While I tend to be skeptical about statistics, the numbers of girls–particularly black girls–infected with STDs, according to a recent national study, is quite alarming. Though the research sample of 838 girls was random, I can’t help but wonder how class and education weigh into the mix. I wonder how many girls have access to good health care facilities, what they have been taught (if anything) about sex at school and at home, whether they have access to and know how to use condoms. How many girls still think they can’t get infections if they only have oral sex?
The study doesn’t seem to offer many solutions to what should be perceived as a national health crisis (this is of course presuming our nation cares about the healthcare of women and girls, which, um, it doesn’t). Clearly sex education is critical (beyond the ridiculous abstinence-only models) as is better counseling services for girls who need to discuss sexual matters and may not be able to with their parents. But I also worry about what we teach (or rather don’t teach) girls about their sexual agency. Sex is often portrayed for (straight) girls as something that is done to them rather than something they can have some agency in. I think the study is telling: girls are the acted on, the endangered, and the infected. But this study should also reshape our approach to boys’ health education. What should be clear from these results is that boys should also be getting annual screenings (just as girls have to go to the gyno).
Perhaps most importantly, parents and educators need to encourage girls to use their voices and assert their agency when they enter into intimate relationships. Part of the problem has to do with self-esteem and self-worth I think. It seems to me that too many girls are still afraid that if they don’t put out they won’t be accepted or liked or desired. Too many girls are afraid to ask male partners to use condoms. In some cases, men over 18 (sometimes in their 20s and 30s) are preying on teenage girls. As someone who has always thought that black communities’ almost singular focus on the “crises” of young black boys has virtually ignored the problems young black girls are going through, I think the national attention this study has gotten can spark some overdue interventions.