February is Black History Month. Let’s kick it off by honoring the past, celebrating the present, and envisioning the future for Black women and their sexual health.

Honoring the past

First, it is important to show homage to my predecessors and those I admire most, including Pauli Murray, Byllye Avery, Gail Wyatt, and Dionne Stephens. These amazing women paved the way in sexual and reproductive health care, education, and research. Their work created spaces for women to boldly stand firm in all of their identities, provided opportunities for women to educate and advocate for sexual and reproductive justice, and identified socio-historical beliefs that deeply impact Black women’s sexual health. These women and so many others were trailblazers for the work that exists today and set the precedent for the work that will continue for decades and centuries to come.

Celebrating the present

Currently, there are many Black sexuality educators and researchers like me who are able to provide information to women that was not easily accessible just five years ago. While we have come a long way, there is so much more that needs to be done in the fight for comprehensive sexuality education available to all women and girls.

I have contributed addressing important gaps in sexuality education curricula for Black women, such as how to debunk myths and stereotypes about Black women and their sexual lives. Also, I have worked to educate Black women to learn to partner with their healthcare providers to improve their overall sexual health. Other work includes leading research projects and publications that address rudimentary issues affecting Black women, such as the lack of equitable treatment in healthcare settings, discussing sexual pleasure, and the importance of sexual communication.

Yet, the work to ensure that Black women have access to quality sexuality education and healthcare services is far from over.

Envisioning the future

In 2020, we began an unprecedented time, in which the school and work environment went virtual. While the adjustment was far from easy, we are now able to see what can be achieved through digital content, online courses, and virtual conferences. Of course, barriers still exist with censorship and access to sexuality information. However, the future for Black women is promising.

During the last 12 months, individuals recommitted themselves to understanding and improving their sexual health and wellbeing. We have organizations and leaders who rededicated their missions to improving the overall health of Black lives. We have a woman in the White House who not only made American history as the first woman vice president, but also made Black History by being the first of African and Indian descent. Vice President Kamala Harris is also incredibly supportive of initiatives that will improve the lives and overall health of Black and Brown women.

The future is bright, and the future is indeed female. It is my hope that Black women will continue to push back against stereotypes that negatively impact them, fight for sexual and reproductive justice, advocate for culturally sensitive and appropriate sexuality education, establish trusting relationships with medical providers to get the sexual health care they deserve, and develop sexual agency to discuss their sexual needs, wants, and desires without shame.

Ashley Townes

Ashley Townes

PhD, MPH, Epidemiologist at Centers for Disease Control
Dr. Ashley Townes (she/her/hers), is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio. She attended Walnut Hills High School and the University of Cincinnati, where she received both her Bachelors and Master of Public Health degrees. She received her doctorate degree in Health Behavior and Epidemiology from Indiana University.

Dr. Townes has experience working as a Community Health Educator and Disease Intervention Specialist in Cincinnati and the surrounding areas. She has worked on several initiatives related to the dissemination of national HIV prevention and care campaign materials tailored for African Americans, Hispanic/Latinx, and transgender women of color. Dr. Townes has taught collegiate-level Human Sexuality courses, served as an Epidemiologist at the Ohio Department of Health, and currently works as an ORISE Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention’s Epidemiology Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA.

Ashley’s research background includes work on the sexual experiences of African American/Black women accessing health information and utilizing sexual health services. In 2018, she received grant funding from the Patty Brisben Foundation for Women’s Sexual Health to translate sexual health research data into educational materials. Her career interests are aimed at providing quality sexual education and working towards health equity.