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Black Women Get Straight Talk On Sexual Health

By Jasmin K. Williams, New Community Media Alliance, The Amsterdam News

 NEW YORK - Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nation's largest health provider for women, partnered with Essence magazine to host a discussion on the state of the sexual and reproductive health of African-American women.

Licensed in every state, Planned Parenthood is known primarily as a place where women can get safe, legal abortions, but it offers much more. Planned Parenthood is a place where women can get good, solid information, counseling and advice about their sexual reproductive health. One in five women in the United States has visited a Planned Parenthood center at some point in her life. Most are lower-income.

In 2009, more than 287,000 Planned Parenthood patients were African-American women, with a 255 percent increase in African-American male clients since 2000.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation and a respected figure in women's health and reproductive rights, is excited about new ways to get good information out to the public, which is essential in combating the challenges of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Many of these problems have been caused by a lack of solid information. The new wave of online technology, including texting and blogging, is invaluable in providing good information. Practically any question can now be answered using the Internet. Community outreach groups are now encouraged to talk to young people about sexuality.

"Blogging is the most democratizing influence. It's a very special thing. It's the cutting edge of getting information to people, wherever they are and whenever they need it," Richards said.

"It's been a lifetime of struggle to advance women's options to services and care. We are and abortion provider, which gets all the news. Many people are surprised to find that's actually only 3 percent of the services we provide, and that 97 percent of the services are actually preventative in nature: contraception, STI and STD testing and treatment, breast cancer screening.

"Many women come to us first for birth control because they think they can put off the rest of their health care, but they can't put off birth control. But once they're in the doors, we can give them all of their wellness care. For many women who come to Planned Parenthood, we're the only doctor that they see. There are more than 800 health centers in every state in America. We are committed to providing care to every woman who needs it, regardless of background, income or immigration status.

"In 2008, 15 percent of patients were African-American, primarily women, although we do see men looking for confidential STD treatment. Sexual health issues are not something talked about openly, but this is a place where you can get treatment without being embarrassed or ashamed. We are also the largest sex educator in America. We reach about 1.2 million young people. We discovered that the marriage of the Internet plus safe, confidential person-to-person referrals about sexual health issues is a perfect match; Planned Parenthood and the Internet have been marred for the last four years.

"We have 3 million patients coming through the doors every year for health care. In the last 40 days we've seen 2.2 million visitors online. What this means is that there is an opportunity to provide information to young people whenever they want or need it. Through the Internet, no question is absurd or risky to ask," she said.

African-American women find it very hard to take charge of their reproductive behavior, said Lynya Floyd, senior editor of Health and Relationships for Essence magazine. "Factors include fear of losing a man, abusive relationships, lack of knowledge about a partner's sexual health and assumption of a partner's fertility," she said.

In our community, there is disproportionate access to good health care. A startling fact is that HIV/AIDS is the lead­ing cause of death of African-American women, ages 18-34. Forty-eight percent of African Americans test positive for genital herpes, though there are not always obvious symp­toms. Seventy-one percent test positive for gonorrhea, and 50 percent test positive for syphilis. One reason for such high rates of infection is fear and stigma.

Women are not making their sexual health the prior­ity that it should be. Women are not demanding that their partners be tested or that they use a condom. Fear of not hav­ing a man plays into women being reckless in their sexual behavior to "keep" a man. But the fact is that it's a woman's responsibility to safeguard her sexual health.

In a recent Essence maga­zine poll of 17,000 partici­pants, both male and female, it was found that 36 percent learned something about a partner that made them re­gret sleeping with them. For­ty-five percent of men had asked a partner to get tested for sexually transmitted in­fections. Twenty-five per­cent of women were victims of their partners removing a condom without their knowl­edge during sex.

Women and men must assume their partners have some type of STI until proven otherwise, not the other way around, and must demand that each new partner be tested before starting a sexual relationship.

"Women must gain control of their fertility," Dr. Vanessa Collins said. "The challenge is to make sure that children are nurtured and can compete and contribute to the world. I loved the slogan from the United Negro College Fund: 'A mind is a terrible thing to waste.' Parenting too early is a waste of many minds," she said. "There is a difference between recreational and procreation. Every sexual encounter should not lead to pregnancy. Unintended preg­nancy is caused by poverty and a lack of information," she said.

"Quality, affordable health care is a human right," said Dr. Willie Parker, director of Planned Parenthood of Met­ropolitan Washington, D.C. "Women are still being misin­formed," he said.

Many times when a wom­an does make an effort to take charge of her reproduc­tive health, she is given the wrong information. Parker told of a young Spelman Col­lege student who went to her doctor seeking an IUD as a method of birth control. She was told that she was not eli­gible for the device since she had never had a child. This was incorrect information. The woman did finally re­ceive the IUD and is going on with her life.

The takeaway from this important discussion is that women and men must go beyond fear and stigma and take control of their sexual and reproductive health and fertility. Women must get tested and demand that their partners be tested before en­tering a sexual relationship. Women must demand that their partners wear a con­dom. Women must take con­trol of their fertility and pre­vent unintended pregnancies with the right contraception.

There is unlimited access to information via the Internet, and Planned Parenthood is a great resource for sound in­formation and help.

"This was a wonderful chance to have bloggers from across the African-American media outlets talk about the very important issues of ac­cess to reproductive health care for African-American women and men," said Rich­ards. "It was an incredible, rich discussion about not only some of the barriers to ac­cessing health care, but also some of the cultural taboos and stigmas that woman and men face in accessing servic­es to resources and care.

"There is an opportunity to use social media and blogging to get information out, and we at Planned Parenthood are very excited about this partnership and these oppor­tunities," she concluded.



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