Be a Mentor?: Black Teens Talk Sex and Relationships

How old were you when you started thinking about sex? A recent survey of African American youth conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Essence magazine is illuminating the attitudes young people have about sex and relationships. While much of the survey’s results will sound familiar — I can remember having some of the same thoughts and feelings as a young woman – one finding might just be the key to helping our young people make wiser decisions for their health and futures.

The national survey reached 1,500 African American youth ages 13-21 and covered areas such as pressure to have sex, contraception and STD protection, portrayals of black teens in the media, and the role of parents as influencers. Let’s begin with the good news – in the U.S., teen pregnancy rates have declined 39% across all racial and ethnic groups since the early 1990s and the rate is even better for black teens showing a decline of 44% over the same period of time. That’s great to see because research and anecdotal evidence shows that having children at a young age spells trouble for one’s health, education, financial security, and overall future. Teen pregnancy has been linked to cycles of poverty and crime, as well as mental and emotional stress. Of course that doesn’t mean that all single-parent households and the children they raise are doomed, but when faced with reality, we see that the odds are oftentimes stacked against a teen parent from the start.

In less-positive news, the survey also revealed that black teens are conflicted about sex; although they know the risks involved and would prefer to wait, they’re having sex earlier (and often without protection) because of outside pressures and expectations. Check out a few of the survey’s stand-out findings:

  • 46% have had a pregnancy scare; 24% of female respondents say they have been pregnant at least once; 15% of guys say they have gotten someone pregnant.
  • 18% say whether or not you use protection, when it’s “your time” to get pregnant, you will.
  • 51% say there is pressure from society to have sex (including 48% of 13-15 year-olds), 48% say they feel pressure from the media, and 41% say their friends (54% of males, 29% of females) pressure them.
  • Most say that the media sends the message that a black girl’s top asset is her sexuality and that it’s acceptable for black guys to be unfaithful.

There is some light at the end of this tunnel, however, and it comes in the form of black folks’ unflappable confidence in the face of great obstacles as well as our relationships with family. The teens surveyed reported feeling confident, valued, and proud despite the negative portrayals of black youth in society. This is key as positive self-image is necessary to stand up to the increasing pressure exerted upon young people every day. Parents and other adult role models play a huge part in imparting these feelings of value and worth to teens. Respondents indicated that they crave interaction with their parents about sex and relationships and at a younger age than most parents would probably like – around 13 years old.

If you have the opportunity, check out the survey for yourself. It’s easy to read and might open up your eyes to some new things. I view it as a call to action for parents, teachers, older siblings, or anyone who comes into contact with young people to be proactive in talking about sex and relationships. Our young men and women might seem like they don’t want to hear all that rah rah but we see clearly now that they want us to talk to them. Even if they don’t always follow our advice to the letter and although they might talk back, just the effort you put forth in reaching out shows that you care, reinforcing that sense of pride, value, and confidence that will ultimately lead to better decisions as they grow.

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