Is sex even fun?: Messaging for Young Women of Color


"Is sex even fun?" That startling question came out of focus group research with young, African-American and Latino women to better understand their needs around reproductive health and rights. The Pro-Choice Public Education Project had launched this project in an effort to document the concerns of young women of color and to elevate their perspectives within the broader reproductive health, rights and justice movement. What this young woman's question made clear, however, was that as a movement we had saturated young people with prevention messages. You know the ones — the negative, fear-based, "sky is falling" messages that make sex seem like the most important and dangerous (don't forget dangerous) thing that young people could do. But those messages were not connecting with them and certainly not encouraging them to become involved in the fight for reproductive freedom.

That was our wake-up call. The young women we spoke to as part of, "She Speaks: Young African American and Latino Women on Reproductive Health and Rights" made us realize that something had to change, and that something was us. We had to re-think how we talk to young women of color about sexuality and reproductive health, because what we were doing wasn't working. We had to change not only the way we talked to young women of color, but also where we started the conversation if we were to successfully engage them around reproductive health and rights, educate them important issues and mobilize them to take action.

In talking to these vibrant and fiercely determined young women, they told us loud and clear that the way we talk doesn't resonate with them. They don't even understand what we are talking about. Take the phrase "reproductive health and rights", for example. One young woman thought that referred to recreating some kind of health insurance program. Women of color want to be communicated to directly with simple language, free of medical and political jargon, or as one young woman stated, "you can't be using these big, fine words."

The women we spoke to wanted to talk about sex, sexuality and relationships. Almost all of them wanted to start families some day. Yes, they understood that abortion access was an important issue. Most supported women making the decision when and if to become a parent. They were also moderately aware of emergency contraception and its ability to prevent unintended pregnancy. But none of these issues were at the top of their lists. In fact, most of "our issues" didn't rank highly on their lists. They were concerned about their health — physical, mental and spiritual. They shared stories about how poor healthcare coverage impacted their lives and their families — trips to the emergency room, missed school and work, the stress of being unwell and not being able to afford proper health care. Most of all, they wanted to lead healthy lives and know how to do that.

Based on these conversations, PEP set out to create a campaign that spoke to the realities of young women of color. We developed messages that were empowering instead of fear-based, and that acknowledged the self-determination these young women exhibited every day to take care of themselves. Last year we launched the RECOGNIZE! campaign with a series of posters, stickers and other tools as an opportunity to open up a conversation around reproductive health and rights from another perspective. We wanted to start where young women of color were, to connect with them meaningfully on their most pressing reproductive health and rights issues and educate them about others. By meeting them where they are in our messages and our outreach, we can.

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