Black youth need more than public health strategies that read sexuality as diseased and immoral
This erasure involves public health discourses that frame the sexuality of Black youth as already diseased and illegible.
By Jallicia Jolly
In the aftermath of National HIV Testing Week in the US, it is crucial that we talk openly and honestly about what it means to live, love, and sex while being Black and young.
As an HIV tester and counselor, I am well aware of the conversations about “safe sex” that populate HIV campaigns, health departments, and community health fairs. As an educator, I witness the growing emphasis on “safe sex” in efforts that aim to spread awareness of the disease and counter the loud silences about sex, sexuality, and STDs that manifest in our daily life. But oftentimes, these conversations fail to grasp the contexts and realities that shape what Black youth do, who we do, and how we do it.
These erasures lead to important questions: What does it mean to inject the erotic lives of Black youth into mainstream health discourses that rest firmly on their erasures and vulnerability? And what strategies can public health educators, researchers, and organizers employ to transform these pathologizing practice as we reimagine sexual politics anew?
As a young Black woman, I have witnessed the ways most approaches to HIV frame the sexual health of Black youth solely in terms of risk, vulnerability, desperation, and uninformed sexual behavior. I have heard the ways public discourses describe us as “carriers of diseases,” alongside redemptive narratives that frame us as downtrodden victims in need of social and medical cures.
I have also learned why it’s so important to center approaches that meet Black youth where we are rather than repeatedly (and often, unsuccessfully) reiterate the biological and medical aspects of HIV infection and AIDS progression. It is within this space that I also learned what it means to live, learn, and love in a landscape of sexual silences, anti-Black violence, and poor quality health care in ways that inform anti-racist feminist organizing.
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There are levels to this erasure. It involves public health discourses that frame the sexuality of Black youth as already diseased and illegible. This includes conversations that attach risk and illness to particular bodies and communities based on biased assumptions about moral uprightness and sexual respectability. In this popular rendering of Black sexuality, there is often no discussion about how racism, sexism, structural inequality, and economic violence undermine the health and overall well-being of Black youth. And our sex, often labeled “dangerous” and “uncontrollable,” becomes justification for our lethal subjection to state violence.
Within a research context, this erasure manifests in the exclusion of culturally-informed understandings of Black sexual lives. The reductionist biases in HIV/AIDS work too often foregrounds sexuality in terms of survival sex and reproduction, which neglects more complete understandings of sexual experiences, desires, and aspirations.
Agendas on Black health that overly emphasize disease progression, sexual exploitation, and medical terms, while conflating sexual practices with sexual orientation, reinforce the use Black bodies as objects of inquiries about social ills. They ignore the spectrum of intimacy that shapes the lives of Black youth.
Within an organizing context, this erasure manifests in the neglect of Black sexuality and pleasure from discussions and strategies around Black resistance and liberation. Social justice agendas often subject such questions to the periphery, and instead view our sexual lives and political struggles as mutually exclusive, and even, at times, counterproductive to broader claims for recognition and rights.
Yet, state violence manifests not only in the explicit outcomes of inequalities, but also in how we organize our intimate lives. Considering how sex, sexuality and HIV matter to living daily life, to building community, to practicing love, and to addressing state regulation of Black bodies, they are inextricably linked to our struggles for Black liberation.
These reductive views about Black sexuality and HIV are evident in recent discussions about the history and trajectory of HIV among gay men in the United States. In historian Patrick Kelly’s recent New York Times op-ed, he opines that “the nonchalant dismissal of the condom today” reflects a historical amnesia about the vibrant sexual health culture that AIDS catalyzed in the 1980s. Yet, this cautionary tale falls in the face of conditions of institutional racism, mysognyoir, classism, queerphobia, and transphobia that continue to render the bodies, lives, and organizing of Black queer and trans people as abject and expendable.
The complexities of this exclusion are also evident in a 2017 New York Times cover story by Linda Villarosa about the struggles of Black gay men living with HIV in Jackson, Mississippi. While the piece offers a portrayal Black gay men’s daily struggles with interrelated issues of denial, stigma, and neglect that shape their access to care, its emphasis on their morbidity and near death experiences gives the idea that Black gay men are passive victims who are devoid of any agency. Yet, the political history of the epidemic reveals the central role of Black gay men’s activism against structural inequality and social exclusion that undermined their full participation in high-level decision-making spaces.
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These broader, overlapping contexts force us to reckon with real questions about race, sex, class and HIV. They ask that we grapple with the viscous ways we embody inequalities. They remind us to create spaces and strategies for Black youth to become their own agents of self-making as we work to eliminate patterns of domination in prevailing structures that constrain who we are.
They invite us to restore a vocabulary of liberation in its rightful place of Black sexual politics – one that bursts open the possibilities of living meaningful lives beyond the purview of the state, racism, and anti-Black violence.
To do so means to consider what Black sex and sexuality in the context of HIV/AIDS mean for our anti-racist feminist social justice agendas and movements. It means understandings how the sexual experiences of Black youth are situated within economic structures and structural inequalities that undermine the quality of life of people of color for generations. It means addressing how sexism and queerphobia intersect to magnify institutional discrimination and sexual inequalities within and beyond the restrictive domains of HIV prevention and care. It means transforming feminist and social justice agendas in ways that prioritize the sexual lives of Black youth—particularly young women, queer and trans folks, and people living with HIV/AIDS.
Black sexuality and pleasure have always been targets of white anxieties and terror. They have long been sites for the regulations of bodies deemed too deviant for even basic resources. They continue to be imagined as failures of and threats to public health by practitioners and researchers too uncomfortable to reckon with their depth, aspirations, and realities.
And it is within this space that we embrace the audacity of Black sexuality and pleasure. That we celebrate our radical subjectivities in a world structured antagonistically against us. That we savor the abolitionist possibilities in a world we are building together. Doing so would necessarily turn our political compasses and moral sensibilities awry.
And I’m here for it.
*Editor’s Note: This month at BYP, we are exploring Black Liberation & Organizing, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics. How do we hold politicians accountable to Black communities? Is that even possible? What should be our role in the electoral politics? What does abolition look like in practice? What is the viability of third party organizing, or non-voting? What amazing work are community-based organizations doing in your hood, and what can we learn from them?
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Jallicia Jolly is a writer, reproductive justice advocate, and PhD student at the University of Michigan. She writes about race, gender, HIV/AIDS, and reproductive justice in the lives of African diasporic women. Follow her on twitter @jallicia