For parents, talking to children about sex is a universal struggle. But the failure to fulfill this responsibility is having particularly devastating consequences for black Americans, who experience teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases at much higher rates than whites. The rate of new HIV infections is eight times higher for African Americans, the teen birth rate is two times higher and sexual assault occurs at a higher rate as well.
There are various social reasons for these disparities. But for black men in particular, masculinity too often gets in the way of discussions about sex. Our culture of hypermasculinity hits black men hard, prizing dominance, sexual prowess and aggression — qualities that impede honest communication and healthy intimate relationships. If we are going to eliminate the racial disparities in sexual health, black men must learn more effective ways to talk to their children and partners.
October is “Let’s Talk” month, during which sex education providers and advocates across the country encourage parents to communicate with their children about sex, sexuality and relationships. We know that if we want young people to have a healthy and responsible approach to sex, structured conversations work. In particular, school-based sex education programs that include parental involvement can delay sex. Analysis of one such program — “Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education That Works,” developed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts — showed that this approach was particularly effective for boys. In middle schools that taught the program, 16 percent fewer boys had sex by the end of eighth grade compared to peers in schools where it wasn’t taught. Boys who completed family activities during the first year of the program also delayed sex.
“Get Real” offers good news to an otherwise mixed field — many school programs that include parents have not shown similar success. That’s because parents often lack requisite information, conviction and methods to have effective conversations. Many parents need developmentally and culturally appropriate guides to have serious discussions on sex with their children. This is particularly important for African-American men, for whom masculine ideals can distort conversations about sex and relationships.
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Researchers use the term hypermasculinity to describe behaviors that exaggerate traditional masculine beliefs. The traditional man responsibly takes on the role of leader and breadwinner and competes aggressively while maintaining cold stoicism. The traditional man is impervious to pain, both physical and emotional. He naturally averts feminine interests, but instinctively knows how to please a woman. These notions of masculinity discourage the democratic communication needed to impart healthy ideas about sex. This helps explain the NFL’s problems with women, fraternities’ frequency of sexual abuse and our society’s rate of intimate-partner violence.
The disturbing concurrence of sex and violence exposes a major reason why many parent-involved sex education programs don’t work, particularly in black communities. Black women are victims of partner violence at a rate 35-percent higher than white women. Even single-parent homes — in which two-thirds of all African-American children are raised — perpetuate the problem, as men and boys without positive role models are more likely to be in abusive relationships. An unhealthy sexual relationship shouldn’t be overlooked as a part of domestic violence. Abusive men often attempt to control their partners’ reproductive health, coercing them into unprotected sex, hiding birth-control pills or forcing them to have a baby. Hypermasculinity confuses and conflates violence with sex.
But it’s almost too easy to blame machismo for unhealthy sexual relationships and communication. Saying we just need to rid ourselves of hypermasculine behaviors doesn’t go far enough. We have to uproot patriarchy from our deeply held Judeo-Christian values if we want to have the conversations needed to positively change sexual behaviors. The supposed ideals of breadwinner, provider and spiritual head of the family are not serving our loved ones or us well. We must show and teach our children that healthy sexual relationships requires equality, vulnerability and open communication in partnerships.
Certainly, black men aren’t alone in the struggle between hypermasculinity and healthy sexual partnerships. But in STD statistics and high-profile stories of abuse, we see that the consequences for our sons and daughters have been dire. Not talking about STDs reflects the expectation that we’re not supposed to express pain. Not denouncing domestic violence categorically is rooted in a false notion that men have a dominant role relationship. We’re not doing our children any favors with these attitudes. Black men must abandon the ideals of traditional masculinity if positive communication is ever going to occur. If we’re going to improve our relationships and sexual health outcomes, parents must see themselves as the first teachers of sexual health.
Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is the author of “The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.”
The Washington Post