because this is when blood pressure is checked, cholesterol is measured, diabetes is diagnosed, and exercise is discussed. Preventing heart disease, which kills 45% of women, should be paramount to every clinical visit.

Adapted from Katherine A. O'Hanlan, MD
Former President, GLMA and Co-Founder, Lesbian Health Fund

On-Campus Resources

Brown LGBTQ Center 401.863-6062         
The LGBTQ Center is a safe space for all students, staff, and faculty dealing with questions of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Center offers confidential support, information, and referrals for LGBTQ individuals and the people in their lives. Additionally, it offers fellowship advising and assistance with academic projects, as well as educational workshops.

BWell Health Promotion 401.863-2794
Health Promotion is available for individual appointments and group education on a variety of health issues, including LGBT health, alcohol, other drugs, nutrition and safer sex. We have condoms, lube, and dental dams available at rock-bottom prices. Come visit us, we are located on the 3rd floor of Health Services.

Health Services 401.863-3593 
Health Services provides a range of services including general health care, STI testing, inpatient services and emergency medical care. You can request a medical provider by gender or you can request a specific provider by name. We are located at 13 Brown Street on the corner of Brown and Charlesfield Streets. Call 401.863-3953 to make an appointment.

Counseling and Psychological Services 401.863-3476
Counseling and Psychological Services provides individual appointments, referrals, and crisis counseling.

Chaplain's Office 401.863-2344 
The Chaplains are available for personal counseling about religious and social issues, parental and peer difficulties, career choices, interpersonal relationships and sexuality. A number of programs are offered during the year that include ecumenical discussion groups, innovative worship experience, ecumenical services, and dramatic and artistic events.

Queer Alliance
The Queer Alliance serves as an umbrella organization for a number of groups on campus. Its mission is to be a multifaceted service to the LGBT community by offering resources through subgroups, community discussions, and events. The LGBTQ Resource Center (Faunce House, Room 321) has a wide array of queer-related books, movies, literature and resources. You can e-mail for more information.

Off-Campus Resources

Options (Gay and Lesbian Newspaper) 401.781-1193 
Rhode Island's gay and lesbian newspaper provides local news, health information, arts information and lists local resources and support groups. You can request free copies online or view recent issues online.

RI Pride 401.467-2130             
RI Pride promotes and celebrates the diversity and successes of the LGBT community. The web site includes a calendar of events and volunteer opportunities.

Youth Pride, Inc. 401.421-5626 
Youth Pride, Inc. has a drop-in center, support group and outreach activities for LGBT youth ages 13-23.

Related Links

CDC Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Heatlth Pages
A variety of information on important health issues, including safer sex and STI information.

Gay and Lesbian Medical Association  
This site provides LGBTQ-friendly health care referrals, medical information, publications, news and links.

PFLAG Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays 
National group helping parents understand their children's sexuality and advocating for LGBT civil rights.

Advocates for Youth 
Advocates for Youth has developed programs to help decrease the isolation felt by many LGBTQ youth. It offers a variety of research based approaches, designed to decrease health disparities in LGBTQ communities, which can be used by both LGBTQ community members and allies.

The GLBT Health Access Project 
The GLBT Health Access Project works with GLBT populations, and those who serve them, to respond to needs in a timely and targeted manner. They provide training, technical assistance and materials to help service providers learn more about the health care needs of GLBT populations and create welcoming environments for staff and clients.

Fenway Community Health  
Fenway Community Health is a Boston based clinic that serves LGBTQ patients. Their webpage offers a variety of health information needs, as well as research and resources outside of FCH. 
Go Ask Alice  
This is an LGBTQ-friendly question-and-answer web site where you can anonymously email any health questions you have. This site has a huge archive that you can read through or search before posing your own question. Alice has answered a range of questions from "Is shoe size a predictor of penis length?" to "Does masturbation inhibit my growth?" Check out this in-depth web site for information about relationships, sexuality, emotional health, alcohol and other drugs, and nutrition. This site is provided by Columbia University's Health Education Program.

CDC Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Heatlth Pages
A variety of information on important health issues, including safer sex and STI information

The National Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health 
The National Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health is committed to improving the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and communities through public education, coalition building and advocacy that focuses on research, policy, education and training.


  • 401.863-2794
    Health Promotion
  • 401.863-3953
    Health Services
  • 401.863-6000
    Sexual Assault Response Line
  • 401.863-4111
  • 401.863-3476
    Counseling & Psychological Services
  • 401.863-4111