The Way We Talk About Sexual Health Doesn’t Work for Black Women. Let’s Change That.
By Latia Curry
“I feel like the media and people’s minds are flooded with this image of Black women that we’re angry, that we’re ready to fight, we’re just basically ghetto heathens, and not really considered to be attractive, basically a last resort woman. And, I feel like, every day, whether I’m going on an interview, or I have a job, or whatever, I have to constantly prove that I’m a nice girl and I’m not faking it ’til I get off the clock.”
— California Wellness Foundation in-depth interview participant: age 27, Black female high school graduate.
When RALLY began work with The California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness) to raise public awareness and deepen the understanding of the impact and burden of HIV/AIDS and STIs on Black women in California, it was obvious that previous approaches around sexual health and sex education were not going to cut it. To understand where Black women were coming from, we started with focus groups and interviews. A pattern emerged, showing Black women were feeling the burden of stereotype, the very real effects of structural racism, and the pressures of being both Black and of being a woman. Also clear: more statistics about how doomed Black women were when it came to HIV/AIDS and STIs would not spark mass behavior change. If anything, we learned that a direct sexual health message from a non-trusted institution in this climate would fall on deaf ears.
Knowing this, we wanted to try something different and wondered if we could use this as an opportunity to change the way foundations approach health equity communications. The result is a campaign called Upspoken, where we continue to promote sexual health via a platform for Black women about relationships, love, and sex. Largely based online and in the world of social media, Upspoken drew from focus group learnings to create a safe, community-style approach that brings in all aspects of well-being to communicate about sexual health, rather than the sterile, punitive, sometimes judgmental tone that had proven ineffective. Now, in our third year, we’ve learned a great deal from our audience and in doing the work. Here are three things we’ve learned so far:
Do not pass go. Meet Black women where they are.
From the quote above, it’s clear that Black women are experiencing a lot in their efforts to be healthy and thrive. So we went deeper, scanning social media as part of our research and building an understanding of just how much the medium serves as a way to express self-worth and empowerment.
What we saw was that when using platforms with little to no outside censorship, Black women are lifting up their voices on social media to showcase their uniqueness, speak on issues that are important to them, and organize with each other to build community, solidarity, and strength. Common content themes and trends included: strength, beauty, and empowerment. The Upspoken platform, including its website and social media, uses all of these entry points to connect with Black women first, following up with public health information second so that it can be received.
Embrace (don’t exploit ) culture appropriately to establish trust.
Art and music drive trends on social media just as they do in other mediums. They play an influential role in Black culture, which is reflected in popular social media content and by the influencers that drive said trends. Both have been used to express complex sentiments and move social issues into the mainstream. It was important that in our tackling of heavy sexual health issues we looked at happenings with Jay-Z and Beyonce to the death of Nipsey Hussle, plugging into where our audience was connecting to demonstrate understanding and solidarity. Not as clickbait or tabloid fare, but from a place of empathy and collective understanding. In essence, when you understand a person’s cultural background you can connect around any issue.
Give your audience a way to engage with and eventually own the conversation.
On Upspoken, there are no lectures and no judgments. Just facts and perspectives. This creates an environment where Black women can feel a part of our movement, share in it, and even contribute to it — further ensuring that the messages are being heard and internalized. We connect through collective experience and sometimes even use humor as a way to cope with stress or express ourselves on the platform. All of these methods create the ideal two-way street of communication needed to work our way into tough, layered issues.
Using the learnings above, we’ve been able to distinguish our campaign from past HIV/AIDS campaigns by acknowledging the context within which Black women operate and respect their perspectives. This has meant leaning into ongoing conversations about race and social justice in the U.S. to shine a light on the inequities faced by the Black community and Black women, in particular. It has also involved highlighting systemic challenges that impact the health and well-being of the Black community and the need to reorient health systems so that they meet Black women where they are.
Through these acknowledgments, we have created a platform that is able to frame safe sex and sexual education in a sex-affirmative way, connect ownership of personal sexual health to self-determination and empowerment, and recognize the personal needs, opinions, and aspirations of Black women so that they can thrive in their sexual health. We need to continue to evolve health campaigns for Black women across the board. With a slightly different toolbox, those of us in this space can lead the effort to better communications and ultimately better outcomes.