Let’s Talk About Sex
ATTENTION RESEARCHERS! If you’re looking for a topic that is begging for more scholarly investigation, I’ve got a suggestion: Sex and the African American College Student.
This edition’s cover story (see pg. 18) explores how responsible colleges and universities are in providing sexual health support, treatment and information for their students. Some of you might be surprised that Black Issues has taken on such a sensitive issue. But those of you who understand our mission should know it is an issue we can’t afford to ignore.
I was initially attracted to this topic last summer, after attending an event featuring Dr. Drew Pinsky that drew about 200 White House interns. For those of you who neither watch MTV nor keep up with youth culture, Pinsky is the syndicated host of a popular radio and MTV show about sex, relationships and health. Pinsky and a couple of other experts had come to Washington to discuss a national study on the attitudes of college women about dating and mating. There were only a handful of Black students in the audience, and as the conversation ensued I wondered how many studies there were that focused on the sexual attitudes and behaviors of African American students. After researching this story, I can tell you that if there are a lot of scholars investigating the topic, I was unsuccessful at finding them.
What I did learn is that for all the sexually charged language, imagery and behavior that our young people are bombarded with on a daily basis, many come to campus virtually clueless about what makes for healthy sexual relationships.
One researcher interviewed for my article said he was surprised by how conservative the sexual attitudes were of a group of Black college students attending a historically Black college who participated in his study. But knowing that when it comes to sex there is often a lack of syllogism between the attitudes Black people espouse and the behaviors they exhibit, I was not surprised. For all our piety and prudishness, we have alarmingly high rates of STD infection, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexual assault. Clearly, the message of abstinence, which many elementary and high schools are preaching these days, is being ignored by many Black youth.
Today’s postsecondary institutions offer an impressive array of sexual health resources to their students. I shudder to think where we would be without them. Still, when it comes to serving the needs of high-risk populations — which, like it or not, includes Black folks — more can and needs to be done. Traditionally White institutions must be more vigilant in their efforts to become culturally competent so that students of color and others who are out of the mainstream have comparable levels of awareness and access to sexual health resources. Historically Black institutions must struggle to move beyond their conservative roots and meet students where they are instead of where they would like them to be. Researchers must seek opportunities to gather reliable data about the sexual lives of Black folks so that health practitioners and educators can develop more effective programs of education and intervention. And finally, government must recognize that without funding, none of these things will happen at a rate that keeps pace with higher education’s changing demographics.
Our nation’s puritan roots explain some of the dysfunction our society exhibits when it comes to sex. But higher education is in the position to help folks achieve a higher level of sexual awareness and well-being. If only we had the will to do more — for our students and ourselves.
Cheryl D. Fields
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