How racism is a sex ed issue
By Leslie Massicotte, Teens Climb High Program Assistant
It’s a tough time for a lot of people right now. In the middle of the covid pandemic--not having school, not seeing our friends, not knowing when we’ll be able to stop wearing our masks--there’s another pandemic that’s been going on for a lot longer: the unjust killings of black folks in our country.
We’ve seen youth come out in numbers both locally in North Carolina and nationally to join protests against the killings of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Tony Mcdad, and the many others whose lives were unjustly taken by police violence.
Elijah King, a Durham youth organizer and graduating high school senior, shared at the June 4th Durham protest: “It haunts my mind to go to sleep and have to dream about what if I go out and I’m the next person? What if I go out and my mother says ‘well where are you going?’ and I say ‘my friend’s house’ and I don’t make it back?”
Aissa Dearing, a Durham youth activist and graduating high school senior, said at a protest in Durham on June 4: “We have a lot of work ahead of us in order to dismantle a society that is so intrinsically linked to slavery. And that work starts at home.”
Aissa Dearing, at a June 4 protest in Durham. Source:
Niya Farrington, a local youth organizer, spoke at a protest in Chapel Hill on June 6: “We are here to demand change and our voices need to be heard.”
We love that your voices are being shared, and we are listening!
At Teens Climb High, we realize that we teach sex ed to students who experience racism as part of their everyday lives.
we also realize that Sex ed has racist roots too.
For example, several birth control options have a troubling racial history (1).
Did you know that black girls in middle school were used without their parents’ consent to test if the Norplant implant (a rod implanted into the user’s arm to prevent pregnancy) was effective on younger girls? It had never before been used on girls so young, and black girls served as guinea pigs to prove its success at preventing pregnancy for up to five years.
Additionally, Depo Provera, the birth control injection, was tested almost exclusively on black women of color before it was shown to be safe.
Or, did you know that a lot of what we know about syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection, is due to the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, in which black people with syphilis were denied treatment so that doctors could study how the disease progressed?
Or when we talk about the importance of practicing abstinence or safe sex to prevent HIV, we don’t often talk about how HIV disproportionately affects black folks and folks of color. In fact, 49% of Americans with HIV are African American and 86% of children with AIDS are African American or Hispanic.
These realities affect our students in the classroom, and at Teens Climb High, we strive to create a classroom space in which this diversity is recognized and honored.
How do we do this?
As our students know, we take great care to create group agreements with each class before we begin the actual lessons. We discuss, what does it mean to respect diversity? What does it mean to deal with our discomfort? How can we use “I statements” instead of laying blame on others? What does it look like to really listen to someone else?
If y’all have been following the debates on social media like I have, you’ll see that adults need to work on these things, too.
But as many of our local youth leaders have been calling for, it’s so important to engage with these issues of privilege, oppression, deep listening, and diversity and to examine what we know and are learning for racial bias. Your sex ed classes are not immune to racial oppression, so at Teens Climb High, we encourage everyone (including ourselves!) to:
1) know our histories,
2) check ourselves and our assumptions, especially if we have privilege, and
3) practice empathetic listening.
1 These facts were gathered from the book called Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington. It’s a great but harrowing book--I’d encourage you to check it out!