In "Unscrewing Ourselves," our first annual Sex Month on Broadly, we explore the state of sex ed today by highlighting the individuals and ideas changing our sexual health for the better. Read more from this series here.
The need for health and reproductive justice for often-neglected communities of color is clear: Black women are 10.7 times more likely than white women to contract Gonorrhea from a sexual partner, according to 2014 CDC statistics. The rate of chlamydia among black women is 5.7 times more than the one among white women, and black women are 9.2 times more at risk for Syphilis than white women.
The reasons for this troubling disparity are complex and structural—not least being a lack of access to healthcare. But facing these barriers, communities of color are stepping up to empower women and girls with the tools to take charge of their sex lives, relationships, and health. Laesha Brown has made it her mission to do just that as the program coordinator for Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy, a sex education program started by the California-based organization Black Women for Wellness.
"The schools that youth of color are in, which are underfunded and just not a priority, don't have good sex education programs," she explained. "More affluent schools are going to have Planned Parenthood come all the time and talk about different things, but [low-income schools] don't even have health class."
As an antidote, Brown developed a comprehensive, LGBTQ-inclusive sexual health curriculum that encompasses everything from intimate partner violence and sexual harassment to STI prevention and creating a positive space for young women to talk about sex.
Teenagers enlisted as peer educators also help to construct the program. This model exemplifies the ethos of Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy: Young people should be in full control of their sexual health. "We really want our program to be youth-led. As we know, teens listen to their friends to get information," Brown explained. She trains peer educators to teach workshops at several high schools and middle schools in the Los Angeles area, along with other community organizations like foster care facilities, where kids are most vulnerable.
The program's current campaign focuses on sexual harassment. "One of the things that the girls have been saying since we started Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy is 'yeah, we love talking about STD prevention and HIV, but we really need to talk about how I'm not able to do my work because this guy sitting next to me is either saying inappropriate things or is touching me inappropriately,'" Brown said.
"If we don't have a conversations with the whole school and the whole population, then girls can know everything they need to know, but it's just not gonna work."
And on top of that unwanted attention, Brown explains, black girls who are the victims of sexual assault are often punished by their schools when they try to fight back. (Black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate 35 percent higher than white women and black girls are twice as likely than white girls to be suspended in schools.) So Brown's program attempts to address the problem on multiple fronts: by educating administrators about this racial disparity, educating men and boys about abusive behavior, and affirming girls that they have the right to protect themselves.
"If we don't have a conversations with the whole school and the whole population," Brown explained, "then girls can know everything they need to know, but it's just not gonna work."
Brown says the heart of the program is about changing societal attitudes toward black women and girls. Because black girls are hyper-sexualized by media and seen as adults when they are as young as five, they typically aren't afforded an adolescence to figure out their needs at their own pace. "One of the main things that we are trying to establish is self-empowerment and body love because that's really the base of the problem," Brown explained.
As part of the sex education curriculum for Get Smart B4 U Get Sexy, students are asked to make a reproductive life plan, in which they answer questions like: Where do you see yourself in a couple years? Do you want to have kids? If you don't want to have kids, what are you doing to prevent pregnancy?
"One of the main things that we are trying to establish is self-empowerment and body love because that's really the base of the problem."
Brown says that it's common for girls to start answering these questions with their boyfriends in mind, and that she has to remind them that the plan is about what they want for themselves.
"We're trying to establish to girls that they're their own person and they don't need to rely on someone else to feel worthy," Brown said. "[The program is effective because] it helps girls understand that they're powerful, that they have control over their own bodies, and that they don't have to sacrifice that just to be with another person. That's where we start the conversation."