“Let’s talk about sex for now to the people
at home or in the crowd
It keeps coming up anyhow
Don’t decoy, avoid, or make void the topic
Cuz that ain’t gonna stop it” — Salt ‘N’ Pepa
Dr. Walter Kimbrough knew that there was nothing normal about the spate of recent statistics erupting in the headlines about Blacks and the consequences of their sexual activity. In fact, he said, the numbers were “mind boggling,” especially knowing that African-Americans are the most religious group in the U.S., according to a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
In disbelief, Kimbrough, president of the historically Black Philander Smith College, called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when he learned that African-Americans account for nearly half of all new cases of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Although only 12 percent of the population, Blacks surpass Whites in the number of abortions they have. About 72 percent of Black children are born out of wedlock. And young African-Americans are more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases, especially chlamydia and syphilis, compared to their White or Hispanic counterparts.
Faced with these numbers, Kimbrough also wrestled with what he says is “clearly a disconnect between Black religious belief and behavior,” among college students as well as in the broader community. He responded by launching Sex Week on February 7, which was also National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
“We had to do something,” he says.
Sex Week, Philander Smith’s first-ever campuswide sexual education forum, brought students together with medical, religious, health and relationship experts for frank dialogue on a wide range of issues, including STDs, AIDS, Christian dating, sexual harassment and domestic abuse.
Kimbrough says he borrowed the name “Sex Week” from Yale University, credited for launching a student-run event in 2002 as a way to promote sexual discussion on the Ivy League campus. But unlike at Yale, which focused more on “fun and talks about sex toys” says Kimbrough, “I’m talking about life and death situations; STDs, AIDS … this is a week of heightened awareness that was planned by students and experts.”
Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s controversial 1991 hip-hop tune, “Let’s Talk about Sex,” was also playing in Kimbrough’s ear. Twenty years later that frank conversation about sex still needs to happen, he says.
“As a church-related institution we have all this information and know where there are problems but we haven’t done anything about it. That’s problematic too,” he says. And at a time when churches need to be pressed into action to address these statistics, “there’s a lot of foolishness going on in the churches around sex.” As a result, many women in the church are facing issues of “domestic abuse and sexual harassment,” but their needs are going unmet by the church, says Kimbrough, a preacher’s son.
Back on campus, Kimbrough knows that the alarming statistics that spurred him to create Sex Week are hitting close to home.
“I guess I am impacted more because any statistics about pregnancies, STDs, or abortions have names and faces that I know,” he says. With a student body of less 700, Kimbrough makes it his business to know those who attend his United Methodist Church-affiliated school. Nothing is off limits for him, including his students’ sexual health.
He keeps track of those students who present at the campus health clinic with symptoms of STDs, says Christal Waller, the campuss nurse and director of health services.
“Today they’ll know if they’re HIV positive …” says Waller of the real-time testing service that was offered to students on the opening day of Sex Week. Onsite testing also was available for herpes and other STDs.
Kimbrough also receives and responds to calls from desperate young single moms in need of an ear or gas money to get to campus. And he says he knows those who have had abortions. Through one such conversation, Kimbrough learned from a student that she had two abortions in one summer.
“They are people to me, they aren’t statistics,” he says.
Philip A. Hilton, of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, says his organization began partnering in 2009 with Bennett College and a handful of other Black institutions to promote HIV prevention and train campus leaders. “While the institutions that we partner with have not held an event called Sex Week, we see a need for one that is age-appropriate, and science and health-based,” he says. “We’ve got a problem on our hands. By the time kids get to college, it’s too late.”
Seemingly leading the pack at this small Southern campus, Philander Smith officials knew they were taking on a big issue that many in the often conservative Black higher education community won’t touch. Kimbrough says he doesn’t care if Sex Week sparks criticism or controversy.
Writing in his blog before the start of Sex Week, Kimbrough said: “for me, the controversy is allowing these dreadful statistics to continue to spiral out of control and not attempt to change behavior. Hopefully, the conversations this week will help begin to align beliefs with behavior.”
It helped to have Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the former Surgeon General known for her straight talk about sex education, on Kimbrough’s side and on the Philander Smith board. Elders, also a Philander Smith graduate, spent the first day of Sex Week at a health fair passing out male and female condoms and chatting with students about the “HER Principle”— which promotes honesty, education and responsibility in sexual activity and sexual health.
Elders, who says she recognized that Ivy League schools “have had sex weeks forever,” applauded Philander Smith for taking the lead among the nation’s Black colleges in talking openly about some of the sexual health consequences that disproportionately impact young Black people.