While statistics tell us that across the country teen pregnancy is declining and sex education is increasingly effective, most of the adolescents who are getting pregnant are the very poor. A recent study of sexuality among African-American youth in households earning less than $25,000 per year was prompted in part by figures showing that black adolescents are becoming sexually active at younger ages than other youth, and are suffering from HIV/AIDS in the highest numbers.
For some, listening to the young people videotaped (but not named) during focus groups for the recent study might be more disturbing than reading the stats.
Although the study gives short shrift to its second mission -- to explore the connections between the teens' attitudes and media consumption -- their comments overwhelmingly display the "hard" and cavalier posturing of some segments of rap and hip-hop culture. The tones are generally dismissive, the bravado is amped, and the vocabulary is objectifying. "Everything is flipped. We used to bag chicks -- now they're baggin' us," said one New York male. And even those who expressed these attitudes cited certain hip-hop artists as more "positive" and called for more "message" in the music.
The study, conducted by Motivational Educational Entertainment (MEE), a Philadelphia communications firm that researches and markets to urban and low-income groups, refers to these teens as "the hip-hop generation." In reality, the teens interviewed -- between 16 and 20 years old -- are probably children of the first hip-hop generation (usually considered people born between 1965 and 1980). The subjects of this study, then, have been raised during the rise of this influential culture and may reflect the long-term effects of the devastation of black communities following the civil rights and black-power movements.
The most telling attitudinal change from the "movement" years is the open disdain for black women and the absence of any influence of feminism. As the authors put it, "Black females are valued by no one." The study's glossary includes six nouns used to describe males: Dog, homeboy, playa, lame, sugar daddy and payload, another word for sugar daddy. For women, there are at least 15, none good: Block bender, woo-wop, flip-flop, skeezer, 'hood rat, 'ho and trick all mean promiscuous female. In addition, there are freak, bitch, gold digger, hoochie mama, runner, flipper, shorty, and the more ambiguous wifey. Young women in the interviews also use some of these terms.
In the survey of 2,000 teens, who were contacted through 80 community-based groups in nine urban areas, the "play or get played" ethos is equally influential among males and females, along with this disrespect for black women. The survey found that urban youth continue to engage in risky sexual behavior in relationships the teens themselves describe as lacking emotional intimacy and trust.
MEE'S STUDY, FUNDED BY THE California Endowment and the Ford Foundation, was conducted with the help of a multicultural group of 10 scholars -- social scientists, clinical psychologists and media experts. The group's goal is to get community-based service organizations and creators of entertainment programming to make more effective interventions with this generation of adolescents.
"Young people today in lower-income black communities are facing a ... whole set of stereotypical images of themselves -- hypersexual, sexually irresponsible, not concerned with ongoing intimate relationships," said Professor Beth Richie of the University of Illinois at Chicago, one of the study's scholars. "[They] can't help but be influenced by those images." When several young women were talking about their reluctance to use condoms, one said that no one on TV or in films is ever shown using them.
According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, African-American adults and adolescents in 2001 had an AIDS case rate 10 times higher than whites. African-American youth account for 60 percent of new AIDS cases, and black females ages 13 to 19 represent 66 percent of AIDS cases reported among young women, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health. Teens repeatedly reported that "everybody" is having sex and complained that most sex-ed classes begin in eighth grade, by which time, they thought, most kids have already had sexual intercourse.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that black teens are more likely than whites to have had sex, more likely to have begun at an earlier age (13), and to have had more than four partners by that stage of life. Blacks are also much more likely to have been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant.
THE MEE SURVEY REVEALS SOME of the attitudes behind the behavior. On several occasions in the MEE focus-group videos, males casually mentioned group rape -- doing "bust-outs," or handing off partners for others to "try out." Even if bravado or "lying on [one's] d--k" may account for some of the tales and blasé attitudes toward this sexual violence, the fact that young women reported it too, along with some admitting to having had sex with more than one partner at a time, suggests a disturbing acceptance of the abuse of women.
One Atlanta teen explained his promiscuity by saying, "I ain't cheatin' 'cause I ain't shit; I'm cheatin' 'cause she ain't shit." And sadly, both males and females frequently displayed their distrust of females as a group. A young New York woman said, "If I have a problem, I prefer to take it to a man rather than a girl. A girl might try to take your man." Women are "girls" but boys are "men"? An Oakland male said girls "don't trust each other, that's why I can't trust them."
A number of women said having multiple partners was the way to combat this devaluation. As for the chance to have lives of their own, these girls, the study's authors said, do not expect or "feel empowered" to achieve them. Since many do not expect exclusive relationships with partners, and sex is spoken of as a transactional relationship rather than an emotional one, keeping a partner by way of sex or pregnancy seems a viable strategy, at least temporarily.
A partner whom a male turns to purely for sex, dubbed a "shorty," is not a person he wants to take out -- and if so, only "to McDonald's," and there is no escape: "Once a shorty, always a shorty." Marriage is not a priority, and committed relationships are often disdained by both sexes, though some males have steadies they call "wifey." One man described his preference: "That's the chick you want to be with; she's always got a condom, she don't want to have no kids, she doesn't want to catch nothing."
The prevalent disrespect for women has also, some teens suggested, resulted in more open homosexual relationships among females. According to the study, "overwhelmingly, across all nine cities, youth of both genders spoke openly about the increased occurrence of female-on-female sexual relationships." While some teens attributed the phenomenon to mutual understanding among women, others, including one of the scholars, cited mistreatment by men. Only lesbians cited same-sex attraction.
Dr. Maisha Hamilton-Bennett, a clinical psychologist, said, "Young women have told me they are choosing homosexuality in response to this whole ''hood rat/skeezer' definition that some of the heavier, darker and less attractive women are getting." A study of factors such as color and size in the disparagement of black women in pop culture would be welcome information. Among black women, there are volumes of anecdotal material affirming our sense of marginalization from the beauty norms, and magazines and music videos imply that Beyoncé is the ideal of the moment.
The scholars who worked on the study suggest broad reforms along with further outreach on health issues. "What we're finding out from our HIV prevention research is that if you're able to re-create social fabric within a very poor black community, you have a greater level of social control over youth," said Carl Bell of the University of Illinois, "and they tend to delay their sexuality expression and their risk-taking behaviors. So [for] intervention strategies, the whole issue is rebuilding the village and trying to re-create social fabric if it's not already there."