Stop Stereotyping Black Girls: Offer Inclusive Sex Education in Schools

A lack of sex education negatively affects all children—but it is particularly harmful for Black girls, who are three times more likely to experience sexual violence than their white counterparts.


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As of this fall, GOP leaders and lawmakers in over a dozen states, including Iowa, Arkansas, Indiana, Idaho, New Hampshire and Kentucky, have passed bans on teaching human sexuality or stymied federal grants aimed at addressing sexual behaviors and lowering rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Six states—Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa and South Carolina—have discontinued their agreement with the Center for Disease Control’s Division of Adolescent and School Health to a biennial youth survey. In Florida, materials about sexual and reproductive health, human sexuality and STIs for any grade must be approved by state officials.

While this negatively affects all children, it is particularly harmful for Black girls. Black adolescent girls in the United States experience poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes due to bullying and stereotyping. These health concerns persist throughout their lives—and a lack of sex education is a key factor.

Accurate and early sex education is essential to healthy sexual decision-making, and much of the responsibility has been left to school administrators to decide.

Compared to all other racial groups, Black girls have higher rates of unintended pregnanciesSTIs and HIV. They are less likely to use contraception or condoms and are almost three times more likely to experience sexual violence than white women.

As women, they are twice as likely to be diagnosed with fibroids, endometriosis and infertility. Compared to women of other racial and ethnic groups, Black women are disproportionately impacted by maternal morbidity and mortality.

Karina Cotlage and Isabella Rascon, both John Muir High School students in Pasadena, Calif., on Feb. 20, 2019. Of the 25 U.S. states with the highest populations of Black residents, only 11 mandate sex education and of those, only three require that the information presented is medically accurate. (Sarah Reingewirtz / MediaNews Group / Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

These outcomes are preventable, but prevention will require concentrated efforts by public and private schools to start sex education as early as elementary (K-12) school. Accurate and early sex education is essential to healthy sexual decision-making, and much of the responsibility has been left to school administrators to decide.

Sexual health education was introduced to schools in 1913 to ensure accessible and accurate information. Still, a recent study of 25 Black girls aged 9 to 18 indicated that 92 percent missed sex education in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, they were without essential knowledge about their bodies and sexual health.

Puberty is a particularly risky period of development for Black girls. The rapid physiological changes associated with puberty begin as young as eight years old, resulting in earlier menarche and the development of secondary sex characteristics that make Black girls appear older and more mature than their age. Puberty also brings the emergence of sexuality and complex sexual identities. But social determinants of health, like racism and sexism, impede healthy responses to the challenges posed by early puberty.

Systemic racism has forced Black children into social, emotional and physical adult roles before they are adults.

Racist tropes such as the Strong Black Woman and Jezebel stereotypes influence their health outcomes. Many Black adolescent girls who experience racial discrimination inhibit their emotional expression and maintain a facade of strength.

My recent research recognizes that the clash between Black girls and women’s ideals of strength and heightened vulnerability to STI/HIV presents a paradox that may help explain disparities in adverse health outcomes. The pressure to be strong and/or sexual may cause undue psychological distress and silence Black girls from reporting sexual abuse or adverse sexual experiences.

The Jezebel stereotype, where Black girls and women are portrayed as sexually promiscuous and rightly deserving of unwanted sexual attention, has influenced the perception that Black girls and women are incapable of being victims of rape or sexual assault, as they are seen as inviting these crimes.

Black girls suffer adultification due to their early pubertal development and sexualization by society, and Black children are often viewed societally as older than they are. Systemic racism has forced Black children into social, emotional and physical adult roles before they are adults.

A consequence of early puberty, stereotyping and sexualization of Black girls is bullying. Another recent study I conducted with Black girls between 9 and 18 years old suggested how girls often described peer pressure to look, act or behave in a certain way and were then bullied if their bodies or behaviors did not match the sexualized stereotype or body expectation of having curves and “big butts.”

This study also revealed that Black girls felt the most unprotected from stereotyping and bullying in schools.

The Washington Post identified nearly 200 student suicides since 2016 that were linked to school bullying in news accounts or court records. Nearly 10 percent were children aged 7 to 10 years old.

A 2020 National Black Justice Coalition study, “Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America,” found that suicides were rising faster among Black youths than in any other racial group. Self-reported suicide attempts increased 144 percent among Black youth from 1991 through 2019. Researchers in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that the suicide rate of Black girls increased an average of 6.6 percent each year—more than twice the increase for boys.

With partisan-based state challenges to school-based comprehensive sexual education—which is already often limited to the priorities of the school districts—and with Roe v. Wade now overturned, the lack of these educational services threatens the safety of Black girls, particularly in states where access to sex education and reproductive healthcare is nonexistent.

A 2020 study shows that when schools provide sex education, knowledge of contraception and condoms, and awareness of adverse sexual health outcomes, adolescents make better decisions about their health. 

However, in recent years, in part due to remote and hybrid learning from the pandemic, schools and teachers have been overly taxed on adolescents’ educational and mental health needs, moving sex education down the list of priorities. During the 2020-2021 academic year, 40 percent of teachers left the profession. 

Black adolescent girls urgently need sex education addressing the unique needs that explain early puberty, stereotyping, and sexual and psychological consequences of sexual activity. The physical and mental health of Black girls needs to take priority for policymakers, advocates, school administrators, faculty, parents and students. 

The power must be in their hands.

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Natasha Crooks is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.