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It's Time to Talk About HIV, Sex, and African-American Girls

It's Time to Talk About HIV, Sex, and African-American Girls


In the South, many schools have opted out of having comprehensive sex education, but it’s here that we see the highest rates of teen pregnancy and of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, gonorrhea, and syphilis among others, says Dr. Ralph DiClemente.

Dr. DiClemente, Charles Howard Candler professor of public health and co-director of the CFAR Developmental Core, has spent years researching HIV among adolescents, especially among African and African-American girls and young women. He holds concurrent appointments as professor in the School of Medicine, Department of Medicine, in the Division of Infectious Diseases and in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Infectious Diseases, Epidemiology, and Immunology.  Dr. DiClemente was trained as a health psychologist at the University of California San Francisco where he received his Ph.D. in 1984 after completing an M.S. in Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health and his undergraduate degree at the City University of New York. Here Justin Forest, author and educator, and DiClemente and talk about sexuality, sex ed, HIV, and the effects of internet porn.

DrWhere are we with HIV risk and the African and African-American population?

Fifty percent of all new HIV cases in the U.S are reported in people under twenty five years of age. A disproportionate number occur among African Americans. As for Africa, the statistics are even worse and kids becoming HIV positive are even younger in age.

Photo: Dr. Ralph DiClemente

Why has your research focused on African and African-American girls?

That’s where the epidemic is exerting considerable impact. You go where the epidemic or crisis is, and most infections in Africa, for example, occur not from needles but through direct sexual contact. We focus on marginalized groups.

It is difficult enough to have open conversations about kids and sex, but how does an HIV positive kid deal with his or her own sexuality?  Should they be sexually active?

This is a question that needs very detailed discussion. The child has to discuss sexuality with a counselor and discuss the best way to deal with sex. They can infect others, and they can affect their own health.  They could have sex, but they should do so in a safe manner.

More generally, why do you think there is such a stigma over sex? Why is it that it’s so difficult to get good, comprehensive sex education in schools?

People are unrealistic. Our morals drive our public policy. Schools say, especially in the South, that parents should do the teaching, and they should, but many parents are not sure how to deal with sexuality. We speak as if all sex is unhealthy, but the focus has to be on healthy relationships and healthy sex. We used to, for example, have classes in hygiene. Kids need to be able to ask questions about sex and sexual situations.  In the South, many schools have opted out of having comprehensive sex education, but it’s here that we see the highest rates of teen pregnancy and of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, gonorrhea, and syphilis among others. Instead kids turn to the internet, where explicit and often unhealthy sex is going on 24/7. We say ignorance is bliss, but I am of the crowd that believes ignorance is dangerous.

You just came back from Russia. What happened there?

Well, it’s very interesting. I was speaking to many young folks in Russia about sexuality, and they asked the question as you have, “Why is it that we can talk about educating people about smoking and other drugs but we cannot about sex? Why is it that we can talk and discuss awful violence but we cannot discuss sex? There is no excuse. We don’t say, “If you teach my kids about the effects of smoking, you will encourage them to smoke.” We don’t say, “If you teach kids against using violence, you will make them more violent. We did our own pilot study here at Emory. We took sexually active kids and discussed healthy sexuality with them. We talked about sex. The result was that their sexual activity when down by sixteen percent. This is true in many other studies as well. The more kids know about their sexuality, the better decisions they make. It’s not the reverse.

You are studying the effects of internet porn especially porn that portrays violent acts usually against women and sex (gagging, tying up, forcing, etc). How is that going?

We are analyzing data at this point, but the study is looking at about six hundred boys and monitoring their internet data, including porn sites. We are finding that the internet experience is providing a whole different experience than magazines and films. There is no regulation of this pornographic information. It’s unstoppable. We are discovering that kids who meet partners online as they do in real life need to protect themselves. The internet makes people create impressions of themselves that are exaggerated and untrue. 

Is there a quick guide to parents of HIV and of other kids that can be useful when navigating sex and the internet?

Parents want quick fixes. Let’s shut down the internet. Let’s use software to stop the porn. They want regulation, but the real key is to interact with their children openly and have a two-way conversation. Your child must be comfortable speaking with you about sex, and you must be open to hearing from them and having them make some mistakes. You cannot control others or the internet, but you can give your children guidance through good communication practices. If no one talks about sex, then the child can be in further danger or at further risk.

Where is Russia on AIDS and HIV?  We hear that President Putin is coming down harshly on the gay population.

Russia is talking but not doing. This is not good. There is discussion, talk, but there is little action due to concern over some of the laws. I will have more to tell you when I get back.


Justin Forest has five college degrees, including a MLSt in taboo studies and a PhD in literature and criticism. He has compiled information for the United Nations on the anti-child sex trafficking movement and has since transitioned to sexuality research. He's a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and teaches themes of girlhood and sexuality. His debut novel, Lolita in the Lion's Den, was published in September. Find him online at

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