Unpacking Sexual Health: Demanding Change for Our Communities

As Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) Awareness Month draws to a close, it’s the perfect time to get real about how STIs impact our communities.

Janette Robinson-Flint Executive Director of Black Women for Wellness


By Nomsa Khalfani, Ph.D., and Janette Robinson-Flint

As Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) Awareness Month draws to a close, it’s the perfect time to get real about how STIs impact our communities. As Black women, mothers, and health advocates, we have a stake in this matter, but the truth is that we’re often left out of the conversation, and our experiences are overlooked. We need to be listened to and respected, which starts with raising awareness and taking action.

We’ve seen firsthand the stigma and shame associated with STIs, and the lack of access to quality health care makes matters worse. Unfortunately, STI rates among Black women and youth are alarmingly high, accounting for almost half of the 20 million new cases yearly. In 2021 alone, there were 2.5 million reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in the United States, disproportionately affecting Black women and youth aged 15-24. 

The stakes have always been high for our youth regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status, and when it comes to STIs, there’s no difference. Left undiagnosed or untreated, STIs can cause severe long-term health consequences, including infertility and a heightened risk for HIV. Recent data in California has shown a sharp increase in congenital syphilis among young Black women, which, if pregnant, could lead to premature delivery, low birth weight, and even infant death. For our communities to thrive, we must dismantle the systemic inequities that allow these health disparities to persist; this includes changes in our education, communication, health systems, and policies. 

Comprehensive sex education that provides physical and emotional wellness strategies is essential for our health and well-being. We need access to accurate information and health systems tailored to the needs and experiences of those this issue most affects. To be effective, comprehensive sexual health education must be evidence-based, trauma-informed, culturally competent, and inclusive.

Moreover, providing comprehensive sexual health education is not just about preventing STIs. It’s about promoting healthy relationships, building self-esteem and confidence, and fostering respect for oneself and others. These values can benefit young people throughout their lives beyond just their sexual health.

But it isn’t just about education- we must also break down communication barriers. Discussing sexual health can be uncomfortable or taboo in many communities. But it’s precisely because of this discomfort that we need to create safe spaces for open and honest conversations where people feel seen and heard talking about their sexual health needs and concerns.

Addressing inequitable health outcomes for diverse communities throughout California, especially among our youth, will also require a collaborative approach to health care. Local health systems, from community health centers to private practices, would do well to listen to the challenges of our youth by meeting them where they are and expanding culturally sensitive STI testing, screening, and treatment through non-judgmental, person-centered care administered with dignity and respect.

Additionally, we must continue to demand policies like Senator Caroline Menjivar’s Youth Health Equity + Safety (YHES) Act, which prioritizes the health and well-being of our communities. The YHES Act seeks to expand access to free internal and external condoms in California high schools. So young people who often face barriers to accessing sexual health services will have greater access to resources that can help protect them. 

Just as we came together to increase testing to begin turning the tide in the battle against STIs, it is vital that as vanguards of sexual health advocacy and reproductive justice, we stand together to make a difference in the lives of our communities. Let’s keep fighting to improve the lives of all people and demand the change we need to see.

To learn more about improving sexual health, STI testing, and prevention, please go to https://gettested.cdc.gov/

Nomsa Khalfani Co-CEO Essential Access Health

Nomsa Khalfani, Ph.D., is Co-CEO of Essential Access Health, a non-profit organization that champions equitable sexual and reproductive health care for all.

Janette Robinson-Flint is the executive director of Black Women for Wellness, a community-based reproductive justice organization committed to the health and well-being of Black women and girls.

Essential Access Health and Black Women for Wellness are co-sponsors of the YHES Act.