College Tackles Sex And Religion In Sex Week

This week is Sex Week at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. But it's not what you might think. The small, historically black college says religion may be getting in the way of frank talk about sex. So, it is hosting a series of campus discussions tackling everything from relationships to sexually transmitted diseases. Host Michel Martin talks with Walter Kimbrough, Philander Smith president and Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon-General, about the initiative.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX")

SALT: (Singing) Come on, let's talk about sex, baby, let's talk about you and me, let's talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be. Let's talk about sex. Let's talk about sex. Let's talk about sex.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Let's talk about sex on campus. Have we got your attention now? A small historically black college is tackling the subject of sex on campus and in the black community more broadly with an effort to engage students in real talk about real issues.

Now, in this program we've talked about some of these issues before. But just to recap for those who may not be aware, African Americans account for almost half of new cases of HIV, that's the virus that causes AIDS. About 72 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. And young African American men and women are more likely to experience Chlamydia or syphilis than their white or Hispanic counterparts.

The leaders at Philander Smith College, which is in Little Rock, Arkansas, say the statistics are mind boggling, especially when you consider that African Americans are also more religious than the general population. That's according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The president of Philander Smith College, Walter Kimbrough, says it is long past time for some frank talk about sex. So his school is holding a sex week this week where an array of experts will be on campus to engage students in what he hopes will be important discussions about sexual health. President Kimbrough is with us now.

Also with him is Dr. Joycelyn Elders. She is the former surgeon general of the United States. She's a Philander Smith alum and she's involved with sex week. And they're with us from Little Rock. Thank you both so much for joining us.

WALTER KIMBROUGH: Thanks, Michel.

JOYCELYN ELDERS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I do anticipate that this conversation might have some frank language, as befits the topic. So please be aware that if that's not appropriate for you or anyone else listening right now, then you know what to do.

So, President Kimbrough, first, tell us where you got the idea for this. And I do note that this is the 20th anniversary of the release of a song that we just heard. Salt 'N' Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex." So, where did this idea come from?

KIMBROUGH: Yeah. That was a part of it. I've looked at the data and the statistics for the last year and the reports kept coming out, reports on CDC that talked about 1 in 6 Americans having herpes and that number being 39 percent for African Americans and 48 percent for black women. The numbers in the fall about the numbers of black children born out of wedlock, now 72 percent.

And so there's a lot of talk and everyone says we just sort of accept these as normal now. Well, that shouldn't be normal. So, how do we start to have proactive conversations with young people on the campus that they can be empowered to address these issues in their communities? So, we want to have that conversation.

And with this being the 20th anniversary of Salt 'N' Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex," which was viewed as controversial in 1991 to have that conversation, it just made a lot of sense that now was the time to engage in that kind of conversation.

MARTIN: I haven't forgotten about Dr. Elders, but President Kimbrough, I wanted to mention that you also have a provocative premise. You are saying, in part, the traditional religious orientation of many African Americans - in fact, your school is affiliated with the United Methodist Church - may, in fact, inhibit the kinds of serious conversations about sexuality and sexual that are needed. Tell me more about why you say that.

KIMBROUGH: Well, part of it is, I was listening to a conversation that Dr. Orlando Patterson at Harvard had. And he was questioning Bishop Vashti McKenzie to say, look, we're doing all this praying, but, you know, we have the highest divorce rate. We're the least likely to get married. If we cohabitate, we're the least likely to get married after that. So there is a disconnect. And Bishop McKenzie said there is a disconnect between our beliefs and our behavior.

And I think part of that is the image that's being promoted in the church. We don't have these conversations and let me - with all full disclosure, I'm a United Methodist preacher's kid, as well. So, I've been active in the church my entire life. But we don't engage in those conversations. And so young people in this generation are moving further and further away from the church because of some of the hypocrisy that they see.

So, from the pulpit, things are being preached, don't do this. Don't do this. And one of the main people doing it sometimes is the preacher. So, you know, we got to get past that and say, church is a place to not only, you know, pray to do better, but we need to make sure people have the education and that their behavior starts to match their beliefs. And I think that's important.

MARTIN: Dr. Elders, do you agree with that? That there's a disconnect between what people preach and say they believe, and, in fact, what they do - and that has serious consequences?

ELDERS: By all means, I believe that. My brother is a minister and I've been involved in church forever. You know, when you're a small community, well, that's all you've got is church. And I feel that the church has done a great disservice to our African American community. And because what we need to be doing is stop moralizing and start educating our bright, young people. We've allowed them to grow up and feel that we've sacrificed our children for our morals. In fact, we've got to be - stop just being religious and start being frisky.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about sex week at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. The school wants to encourage open and honest talk about sex and sexual health and relationships. With us are the former surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Jocelyn Elders and the president of Philander Smith, Walter Kimbrough, a Philander Smith alum as well. Dr. Elders is a Philander Smith alum.

So, President Kimbrough, what do you hope will happen as a result of this? Part of me wonders whether - is this is the kind of conversation you wish someone had had with you when you were a college student?

KIMBROUGH: Oh, I think it would've been great as a college student myself, to have those kinds of conversations. I want to create a culture of awareness on our campus because, you know, we're preparing our students to be that next generation of leaders to address broader social justice issues. So, once again, when we look at these statistics, the group that's disproportionately impacted are black women, in all these statistics.

So, we've got to do some things. And like most HBCUs, we're two-thirds women, and even in terms of all the higher education for African Americans, two-thirds of all those students are women. So, first we want to make sure we have an increased sense of awareness so that students have an opportunity to ask questions, they reach out for help. They start to ask each other questions to learn how to create healthy relationships. And that's what hasn't been modeled in our communities.

So many of our young people come from families where their father has never been around. They have no relationship with him. So they don't know what healthy relationships look like. And so we want them to be able to ask each other, to ask faculty and staff to say, you know, how do we develop these healthy relationships? We want them to see those examples on campus, but we need to engage them because I think our young people want those relationships, but they don't know how to go about developing them.

MARTIN: What are parents saying? Have they heard about this? How are they reacting to this?

KIMBROUGH: I haven't had any response from parents, but I can tell you, since I've been here, and this is - I'm in seventh year, I do a session during orientation for parents. And I tell the parents one of the things I ask them to do is have a conversation with their child about sex. And if they don't want to do it, my wife and I will do it.

I tell them from the beginning because when you see the students who come and they come to graduate from college, but they might leave with a child, that wasn't the original purpose. So I tell them in orientation that you need to have a talk with your child about sex if you have not had it. And if you're afraid to do it, then you tell me and I'll do it.

MARTIN: But people have - there are different conversations that people have. I mean, I don't - can you really divorce and perhaps, Dr. Elders, you'll take this question on as well, 'cause you paid a professional price for your candor about sex. And I think many people may remember that you lost your job as surgeon general, or asked to step down, after you spoke at an international conference and you talked about the need, in your view, for more frank and explicit sexual education.

So, the question, you know, I have for you, is can you have those conversations in a way that will mediate the very different points of view that people have about sexuality and values and what is appropriate, what's right and what's wrong.

ELDERS: Michel, I think we need - all need to have comprehensive sexual health education. Ignorance is never bliss. And I think most parents want their children to be informed. We've got to be honest with them. We've got to educate and empower them if we want them to be responsible. So, I think more and more parents want their children to have the knowledge. And the problem is, many times they don't know how to do it. And they don't want to make a mistake. They don't want to say something wrong. So they really don't do anything.

But, you know, when the Guttmacher did their major study, 86 percent of parents wanted their children to have comprehensive sexuality education and they wanted it taught at schools.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, Guttmacher Institute is a think tank that does research on issues of sexual health and reproductive health, and so forth. And we have information about them on our site. We've consulted with them in the past, as well. Dr. Elders, we only have a minute left. What do you want students to take away from sex week at Philander Smith?

ELDERS: What I want this country to take away from sex week at Philander is that the president at Philander had the courage to step up and step out for our bright young people to educate them. So I want - would like all - if only the HBCUs step up and begin to have sex week at their institutions since the problem is impacting the black community more. Well, I want them to take this on and begin to educate their students so we can begin to reduce the problem that we have. And that's, to me, and I hope our president leads the charge to get this done at all of our institutions across the country.

MARTIN: Dr. Joycelyn Elders is a former surgeon general of the United States. She's an alum of Philander Smith College. Walter Kimbrough is the president of Philander Smith and they were kind enough to join us from Little Rock, Arkansas. Please do keep us posted, president and Dr. Elders. Thank you both so much for joining us.

KIMBROUGH: All right, thank you.

ELDERS: Thank you.

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