Pop Songs Don’t Threaten Youth Sexual Health; Inadequate Sex Education Does

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STATEMENT: “Baby Mama” Debate Misses the Real Enemy

Pop Songs Don’t Threaten Youth Sexual Health; Inadequate Sex Education Does

Attacks on American Idol star Fantasia’s hit song “Baby Mama” miss the real enemy: abstinence-only education.

“American Idol” star Fantasia’s hit single “Baby Mama” is stirring controversy among those concerned about teen sexuality in the Black community. A 20-year-old Black woman, Fantasia Barrino is a single mother with a 3-year-old child. Remarkably, she’s balanced an exploding career with the responsibilities of parenthood; her song honors that achievement, boldly challenging the stigma attached to her place in life by calling her success “a badge of honor.” Critics, however, say the song perversely celebrates a tragic outcome: babies having babies, as the phrase goes. (To hear the song and reactions to it, check out an NPR “Morning Edition” segment, aired on May 24.)

Fantasia has simply made a beautiful song that affirms those like her, of any age, who face the mammoth challenge of single motherhood and don’t give up. As Fantasia sings, “There should be a holiday for single mothers, but until then here’s your song.” No one, including Fantasia, wants to promote teen pregnancy. But ignoring young mothers or further stigmatizing them only exacerbates the problem. The real threats to the sexual health of young Black people come neither from pop music nor brave mothers like Fantasia; they are found in the aggressive assault on comprehensive sex education currently underway in our nation’s schools.

To be clear, whether it is HIV or pregnancy, sexual activity comes with consequences at all ages. And there is ample proof that a conversation about that fact is desperately needed among Black youth. We account for 56 percent of annual new infections among 13 to 24 year olds. Infections among young Black women are of particular concern. Through 2001, African Americans accounted for nearly three quarters of diagnosed HIV infections among 13- to 19-year-old girls and two thirds of 20- to 24-year- old women.

The youth epidemic is primarily a sexual one. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks youth sexual behavior in an annual survey. In the most recent survey, Black youth reported the highest rates of having ever had intercourse: 67 percent compared to 42 percent of whites. They also reported having more sexual partners: Almost 30 percent of African-American youth reported more than four lifetime partners, compared to just under 11 percent of whites. Most startlingly, almost a fifth of Black youth reported having had sex by the age of 13, compared to 4 percent of white youth.

Simply censuring youth who speak about their sexual lives will not change these realities. To the contrary, research shows that teens exposed to honest and comprehensive dialogue on sexuality are no less likely to have sex at an early age but are more likely to be safe when they do. Comprehensive sex education includes both conversations about abstaining from sex and information on how to avoid diseases and unintended pregnancies when being sexually active. As both the CDC and former Surgeon General David Satcher have noted, the spread of comprehensive sex education throughout the 1990s contributed to a steady increase in condom usage, even as the CDC’s surveys charted a decline in sexual “risk.”

Yet, Washington is now forcing unproven “abstinence-only” sex education programs down schools’ throats. These programs bar any discussion of safer sex strategies. Under the Bush administration, health department funding for abstinence-only education has doubled. A recent congressional review of the programs this money has funded found “false, misleading or distorted” information in the vast majority of the curricula being used. One taught that HIV can be transmitted through tears, another listed “financial support” and “domestic support” as among the five main things women need from a relationship.

Teen sexuality is a topic that adults both inside and outside of the Black community are too eager to censure rather than discuss openly and from a place grounded in the realities young people are living. One newspaper columnist uneasy with Fantasia’s song harked back to the days when teen moms were looked upon shamefully. But stigmatizing people has never accomplished anything other than undermining their self-worth. Fantasia has thrown open the door to her life’s challenges. If we don’t like what we see, we must confront the public policy decisions that make it more likely that others will have to face those challenges as well.

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