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How sex ed can (and should) advance racial justice

By Gabrielle Doyle and Madeline Doe

Now, more than ever, advocates for sex education need to keep racial justice and equity at the forefront of our minds, our missions, and our work. Especially during Black History Month, it’s essential to recognize the ways in which our systems, including education, continue to fail Black young people.

While February is the traditional month for raising Black history into focus, we must uplift it consistently and remain persistent in calling out the anti-blackness policies and activities that very much still exist today. No matter the date, it’s our responsibility as advocates and educators to continue to advance sex education that meets the needs of Black young people. Part of this is prioritizing culturally responsive and trauma-informed instruction. 

White supremacy touches every aspect of our history, culture, and institutions. Persistent racialized and sexualized stereotypes of Black people are baked into our federal laws and policies, from public assistance program requirements, to our criminal justice system, to the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline. To dismantle these systems of oppression, we must all look critically at our classrooms, educational curricula, school policies, and disciplinary practices to fight back against bigotry or discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or national origin. 

Despite it being 65 years since the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, segregation in schools continues. And it is only getting worse. Predominantly nonwhite school districts receive $23 million less than white districts serving the same number of students. We know that when funding falls short, schools lack resources to provide comprehensive sex education. 

Socioeconomic, educational, criminal justice, and health disparities, coupled with historical traumas, create unique sexual health needs for Black young people. Providing sex education curricula that reflect their experiences is key. According to research published in the Washington University Law Review, Black students nationwide are far more likely than white students to receive abstinence-only instruction. On average, Black young people start being sexually active earlier when compared to white youth. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that we prioritize efforts to ensure Black students receive culturally proficient, age-appropriate sex education early on. We need to affirm the right to bodily autonomy and make sure Black youth have access to the information and services needed to ensure their health and well-being.

Further, sex education is critical for creating safer school environments, by reducing bullying and increasing acceptance of students who identify as LGBTQ. Black queer and transgender youth, in particular, are often subject to intense discrimination. Nearly every trans or queer student has experienced verbal, physical, or sexual harassment in school. However, one-third of students who reported issues say their schools did nothing in response. According to the Center for American Progress, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies in schools disproportionately persecute queer and trans Black students for minor actions. Black girls and gender non-conforming girls are more likely to be punished for acting in self-defense because they are wrongfully perceived as “aggressors.” These disciplinary issues are often escalated to the juvenile justice system where racial disparities are well documented. Shockingly, research also shows that queer and trans Black youth are more likely to be labeled sex offenders for no reason beside the fact their existence deviates from cis-and-heteronormativity. 

Even in spaces where progressive sex education standards are being developed, Black educators are being shut out. Bianca Laureano, a sex educator and one of the foundresses of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, talked to Cosmo about the importance of centering practitioners of color. Some in the Black community mistrust medical institutions. Given the trauma of historical medical abuse like forced sterilization, these fears are well-founded. That hesitation can lead to gravely serious harm, like the rising mortality rate from cervical cancer caused by HPV, for Black women. Laureano contends that Black educators are uniquely suited to bridge the gap between health care providers and those who are reluctant to trust them. And that’s because they understand these feelings of apprehension in a way that white educators cannot.

Angela Davis said that “in a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” To actively incorporate anti-racism in sex education, we must recognize the way that white supremacy has shaped the curriculum we use. We must also take a critical look at how we discuss teen pregnancy and adverse health outcomes. 

Actively working to address the unique needs of Black young people and incorporating discussions of race are two of many ways educators and advocates can facilitate inclusive environments.

When discussing ways in which we must work to abolish racism in our communities, we cannot forget to advocate for the young Black students in our schools and evaluate the instruction they receive. The fight for racial justice must be everyone’s fight. When considering your role in dismantling white supremacy, think about the opportunities you have to center Black youth and advance racial justice in your workplace and community. White people and non-Black people of color can, and must, work harder to incorporate this mission into their everyday lives.