Q&A: When It Comes to Sex, African American Teens Feel 'Under Pressure'

Photograph of an African-American teen couple.

Births among African American teens have fallen a whopping 47 percent since the early 1990s. Still, half of all African American girls in the United States will get pregnant at least once before their 20th birthdays.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy recently teamed up with ESSENCE magazine to survey 1,500 African American youth, ages 13 to 21. The research team wanted to better understand the young people's attitudes on sex, dating, relationships and the media. NCFY spoke with Paula Parker-Sawyers, who directs outreach and partnerships at the National Campaign, about the survey and how youth workers can best help all young people avoid unintended pregnancy.

NCFY: Were any of the findings from the survey surprising?

Parker-Sawyers: I would say they were enlightening, especially what we found out about the degree to which black youth feel under pressure by the more popular media, which they feel portrays them as more sexually aggressive [than their peers]. African American young people see themselves in a much more positive light and have higher expectations of themselves than is often portrayed in the entertainment media. But we see a disconnect between their intentions and their actions. Their intentions often do not match their behavior. In this way, African American youth are no different from other youth. But we’re starting to understand how that portrayal of African American youth might influence their behavior. We know that images stay with us long after we’ve turned off the TV or other media. Young people are clearly affected by that.

NCFY: What can parents of black teens do to help?

Parker-Sawyers: African American teens want what all teens want. Our message to parents is always the same: Talk with your child, not at your child. That means listening as well as transmitting knowledge, being respectful, and being sensitive to the needs of the child to be understood and valued. We hear over and over again that kids want to have these conversations with their parents. They want to know not only what not to do but how not to do it. That is, if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation, how do they get out of it? Also, parents shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Just because a child is asking about sex, don’t assume a child is engaging in sex.

NCFY: What about teens who aren’t close with their parents or even living on the street or in a shelter? What can youth workers do to help teens avoid unintended pregnancy?

Parker-Sawyers: If a young person can’t go to a parent, they can talk to another caring adult or someone who has helped in other troubling circumstances.Youth workers can certainly play a very important part in a young person’s life. Youth service agencies should provide training to youth workers about how to talk about sex and sexuality. If the agency doesn’t want youth workers to talk about it, like in some faith-based agencies, they have to decide how they’re going to address the issue and who to refer young people to, but make a commitment not to ignore it. Because ignoring a young person’s questions is certainly more damaging, especially if the young person gets bad information from an unreliable source.

NCFY: What else can youth workers do to help teens make healthy decisions?

Parker-Sawyers: They need to be sensitive to the way in which young people develop mentally and physically and give them as much information as possible. We say, “Repeat, repeat, repeat.” And the message needs to be consistent: abstinence 100 percent of the time or contraception 100 percent of the time. That means, if a young person chooses abstinence, they can’t say, “Oh, I’m just going to have sex this one time” and think they’re not going to get pregnant. And if a young person is sexually active, they need to use contraception every time, no exceptions.

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