What We Risk When We Fail to Protect Black Girls

Emerging research implicates this systematic lack of protection in the disproportionately high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among Black girls and women.

[Photo: A young, black girl smells a flower. Her friends talk amongst themselves in the background.]
The connection between lack of protection and STI risk is compounded by several factors. Those factors are rooted in racist, sexist, and capitalistic power structures that affect and reflect Black women’s lived experiences. Nicholas Githiri / Pexels

For more anti-racism resources, check out our guide, Racial Justice Is Reproductive Justice.

Last month, the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly elevated the claims against the R&B singer as a serial abuser of women and girls. Kelly was charged in Illinois on Friday with ten counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

But what also became apparent from the docuseries was the number of adults—from Kelly’s manager to parents of the minors he is believed to have violated—who were complicit in his systematic abuse of underage Black girls. Beyond the pain his alleged victims suffered, the docuseries highlighted that these girls were not afforded the protection they deserve as children, much like Black girls at large.

Such disregard for Black girls and women’s safety has public health consequences. Emerging research implicates this systematic lack of protection in the disproportionately high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among Black girls and women. This was also evident in the docuseries: One woman said she acquired an STI from Kelly.

Black women and girls in the United States are disproportionately burdened with STIs, including HIV. Black women account for an estimated 12 percent of the U.S. female population, but in 2016, Black women accounted for 61 percent of new HIV diagnoses among women, compared to 19 percent for white women and 16 percent for Hispanic/Latina women, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Meanwhile, the rate of reported gonorrhea cases among Black teens ages 15 to 19 years in 2017 was 9.3 times the rate of white teens of the same age group. In fact, chlamydia rates among young women ages 15 to 24 years were highest for those who identified as Black.

The new research on the sexual development of Black girls and women suggests that a lack of protection may be an underlying risk factor for their high STI rates. Although the concept of “protection” can be considered patriarchal—if based on the assumption that women are weaker and in need of men’s protection—this work highlights the role of Black women as protectors of Black girls.

For that study, researchers (Natasha included) interviewed 20 Black women ages 19 to 62 from a Midwestern community. The women spoke about protection as the physical, verbal, and social ways in which Black girls’ healthy sexual development is supported—or thwarted. Those categories emerged from participants describing their experiences with sexual development and sexual health; they are grounded in the participants’ voices and experiences.

The Black women reported using a variety of physical protection strategies in their lives so that girls were not exposed to older men, who could be potential predators, and sexualized stereotyped images. The women attempted to control the physical environments of the girls by setting rules and boundaries, such as keeping them in close proximity, giving them a curfew, having knowledge of whom they hung out with, and monitoring their TV programs and music to protect them from sexualized images. They put girls in extracurricular activities, such as church or after-school programs, to keep them in “safe” environments.

The older women offered verbal protection by maintaining open communication about sexual health topics with their girls, including sharing their own sexual experiences as girls, like sexual abuse. They also encouraged the girls to get to know potential sexual partners, initiate conversations about safe sex, and be aware of sexual predators. The older Black women also encouraged the girls to protect their bodies through open communication with their partners and wearing appropriate clothing, given that Black girls tend to enter puberty early and their bodies develop more quickly.

As determined as the older Black women were to provide “protected” spaces for Black girls, it’s worth noting that predators can still exist within such spaces.

Additionally, the older Black women spoke about using the term “fast” as a way to call out and slow down Black girls’ sexual behaviors, such as showing off their bodies or talking to boys. The Black women reported that as girls they often didn’t see the label as protective because there was no discussion about what it really meant.

Colloquially, most Black women and girls are familiar with the term “fast,” used to label young Black women who are or appear to be sexually active, or seeking sexual attention from prospective partners. Affirming what Mikki Kendall has previously written for Rewire.News, the older Black women thought of the term as protective, only for it to shame Black girls for their sexual identities and bodies.

The term “fast” shames and stigmatizes Black girls while sidestepping more important conversations about sexuality and sexual abuse. The term also has a silencing, harmful effect, more notably witnessed in the treatment of R. Kelly’s underage victims, who were called “fast” for engaging with the singer. Instead of being acknowledged as child victims and protected by their community, they were often blamed for their own abuse. In other cases, Black girls and women described being silenced in cases of sexual abuse and STI exposure, and not seeking needed help or advice.

As victims of childhood sexual abuse are at increased risk of acquiring STIs, we see how lack of verbal protection for Black girl’s sexual development, including the use of the term “fast,” contributes to Black girls’ increased risk of STIs.

Overwhelmingly, the participants described a (cycle of) lack of protection contributing to their STI risk. This research offers some indication of how a protector in a Black girl’s development is critical, and the domino effect it can create when a girl doesn’t have one. Participants described that if they were never protected as girls, they did not know how to protect and the value of protection. Their responses raise the important question: If Black girls are unprotected within our own communities, how can we expect larger systems to protect them?

The Black women in the study also described protecting Black men at the expense of themselves and their daughters, which we witnessed in the case of R. Kelly, as many parents of the victims chose to say nothing and defend him at the expense of protecting their daughters, or other Black girls and women. Many people working with R. Kelly were aware of what he was doing but kept quiet, which resulted in the continued sexual abuse of Black girls and women and at least one contracting an STI from the singer.

Of course, this connection between the lack of protection and STI risk is compounded by several factors. Those factors are rooted in racist, sexist, and capitalistic power structures that affect and reflect Black women’s lived experiences. For example, our discriminatory health-care system undermines Black women’s health, as does a persistent lack of comprehensive sexual education and the frequent promotion of long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) in Black communities. Black girls and women face a number of challenges in getting their sexual health needs met by health-care providers who may stigmatize or discriminate against them. Providers disproportionately recommend LARCs to Black women, which are highly effective contraceptive methods but do not prevent STIs. The racial bias in promoting LARCs mirrors the historical and contemporary reproductive injustices against Black women, which rest on the ideology that Black women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy is to be stigmatized and controlled. This dynamic is exacerbated when we consider the lack of comprehensive sexual education in the Black community, which is necessary for girls and women to feel empowered in communicating about and making well-informed decisions regarding sexual health.

Research focusing on how various sociocultural conditions, such as cultural messaginghistorical stereotypes, and dynamics of Black heterosexual relationships, influence the sexual pathways and development of Black girls and women is underway. More research is necessary to understand how (the lack of) protection contributes to STI risk in Black girls and women. Research and interventions focusing on STI prevention for Black girls and women must acknowledge their complete lived experience, not just specific outcomes, such as condom use. It is also important to consider the cumulative effect of how multiple conditions such as age, body shape, race, history of abuse, and gender intersect and shape Black girls and women’s sexual experiences.

Black women and girls may continue to see disproportionately high rates of STIs until we as a society confront our failure to protect them.