- Children often develop attitudes and values about sexuality from their parents and family members.
- Black girls may receive both discouraging messages (body dissatisfaction) and positive messages (equality in relationships), research suggests.
- Parents can incorporate sex-positive practices by facilitating open communication and normalizing sexual curiosity, among other things.
In November of 2019, U.S. rapper, actor, and television host T.I. (Clifford Joseph Harris Jr.) released an interview with the “Ladies like Us” podcast, describing his expectation that his daughter’s physician tell him whether she likely had sex or not through an “intact human check” during her annual gynecological visit (DeNinno, 2019). When medical professionals informed him that there are multiple ways besides sexual intercourse that a hymen can be “broken,” he stated, “Look, doc, she don’t ride no horses, she don’t ride no bike, and she don’t play no sports. Just check the hymen, please, and give me back my results expeditiously.”
There is no scientific evidence that the hymen (the small tissue outside of the vaginal canal that has no known biological function) is an accurate or reliable test of sexual activity. Yet many individuals, similar to T.I., believe that an intact hymen can be “proof” of the absence of sexual activity. The viral interview prompted angry responses from many listeners who believed that his actions violated his daughter’s privacy and bodily autonomy. Yet, he also received support from men and women alike who thought that he was being a protective father. Regardless of one’s perspective, the interview raised critical questions about how Black parents socialize their daughters to think about their bodies and their sexuality.
We know from psychological science that parents and family members are some of the earliest and most important agents of youths’ “sexual socialization,” which refers to how children learn about the attitudes and values attached to sexual exploration and sexuality. Much of the existing research on sexual socialization practices within Black families focuses on sexual risk behaviors, sexually transmitted infections, and preventing teenaged pregnancies.
In general, these studies suggest that receiving messages from parents about sexual health behaviors (i.e., state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016) is associated with safer sexual practices among adolescent and young adult girls, as well as a delayed onset of sexual activity. Other studies suggest that more explicit conversations between parents and their daughters about contraception and sexual activity are linked to daughters feeling more prepared about bodily changes and perceiving less difficulty talking to partners about sexual topics.
While this work is important, we know less about the range of sexual messages that Black families convey, including more holistic or sex-positive messages. In addition, it is important to recognize that Black parents have to contend with misogynoiristic cultural narratives on Black women’s sexuality, including racialized stereotypes of Black women’s hypersexuality and promiscuity. For instance, the Jezebel stereotype perpetuates the idea that Black women and girls are more promiscuous and sexually aggressive than women from other racial and ethnic groups, thus contributing to misperceptions that they are more responsible for their experiences of sexual assault and rape. These are important issues to think about, since sexual socialization practices can shape how individuals pursue their sexual interests and desires.
Messages that Young Black Women Receive from their Parents about Sex and Desire
In a recent study published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, my colleagues and I explored sexual socialization practices in Black families, including specific steps that parents and caregivers can take to support the sexual development of the Black girls in their lives. In the study, we asked 50 predominantly heterosexual Black college women (ages 18-24) about the messages they received about physical appearance, clothing choices, interacting with boys, and sexual behaviors.
The majority of the women in our sample noted that they received messages from their parents and family members that discouraged sexual activity and/or made them feel more self-conscious about their developing bodies. For instance,
- 92% received messages on sexual restraint and modesty in clothing choices; for some, it was considered a safety precaution against unwanted sexual attention or violence.
- 74% recalled messages from family members about their body size and shape, which often included discouraging messages that created a sense of body dissatisfaction and self-consciousness that the young women had to unlearn (e.g., don’t wear tight clothing and big girls can’t wear clothing that shows their body).
- 48% discussed deference messages that women should submit to men’s desires, particularly in relation to their “future husbands.”
- 38% stated that their parents did not talk to them about sex and that it was a taboo topic of conversation in their homes.
On the other hand, several women in the sample highlighted positive messages from parents and family members about physical appearance and sexual exploration. For instance,
- 30% received messages that all bodies have inherent value and beauty, and these women spoke more assuredly about their external appearance.
- 26% recalled egalitarian messages related to the belief that women and men are equal partners in intimate relationships.
- 24% discussed sex-positive messages that encouraged self-acceptance and normalized sexual exploration and sexual desire.
Overall, most of the young women received a range of messages on sexual exploration and desire, and they appreciated conversations with parents that helped them frame and process their budding desires around personal exploration, dating, and sexual intimacy. Finally, the majority of the Black women in our study were heterosexual. Black girls who are both Black and LGBTQ+ or same gender loving (SGL) may need unique forms of support from their parents and loved ones around their sexual development.
How Black Parents and Caregivers Can Facilitate Sex Positive Practices with Their Daughters
- Facilitate open communication on sex and intimacy with Black girls, including discussions on body autonomy and consent.
- Have sexual health conversations on how Black girls can minimize sexual risk (e.g., use contraception) and maximize sexual exploration, expression, and pleasure in the ways they desire.
- Normalize sexual curiosity and encourage an open channel of communication about autonomous and informed decision-making on sexuality and sexual expression.
- Engage in early conversations on misogynoir and rape culture to help Black girls understand and process racialized sexual stereotypes.
- Seek out culturally attuned, sexual health organizations that acknowledge families’ concerns about Black girls’ sexual objectification and sexual violence, such as Black Women’s Blueprint.
- Remind Black girls that they deserve intimate (and sexual) relationships where they feel safe and valued.
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DeNinno, N. (2019). Podcast hosts delete T.I. ‘hymen’ episode, apologize for laughing. https://nypost.com/2019/11/07/podcasthosts- delete-t-i-hymen-episode-apologize-for-laughing/
Froyum, C.M. (2010). Making ‘good girls’: Sexual agency in the sexuality education of low-income Black girls. Culture, Health, and Sexuality, 12(1), 59-72. https://doi.org/10.1080/136910503272583
Leath, S., Pittman, J.C., Grower, P., & Ward, M.L. (2020). Steeped in shame: An exploration of family sexual socialization among Black college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684320948539
Mishori, R., Ferdowsian, H., Naimer, K., Volpellier, M., & McHale, T. (2019). The little tissue that couldn’t – dispelling myths about the hymen’s role in determining sexual history and assault. Reproductive Health, 16, 74-83. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6547601/pdf/12978_2019_Art…
Randall, J., & Langlais, M. (2019). Social media and adolescent sexual socialization. Encyclopedia of Sexuality and Gender. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-319-59531-…