How Sex Education Is Failing Black Youth

For Black teens, the pressure to have sex starts young. But, experts say comprehensive sex ed helps them make informed decisions. (Credit: MoMo Productions via Getty Images. Credit: Getty Images)

by Anissa Durham

For Jourden Barclay, a 20-year-old college student based in New York, the pressure to have sex was constant throughout high school. By the time she was 16 or 17, most of her friends were already having sex.  

“I was the only virgin, and people used to say that it was childish,” she says.  

It didn’t help that her high school health class only talked about sexual health for two days out of an entire semester. But Barclay says she simply ignored the pressure. Her grandmother regularly gave her information about sexual health, and she wasn’t afraid to ask her doctor. 

“I never really paid it any mind because it’s my time and my body,” she says. 

In a sex-obsessed society, we don’t talk about sexual health enough. What movies, social media, rap songs, and podcasts are often missing is the education component — the difference between having sex and knowing how to have safe sex. 

And with a lack of accurate information about sexual health — particularly in places without sex ed — where does that leave Black youth? 

recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed more than 20,000 teens between 2015-2019. The report found Black female teenagers were more likely to say their first time having sex was unwanted compared to white teenagers. Overall, younger age at first sex is associated with a greater likelihood that it was unwanted. 

“All of that data just highlights the importance of having these conversations,” Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, CEO of Power to Decide and OBGYN says. 

It can be difficult for parents, caregivers, and teachers to talk about sex. But it’s important to center the needs of young people so they aren’t misinformed, she says. And “so that they understand that they don’t have to have sex with someone if they don’t want to. It is OK to wait.” 

Dr. Raegan at Baltimore City Health Center. Courtesy of Raegan McDonald-Mosley.

In a survey of 2,000 parents of children ages 5 to 18, one in four admitted they would feel awkward having conversations about sex with their kids, and 21% don’t plan on having one. However, sex education goes beyond just the “birds and the bees” to involve teaching children the proper names of private parts, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections. 

For parents who are leaving sex education up to the schools, oftentimes, what’s taught isn’t comprehensive enough. 25 states and the District of Columbia mandate both sex education and HIV education, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Only 18 states require program content to be medically accurate.  

“When there isn’t a trusted source, like a parent or caregiver … that someone can rely on, they’re often relying on their friends who also don’t have a clue of what’s going on,” McDonald-Mosley says. “Or they’re getting a lot of misinformation from social media and the internet.” 

The Pressure to Have Sex Comes With Consequences 

Now, Barclay says the pressure is on girls as young as 14 to have sex. With entertainment, rap music, and glamorized relationships on social media, it can be easy for teens to feel like they are missing out. Research shows exposure to movies with sexual content influences youth sexual activity and increases sexual risk-taking behavior. 

“I don’t think teens take the proper precautions … and with the amount of partners people have, it’s really scary. You don’t know who you’re dealing with or what you might catch,” Barclay says. “Sex is not taken as seriously as it’s supposed to be.” 

With sexually transmitted infections on the rise, youth are especially at risk of infection. Recent data released by the CDC states that half of the reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were for youth aged 15-24, with 31.1% of all cases of these STIs reported by Black or African American people. And 20% of new HIV diagnoses in 2020 were among young people aged 13-24.

If sex education were enforced in schools, Barclay says, it would help teens be more aware of STIs. But even for teens who have access to sexual health information, the pressure from men to have sex can make it difficult for young women to say no. 

“Men have a tendency to brainwash people and gaslight them. They say they can’t get the pleasure they want with condoms so they gaslight you,” Barclay says. “I don’t think it’s just about the teaching part. It’s also being careless.” 

When Teens, Children Don’t Get Sex Ed 

Oftentimes, Black girls are hypersexualized and viewed as sex objects, previous reporting by Word In Black found. With adults, at times, calling Black girls fast, curvy, and promiscuous, this can create a distorted view of sex and of their bodies. 

Tamica Jean-Charles, 24, poses for portraits at the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, Virginia, on March 1, 2023. She was sexualized as a teenager by adult men. (Kori Price/Word In Black)

“Our society oftentimes values Black female bodies less. And that can translate into someone feeling like their self-worth is tied to their sexualization or their ability to pleasure someone,” McDonald-Mosely. “That is absolutely not the case. Your self-worth is wrapped up in being an amazing human and all of the things that you contribute to the world.” 

lack of comprehensive sex education, which includes topics on consent and forming healthy relationships, is linked to higher rates of sexual violence. This is especially critical when statistics show that 1 in 4 Black girls will be sexually abused before age 18. 

Currently, 29 states require abstinence to be stressed when sex education is taught. But research shows an emphasis on abstinence doesn’t reduce rates of teen pregnancy. This is especially concerning since birth rates are more than twice as high for Black and Hispanic teens compared with white teens as of 2021. In one study, federal funding for comprehensive sex education reduced county-level teen birth rates by more than 3%. 

In a 2022 survey of nearly 3,800 parents, 30% of Democratic-voting Black parents said schools should teach children that abstinence is the only safe and effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy. Black parents of mostly elementary-age children were more likely to say sex education should not be taught in schools. 

Source: Pew Research Center • Graphic by Anissa Durham Survey of nearly 3,800 adults with at least one child under the age of 18

“What makes me sad is that our young people are at the whims of their school’s resources and the political environment,” McDonald-Mosley says. “A young person shouldn’t have to win the parental lottery to have these life-changing conversations with parents and caregivers.” 

And When They Do 

Parents often feel like the stakes are high and if you say the wrong thing, the conversation could go left, McDonald-Mosely says. But she reminds parents and caregivers that you don’t have to say all the right things. It’s important to keep the messages clear and consistent. 

“Sex education starts at a really young age using the proper anatomical terminology,” Dr. Kameelah Phillips, Board-Certified OBGYN, said via email interview. “This normalizes the conversation early and as they grow up, the language can shift and encompass more topics, but initial sex education should not start in the teenage years, it needs to begin earlier in some capacity.” 

Credit: Solskin via Getty Images. Credit: Getty Images

The good news is teens are using more contraception. Between 2015 and 2019, the CDC reports, about 77% of female teens used contraception the first time they had sex. For teen males, the use of any contraception at first sex increased by 10% from 2002 to 2019. 

“It is exciting to see that young women are open to various birth control options,” Phillips says. This shows that the public health message is working — young people recognize that getting pregnant as a teen and having a baby is not easy, she adds. 

But more still needs to be done. 

Both physicians said it’s important to continue to educate teens about reproductive health options. Another aspect of sexual health education is helping young people understand how their bodies work and to be comfortable in their bodies. The question on McDonald-Mosley’s mind: how do we democratize access to information about sexual and reproductive health?  

“Teens can absolutely have safe sex,” she says. “Young people are pretty amazing and are much more open to having these conversations. They just need to know that they can have adults and champions to go to if they have questions.” 

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