I ask you, what does racism have to do with sexual well-being?
Beauty is only skin deep…or whatever they say. This is usually said as a criticism of people—that someone may look physically attractive, but on a personality level, they aren’t so great. However, beauty and judgements of beauty cut much deeper than the skin.
This is particularly true when perceptions of people are based on the color of their skin. Yes, I am talking about racism. We all know racism will affect quite a list of things including our mental and physical health. Did you know it also relates to sexual health too?
I want to focus this post on women of color because this group of individuals tend to face the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Something else that is unique to this group, is that they can (and do, quite commonly) experience not only sexism, but racism.
So, what does the research say about all these components that are unique to women of color? Well, women of color who experience racism and sexism tend to also be women that have worse sexual well-being. This has 2 aspects: sexual life satisfaction and condom use self-efficacy.
Sexual life satisfaction = How satisfied are you with your sex life?
Condom use self-efficacy = If you had to use a condom, would you feel comfortable doing so and know how to?
So, women that experience racism also have worse sex lives and don’t feel as confident using a condom. It’s bad enough that the first part is true, but the second one really crosses a line into health issues and potential mortality.
When women are not feeling as confident in using condoms, they may be more likely to not use them (or convince their partner to use them, which is a whole other discussion about how gross men can be), increasing the risk of receiving an STI from their partner. So, not only do women of color have to worry about racism and sexism and having less satisfying sex, they now also have to worry about contracting an STI!
Why? Why would racism, in particular, relate to all these negative outcomes?
Well, according to the research, women that experience racism also tend to feel they have less sexual autonomy (meaning they don’t feel in control and power in the situation).
So what do we do about that?
By knowing this finding, we can think through possible pathways to reduce STI spread, which is quite alarmingly large among college students, increase sexual life satisfaction for women of color, or both!
Now, I don’t have an answer backed by research, but I will still say some options that can be explored via research methods.
The first thing would be to know with more certainty if sexual autonomy is actually a causal reason for why racism relates to sexual well-being. Let’s assume this is the case (i.e., that racism CAUSES less sexual well-being and sexual autonomy). If so, then we need to understand what can potentially increase sexual autonomy, especially stemming from racism.
Luckily, we have many options. Among them include counteracting the stress that comes with experiencing racism. When people are less stressed, they are more likely to feel in control.
Racism can also take away a sense of self and identity, both of which would be important to feel more in control if your own life and have sexual autonomy.
Additionally, racism may act more broadly, stripping autonomy away from people more generally. Perhaps if we can increase a sense of control and autonomy generally, that would also lead to better sexual autonomy.
As much as I want to say, let’s just get rid of racism and then these other issues will also be reduced, I can’t imagine society will so quickly change its ways. However, we can always do our part to curtail racism. CALL IT OUT. Talk to people of your own ethnicity (particularly white people to other white people, but, also, within other ethnic-racial groups as well).
Support women, in general, but particularly if you have a position of power or a privilege in society that women of color do not have.
Listen when women say something isn’t right. Allow for space for conversations to happen.
There is no real reason that women of color should be the most afflicted when it comes to receiving STIs.
Until next time.