A Public Health Researcher Explains 5 Things Getting In The Way Of Black Women's Sex Lives
Like many other aspects of our society, sexuality education in the United States often reflects majority populations—i.e., white experiences.
While there's been some research dedicated to understanding the sexual lives of Black women, much of it focuses on identifying what types of sexual behaviors they're engaging in, messages of risk and prevention, and health disparities between Black women and white women. This approach to understanding Black women's sex lives can have negative consequences such as stereotypes, stigma, and bias from doctors. Not to mention, this approach leaves out all of the aspects of their sexual lives that are exciting, fun, and pleasurable.
According to my professional work as a sexual health researcher and my personal experiences as a Black woman myself, here are five things that get in the way of Black women's sex lives being authentic, shame-free, and enjoyable—and how Black women can overcome them:
Stereotypes and myths about Black sexuality.
The sexual lives of Black women have historically been misrepresented by stereotypes and myths. A few historical images that Black women have been labeled as include the mammy, jezebel, welfare mother, and angry Black woman. In general, Black women have also often been portrayed as being sexually experienced and/or engaging in sexual risk-taking behaviors rather than as being sexually responsible and having sexual autonomy. Many of these stereotypes and myths persist in mainstream media, affecting how people view Black women and their sex lives.
Stereotypes and myths are harmful to Black women because they affect how they view themselves and how they believe they are viewed by others. Stereotypes and myths might also play a role in dating, relationships, and sexual behaviors. For example, the idea or belief that Black women are "promiscuous" may cause a woman to feel ashamed of her true sexual identity and behaviors. A woman may feel embarrassed to have sexual conversations for fear of being judged. She may even feel obligated to have a certain kind of sexual life (perhaps due to respectability politics—messages received about how Black women are to act, speak, dress, etc.).
Health disparities in sexual health care.
Education, income level, and insurance status can all affect a person's access to health care and its quality, and these same factors also affect racial differences seen in sexual health care. Black women can often feel that they are not listened to or treated fairly by doctors or the health care system, or they've had negative experiences receiving sexual health care specifically.
As the fight for social justice has gained more attention due to the many Black lives that have been subjected to police brutality, it is important that the fight for sexual and reproductive justice remains a part of the conversation to end racism, discrimination, and stigma in health care settings. Health equity is a social justice issue, and until the distribution of wealth, education, housing, and various other privileges are addressed, Black women will continue to bear a higher burden of disease, illness, and even death.
A lack of culturally sensitive sex education.
America lacks comprehensive sexuality education in general, but this is especially true when it comes to culturally sensitive sex education. Information that includes the historical and present-day views of Black sexuality is important for youth and young adults to understand the context behind the images they see in the media. Sexuality education should promote exploration and knowledge related to sexuality rather than reinforce or support stereotypical messages about minority groups.
In addition, there is a shortage of trained sexuality educators in cultural sensitivity and, therefore, many missed opportunities for Black girls to receive sexuality education that is unbiased. Black women need sexuality educators who are able to understand the social and cultural factors that affect Black women's sexual lives and even have experiences similar to Black women. Diversity in sex education matters.
A focus on prevention instead of pleasure.
Sexuality research and sex education materials reflecting Black women tend to highlight adverse sexual and reproductive outcomes, such as the rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Meanwhile, the average sex ed class for Black teens seldom mentions more positive research such as data from the 2018 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, a huge survey that revealed tons of really hopeful insights about Black women's sex lives. The survey revealed that Black women engage in a variety of sexual behaviors, most find their recent experiences to be pleasurable, and most experienced an orgasm.
The fact that most mainstream conversations about Black sexuality have to do with talking about risks and negative sexual outcomes means we are lacking conversations about Black pleasure. Without open conversations about pleasure, women learn to feel ashamed or embarrassed to discuss their sexual desires with their partners. But sexual communication is important for sexual development and self-esteem. In fact, the ability to communicate about sex and pleasure can strengthen sexual relationships and improve sexual satisfaction overall.
Mistrust of medical providers.
Sexual communication is not only vital to sexual relationships; it is essential for doctor-patient relationships. Meeting with health care professionals for preventive care and to discuss sexual health concerns leads to a better sex life. Unfortunately, much of Black history in America stems from elements of slavery that has affected several generations. Medical experimentation on Black bodies is not just a thing of the past, and that history comes with understandable mistrust of information and treatment from medical providers. Throughout history, Black women have endured medical mistreatment and tend to feel as if they are unseen and unheard.
More than ever, Black women need access to quality sexual health care and, more importantly, a trusted medical provider. They deserve to feel like their sexual health care experiences are provided in a confidential, respectful, and nonjudgmental manner.
How Black women can take control of their sexual lives.
For many Black women, this is not new information. These issues and challenges have been persistent for quite some time. But what can you do about them?
First, become your own advocate. This means learning what resources are available in your area, finding out what preventive screenings and services are recommended before your appointments, and being prepared to ask questions when interacting with medical providers.
Second, find the things that work for you. This can include finding a doctor that understands your experiences as a Black woman (yes, it is OK to shop around for a doctor), finding Black sexuality educators to learn from online, and working to unlearn messages that have been harmful to your sexual development.
Lastly, work toward sexual agency. This means you have the ability to produce the results you want for your sexual life. The key to having a healthy and positive view of your sexual life starts with you.
Ashley Townes, Ph.D., MPH, is an epidemiologist and sexual health researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has a master's degree in Public Health from the University of Cincinnati and a Ph.D. in Health Behavior and Epidemiology from Indiana University.
Townes has served in local, state, and federal public health entities including the Hamilton County Public Health Department as a Disease Intervention Specialist and the Ohio Department of Health as an Epidemiologist. She has also taught collegiate-level Human Sexuality courses and currently works as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia. Her research focuses on understanding black women's sexuality, addressing racism, discrimination, and health inequities in healthcare settings, and improving sexuality education for people of color, primarily the Black community.