Though the mainstream media’s virtual silence on the issue suggests otherwise, the HIV epidemic continues to rage in the United States, and African Americans are those hardest hit. Black youth are particularly vulnerable. In order to counter the persistence of new infections among young people, every level of government, as well as school governance must commit to unbiased, comprehensive sexuality education.
About one-quarter of all new HIV infections are among youth ages 13 to 24. But black young people are disproportionately affected. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), blacks and African Americans accounted for 69 percent of HIV diagnoses among young people ages 13 to 19 in 2010, despite the fact that they comprise only about 15 percent of the youth population. Of the new infections among adolescents, 76 percent were attributed to male-to-male sexual contact.
We know that structural factors—social and economic inequities—are at the root of so many of these disparities. School segregation and inequality are two of these structural roots, and it may not be surprising, therefore, that racial disparities are also found in HIV prevention education. The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System reveals that too many students (between 12 to 25 percent) overall report never having been taught about HIV or AIDS in school. When broken down by race, more blacks than whites, and particularly black males, report never having been taught about HIV or AIDS. Most striking, a full 27 percent of black males who had sexual contact with males only or both males and females reported never having received HIV/AIDS instruction, as compared with 15% of their white counterparts.
Despite Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric about an AIDS-free generation, too little is being done to ensure that young people get essential prevention education. Our public officials and institutions must renew their commitment to prevention education. At the federal level, funding must be expanded for the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, which provides money and technical assistance to HIV/STI prevention programs to states and localities around the country. States should revisit their health and sexuality education standards. A year ago, four leading health organizations released the first-ever national standards for sexuality education in schools. State legislators and departments of education should use these comprehensive standards as a yard stick to evaluate and re-tool their sexual health guidelines. Finally, school districts, principals, and teachers must to take a fresh look at the sex ed they’re delivering.
A report released last year by the NYCLU, to which my organization, HIV Law Project, contributed, found that the lack of sex ed standards in New York can result in the use of out-dated, biased, incomplete and inaccurate education. Where there are standards, such as an AIDS education requirement in New York, students are more likely to receive some education in the proscribed area, though those lessons are not always complete or accurate. Sex ed must be made current, and must go beyond the raw basics to ensure that all students receive the information and develop the skills they need to stay safe.
In honor of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and in recognition of the profound disparities in HIV infection rates among young people, we must take this opportunity to commit to providing comprehensive, unbiased evidence-based sexuality education. Doing any less is a threat to the health of our youth, most especially young people of African descent.