Sex Education in School and at Home Needs an Anti-Racist Focus

Teacher Explaining Female Reproductive System

Parents in America are faced with rethinking what traditional education and a normal school day looks like right now. Meanwhile, adolescents are in a pivotal time for sexual exploration and sexual identity formation, which can be influenced by many external environmental factors—friends, culture, religion, family, and friends. Whether parents decide to homeschool or take part in any of the other ever-changing school options, those influences are still there, and anti-racist sex education is a must as part of the curriculum. 

First, it’s important for parents to understand that the term sexuality is all-encompassing and includes not just physical intimacy but body image, sexual fantasies, vulnerability, emotional risk-taking, gender identity, gender roles, sexual orientation, and sexualization. In schools across America, the circles of sexuality, a model designed by a cisgender white man, is commonly used to inform sexual health education.  Unfortunately, sexuality is not a topic that’s free from the effects of racism and other issues. This is evidenced in many different ways: over-sexualization and stereotyping of Black women in the media, lack of access to basic reproductive health for Indigenous women, reinforcing traditional gender roles, and misguided stigmas around sex education and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Sexual health education is long overdue for a restructuring, and as we look at how the education system overall needs changing, now is a good time. “Sex education was initially created under the guise of preventing venereal diseases and socially undesirable pregnancies,” says Tracie Gilbert, Ph.D., researcher and independent sexuality educator. “Certain groups—immigrants, disabled people, poor whites, and African Americans, most notably—were problematized for deviating from the middle-class, heterosexual, monogamous, phallocentric sexual experience.”

On July 20, 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics published guidelines in the Journal of Pediatrics that emphasizes the necessity of "comprehensive barrier method counseling and education for all youth, regardless of stated sexual orientation, behaviors, gender, or intellectual and/or physical differences." Race and ethnicity, sexual identity, and gender are important to the lens of sexual health education. It is important for teens to think about the way race, gender, and sexual identity intersect as part of sexual health education. Studies have shown that Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and Pacific Islander populations have a high prevalence of STIs, such as chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea. These statistics are higher in areas where access to reproductive and sexual health is low. 

An increased proportion of Black and Hispanic teenage girls do not use any form of contraceptive method and over the last five years, condom use declined in Black and Hispanic high school students. According to the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, younger Black and Hispanic women were less likely to use effective hormonal and intrauterine forms of contraceptive, and younger Black women were higher risk of pregnancy as a result of being less likely to use any form of contraception. What’s behind these statistics is just as important for teens to be aware of.

Talking About the Role of Racism

It is no surprise that the medical system is known to systematically oppress women of color, especially Black women. Clinicians are more likely to pressure Black women into using contraception, resulting in a general sense of mistrust and frustration. A frustration that is warranted when considering the traumatic history of reproductive coercion faced by Hispanic, Indigenous, and Black women. 

Studies have also shown that girls of color are more likely to get pregnant. This is amplified in Hispanic and Black teenagers. 

As a result of contraception misinformation and culturally biased myths in the health care system, teens of color aren’t getting the health care they deserve. When Black and Hispanic youth try to access care, they are more likely to receive inadequate care in comparison to their white counterparts. It’s no wonder they can be reluctant to seek sexual and reproductive health care, which ultimately results in higher rates of teenage pregnancies among Black and Latina teenagers.

Dr. Gilbert says the sexual health stigma in communities of color comes from “white supremacist and anti-Black ideologies that have often forced Black people into the position of needing to defend themselves from being misperceived, harshly treated, and stigmatized because of their sexual expression.” The current goal of sex education in schools is much too focused on preventing these groups from indulging in this perceived risk-taking behaviors.

Confronting Sexual Stereotypes

Stereotypes, tropes, and general ideologies around race have a profound impact on health care treatment. In the case of Black women specifically, researchers have studied how simply existing at the intersection of being a woman, pregnant, and Black contributes to adverse sexual health outcomes. Racial stereotypes, such as the jezebel lead to implicit biases amongst clinicians where they view their young Black teenage patients as being inherently promiscuous, hyper-sexualized, or sexually available. 

Similar studies have also shown that people are more likely to perceive Black women as having had more sexual partners than their white counterparts, less likely to use any form of birth control, and less likely to follow instructions provided by their doctor. Teens need to understand how these stereotypes work to increase racial disparities in sexual health and are a threat to access and use of contraception and sexual health care among their peers. These stereotypes don’t just affect the way BIPOC receive health care, but they play a role in designing public assistance programs, federal laws, policies, and school systems. 

Parents Can Play A Role in Education

Abstinence-only education harms Black teens and other teens of color. While much of the onus is on the system to counteract these racial prejudices and implicit biases, parents can also play an important role in ensuring their children get the health care they need during the most important phase of their life. Dr. Gilbert emphasizes the need to divest and move away from sex-negative, objectifying, and binary-focused education about sexuality. It’s critical to move away from prevention of risk as the main concern and to move toward teaching young people that their sex lives should actively affirm who they are as a person. 

At home, the organization Sex Ed for Social Change recommends parents create a safe space for conversations around sex. Avoid trendy words and euphemisms and have more conversations around sexual health more often, and if possible, earlier on in your children’s lives. Understand that sexual health is also teaching your children about healthy relationships, consent, and refusal skills. Foster a sex-positive approach at home. This includes creating shame-free, judgment-free space where your child can explore their sexuality. Before all of these, unlearn and challenge your own biases around contraceptive use and sex in young people.

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