Is the website trying to sell you a product?
Sometimes, we get our sexual and/or reproductive health info from our health care providers. Other times, it’s easier, more convenient or more realistic to whip out our smart phones and Google that weird rash, how to use the Fertility Awareness Method to plan a pregnancy, what a pap test entails, or where to go when you’re pregnant and want to access options counselling.
We need information to be able to make decisions about our lives, our health and our wellbeing. With that in mind, it’s important to be able to evaluate the quality, reliability, and potential bias of the information that we find on the internet. It might take a while to find exactly what you’re looking for but here is a list of things to keep in mind and help you in your search for trustworthy online information about sexual and reproductive health.
Is this fact or opinion?
Opinions! Everyone has a case of them. They are not inherently bad, some of them can definitely help inform us. There are awesome blogs, think pieces or articles out there that can help us rethink an issue, educate us on some important topics (including those touching on sexuality), make us feel understood, let us in on the experiences of others, etc. There are also a lot of sites that try to pass off their opinions as reliable health information. If it feels like the information on a website is mainly someone’s opinion, as opposed to scientifically researched and evidence-based information, check to see if the site lists reliable sources or facts as the basis for their commentary and if not, take it for what it is: someone’s personal opinion / soap box.
Turn up your radar to see if what you are reading boils down to someone, or an organization (sometimes with very official sounding names), trying to impose a certain value or meaning to choices and behaviors, or sweeping conclusions based on anecdotes or their own set of values rather than scientific evidence. Look out for fear-based messaging that tells you how you should feel about something, what your level of comfort should be, or what the right thing to do is, regardless of who you are or your circumstances. It can be hard to detect but the more we use our radar, the more clearly we see through the myths, or the preaching.
Pay attention to language used
The language used is usually a good clue to know if you’ve surfed your way to a reliable source on sexual or reproductive health or to a site that has stakes in defining what is “normal” or what is “good/bad”, in having you act a certain way or make a specific choice based on the values they (the website, the people hosting it, etc.) promote.
Look out for broad, judgmental statements like: “everyone regrets their abortion” “risky homosexual lifestyle” “sex outside of marriage mixes infatuation and lasting love” “infected individuals with or without gross lesions (…)” – none of which are true and unbiased ( and all are real examples taken from the dark side of the internet).
Health information should be presented in a way that is sensitive, accepting, respectful and inclusive. The goal of a website that focuses on health, including sexual and reproductive health, should be to provide you with clear verifiable information and, when appropriate, with a range of unbiased options so that you can make informed decisions that are right for you.
Look for science-based information that acknowledges choices and different levels of comfort, like (taken from our page on STIs: Assessing risk: “Check out the chart below so you can educate yourself about the risks associated with various sexual activities to make informed choices about what kind of sex you want to have, and how to protect yourself and your sexual partner(s).”
Check their sources
Make sure the website clearly indicates where they are getting their facts from. The content should be based on research and scientific findings, not *just* opinions or values (see point above). If a website is presenting content as facts, check whether it is backed up by reliable sources.
And the links!
If a website does link to papers or research articles that are meant to back up the information on the website, check who authored the content and if the material has been peer reviewed (a group of other health researchers or experts have evaluated and critiqued the material prior to publication).
Check for dates
Information on health should be recent and up to date because research in the medical field is ongoing and information can change quickly. Check to see when posts are dated, if the website has a copyright date at the bottom of the page, or for any other clues about when the content was created, for example, if there is any cited materials with dates on them.
Does it give some context to the health info?
The content should make reference to factors that contribute to or affect health, such as income, race, gender, etc. and not place blame for poor health on the people themselves.
Who’s in charge here?
Is it clear who is responsible for the website content? If yes, even better if the site links to an organization or person you can look up and trust!
You’ve got mail!
Bonus points if you have the option of contacting the person or organization who is providing content for the website. Even better if an e-mail or mailing address is accessible or if it provides a way for users to give feedback and ask questions!
Who’s in their squad?
It’s a pretty good sign if the web site is referred to by other reputable organizations and experts or links to other credible sources with useful, accurate, and reliable information.
Check to see which other sites link to the website you are getting information from. Are government or academic sites linking to the site you’re on? That could be an indication that the site is a reliable source information.
In Canada, provincial, territorial and federal government departments and agencies provide reliable evidence-based health information on their web sites.
Non-profit organizations with a health mandate (such as medical organizations, public health units, and health charities) can be good sources of quality information. Check to ensure that the information has been scientifically researched and based on evidence.
Better go to the doc!
Does the website acknowledge the limitations of the Information it’s presenting? If the website presents health information, check for a disclaimer. A good website should include something to the effect that the information is not intended as a replacement for medical advice, legal advice, or as a replacement for consulting a doctor.
Informing you or selling you stuff?
Can you see who sponsors or funds the website? Some websites provide evidence-based information, others are meant to sell you a particular service or product while at the same time appearing to provide unbiased health information. Here is a list of questions to help you determine whether the website you are consulting has your best interest in mind, and not your pocket-book at heart:
Is the purpose of the website clearly stated? (i.e. to provide information, to sell a product, etc.)
Does the information appear balanced to you? If the information favours a product that is being sold on the website, it is probably biased and not a reliable source of health information.
Does the website disclose any financial connections between who is writing the content and who is providing the funding to run the site?
Does the website require you to provide personal information, like your name or e-mail address, to access the information on the site? Use caution if they do, some websites may be looking to sell your information to third parties.
To get you started
Of course, you might not be able to tick all the boxes for every website but keeping these questions in mind might help you decide if they pass the test or not, and how seriously you can take the information you find.
For now, here’s a list of credible and reliable resources we’ve found with quality information. Happy surfing!
More info on assessing a sex-positive health care provider
More info on evaluating online health information
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