Shame and fear prevent Black teens from going to the gynecologist
The odds are already stacked against us when it comes to health, especially sexual and reproductive health.
By Victoria Daniels
Editor’s Note: This Sexual Health and Awareness month, we will be exploring related issues at BYP, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics. What does sexual health look like outside of cishetero norms? Where does the #MeToo movement go from here? What can we do to better support survivors, including survivors of childhood sexual violence?
I didn’t know whether to feel sadness or envy for my 22 year-old friend when she confessed to me that she had never been to the gynecologist or had a pelvic exam before. Maybe I’m being a touch dramatic when I say “envy” here, but if you’ve ever experienced that cold speculum and beach scene thumbtacked on the ceiling, you know my pain.
I knew the answer to my question before I even asked it, but I proceeded to ask it anyway. And it was mostly disappointment, with a twinge of anger, that took over my body when she confirmed the reason why she has never gone.
“Why have you never been to the doctor?” I asked.
“I don’t want my mom questioning me,” she said. “And I know she will act funny and judge me if I ask for the number to her doctor.” This was the answer I had been expecting, but it hit differently to hear her say those words aloud. My friend has never been to get her vagina examined out of fear of what her mother would say or think.
This scenario happens far too often, but the most frightening fact is that it affects so many at a young age. Black girls (and those assumed to be girls) are often afraid to seek medical help when it comes to sexual health or reproductive care because of the stigma surrounding their sexuality. They fear being called “fast”, “hot in the pants”, “loose”, or whatever other phrase you’ve heard thrown around when it comes to the sexualization of cis Black girls.
I reached out to several Black women on social media to ask about their experiences and found that they’ve been in similar situations. I asked if fear was a reason why they were reluctant to visit the gynecologist.
“Yes, I had a fear of being questioned. My mom knew I wasn’t a virgin, but we didn’t have an in depth conversation about my sex life. However, I was (or convinced myself to feel) comfortable because I knew the checkup was good for my overall health” —Anonymous, age 24
I remember being nervous to ask my mom to take me to the doctor when I was experiencing itchiness “down there” in high school. I had no clue what was going on but I started to itch more when I thought about my mom’s potential response. Thankfully, my mom gave me a diagnosis of a yeast infection and took me to the doctor to get medication.
Black people are more likely to die from cervical cancer than any other racial group, according to research displayed in the January edition of Cancer. This fact is alarming, but what’s even scarier is that some Black teenagers are afraid of getting pap smears because they afraid that their mothers will shame them for being sexually active. As Black women, the odds are already stacked against us when it comes to health, especially sexual and reproductive health. It’s alarming that we further those statistics and diagnoses by not seeing the doctor or teaching teenagers the importance of routine checks and exams, sexually active or not.
I don’t have kids, nor do I plan on changing that in the near future, but I would like to think I would adopt my mother’s principles. My mom sat me down and told me when I was ready to make “big girl decisions” that I should let her know so that I can start seeing the “big girl doctor” to make sure everything was okay. Knowing my mother, I know that this was very hard for her to say, but I am thankful for her transparency.
“My mom never brought up going to an ob/gyn. The topic os sex, birth control, etc. is rarely spoken about in my household” —Anonymous, age 23
However, she did get one thing wrong: not being sexually active does not mean that you should not be seeing a gynecologist, on a yearly and as needed basis. Period complications, uterine and pelvic pain, and anything else that seems irregular is a reason to take a trip to the doctor.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that teenagers should start seeing the gynecologist between the ages of 13 and 15 and the first pap smear should occur at 21. It also explains what to expect during the visit, as well as tests performed and concerns that can be brought up by the patient. Yes, these concerns include sex and sexuality, but they also contain topics such as weight, acne, and emotional ups and downs. Those three topics mean a lot to growing teens and can be difficult to discuss with a parent, especially when they already fear being shamed when it comes to sexual activity.
The real root of the problem lies in the lack of open conversations about sexual and reproductive health for young people among our families and communities. Sex should not be a taboo subject, but so many refuse to talk about or listen to anything remotely close to sexuality and health of Black teens unless it is to shame them. They should not only be learning about the gynecologist as young adults, or in college in the midst of an STI scare, or because of unusual pains in their pelvic area.
“Me and my mom never really had a convo about sex or anything related to that untilI I was in college, which was totally behind the 8 ball if you ask me.” —Anonymous, age 22
If you have Black teenagers in your life and have a close relationship with them, make sure they are being educated on the importance of sexual and reproductive health. I pray that newer generations will do a better job of having real conversations with young Black children about everything from depression to sex to fibroids.
If you’re a Black teen reading this and you’re in need of medical help, reach out to someone you can trust. You’re not too young to know about your body and you aren’t “fast” for wanting to make sure everything is in working order. Speak up for yourself and your health! We can’t afford to keep losing our people to neglected health issues due to ignorance and shame, so let’s have the conversations and end the stigma.
Victoria Daniels is a journalist and writer who believes in the power of story-telling and truth seeking. Her passion for bringing light to darkened issues is apparent through her personal blog, where she boldly speaks her truth in hopes of helping others find their own. She is a graduate of Hampton University and is currently pursuing her masters in journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.