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For immediate use

May 12, 2000 – No.237


Research shows black churches willing to help with sex education

By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL – Many black churches in the nation’s "Bible Belt" would be willing to include sexuality education among health education programs for their adolescent members, a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study suggests.

Such findings are important because in some parts of the nation, including North Carolina, schools have been prohibited from teaching about sexuality unless local school boards approve such instruction, the lead researcher says. Churches might become an particularly effective vehicle for providing information that could protect teens against unplanned pregnancies, disease and possibly death from AIDS.

"As a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine, I feel it is important for adolescents to receive sexuality education, including counseling about abstinence before, rather than after, they reach the health-care system," said Dr. Tamera Coyne-Beasley, assistant professor of community pediatrics and internal medicine at the UNC-CH School of Medicine. "Generally when many teens come to health care practitioners, they may already be sexually active and may be seeking treatment for a sexually transmitted infection or contraceptive information."

Black adolescents have higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and births, she said. They could be particularly affected by church programs since a high percentage of them report church attendance and live in conservative Bible Belt states of the rural South and poorer sections of the nation’s largest cities.

Coyne-Beasley and Dr. Victor J. Schoenbach, associate professor of epidemiology at the UNC-CH School of Public Health, surveyed clergy at half of the 80 black churches in a single North Carolina county about their adolescent members. The survey asked about the clergy’s interest in health education programs and such priority health topics as drug use and sexual activity.

"Our survey focused on middle school adolescents ages 11-14 years because previous data from that county suggest that about half of African-American young adolescents reported sexual intercourse by the age of 15 and the provision of sexuality education is even more controversial in middle school than in high school," the pediatrician said.

She will present the findings in Boston Friday, May 12, at the Pediatrics Academic Societies and American Academy of Pediatrics joint meeting. Of the 45 clergy members surveyed, whose churches account for most church membership among blacks in the county, more than three-quarters responded.

"We found that respondents’ highest priority issues were drugs, violence, HIV/AIDS, pregnancy and alcohol," Coyne-Beasley said. "Many – 76 percent – had discussed one or more of these issues in church. The 24 percent who had not discussed any of them in church indicated an interest in having discussions on at least some of them.

"All respondents wanted additional health seminars for their adolescents, although some clergy – 30 percent – excluded some sexual topics such as anal sex, bisexuality, homosexuality, masturbation and oral sex," she said. "Only 6 percent would make condoms available in their churches, but all would allow contraceptive education."

About 60 percent of those who objected to some topics as not suitable for discussion in church still felt they should be covered in school, the survey showed. As a group, the clergy appeared to significantly underestimate levels of sexual intercourse among their adolescent parishioners.

"Because of the stigma associated with its primary transmission behaviors, HIV/AIDS has presented a major challenge to churches," Coyne-Beasley said. "With the growing recognition both of the importance of protecting adolescents from HIV/AIDS and of the constraints on the public schools, churches stand out as a promising and underutilized institution for providing comprehensive sexuality education."

While the survey had some limitations, including size and the small number of women respondents, it is important in that it took place in the South, she said.

"The city’s location in the ‘Bible Belt’ is very relevant because this is a region where comprehensive sexuality education in the schools is particularly controversial and also one where the African-American church may have the greatest potential as a vehicle for health education."

A report on the findings also appeared last month in the Journal of Adolescent Health, a scholarly peer-reviewed journal. Support for the study came from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Minority Health.

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Note: Prior to the meeting, call Coyne-Beasley at (919) 843-9942 (w). During the meeting, call her at (603) 434-7283 or via the press office, John B. Hynes Convention Center, in Boston, (617) 954-2000 She will voice mail daily: (919) 843-9942.

Contact: David Williamson (919) 962-8596