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RFLC Research Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Tracie Q. Gilbert, Sexuality Education Researcher

“Legislators who desire to use research more effectively would do well to ask more questions about experiences that live underneath the data being presented.”

May is #SexEdForAll month. This RFLC Research Spotlight dives into the world of Sexuality Education research with Dr. Tracie Q. Gilbert.

Dr. Tracie Q. Gilbert, PhD (she/her/hers) is a renowned sexuality educator, writer, researcher and consultant with 25 years of experience in adolescent sexual health and youth development. We spoke to Dr. Gilbert about her work, her focus on Black teens, adults, families and communities, and how it connects to policy work at the state level.

Dr. Gilbert, can you please describe the research that you do in the realm of sexuality education and how your interests at the intersection of racial justice and sexuality?

My research examines the effects of sexualized racialization processes (e.g., colorism, miscegenation laws, sexual stereotyping) on lived experiences of sexuality among African American people in the present day. It’s work that recognizes the role that anti-Blackness and White supremacy have both played in causing physiological and psychic violence against Black people, and in advancing ideas about healthy and/or normative sexuality that do not center Black and other people of color’s experiences. My work is inherently situated at the intersection of racial justice and sexuality, as it recognizes the reality that race matters overwhelmingly in how sexuality (and, by extension, sex ed) is conceptualized and carried out, within all communities but particularly for Black and Brown people in predominantly urban areas.

What does the term ‘sexual wellness as a community right’ represent to you?

When I hear the phrase “sexual wellness as a community right”, I am reminded that such rights have not been historically universal, and that many communities–particular those of low-income and/or communities of color–have not only been denied opportunities to cultivate sexual wellness, but have in fact been caused sexual harm. When we think of how sex education is impacted by this we have only to look at data which lets us know that Black children are more likely to live in states that deny them access to comprehensive sex education, and that even when they are in places where CSE is the standard, they are more likely to receive an experience that prioritizes a prevention narrative, or even to be subjected to evidence-based interventions for “high-risk” populations–curricula that is devoid of discussions about racialization, pleasure, sexual agency, sexual and gender diversity, differing abilities, negotiating desire, and the like. I am interested in moving us toward sex education that is, to use Linwood Lewis’ 2005 phrasing, more “eudaemonic” and less preventive in measure–education that acknowledges sexuality to be an integral aspect of one’s overall human development, and works to alleviate and eliminate all barriers that keep Black communities from having fair access to that discourse.

What role(s) does research play when it comes to policy work related to Sex Ed?

Research is critical to policy work for the ways it provides evidence for the claims policy attempts to exert. If policy is going to be truly relevant to the people it is meant to serve, then it must accurately reflect their expressed needs and realities. Only quality research that is based on what communities need (usually conducted in intentional and empowered collaboration with them) can cultivate that kind of data.

What are some common mistakes and how could legislators use research to be more effective/inclusive/intersectional in their efforts around this topic?

The most common mistake I see when Sex Ed research is used in policymaking is an emphasis on priorities advanced by researchers and policymakers versus those solicited from community members themselves. This happens most often, I believe, when research resources are allocated to researcher teams with no real investment in the communities they research, and no intention to stake such an investment. Even with my own work: while I may have a general idea of the nature of racialization as it relates to sexuality health and development more broadly, it is still crucial that I remain sensitive to differences that occur in my knowledge base based on diverse gender and sexual orientation experiences, spiritual backgrounds–even elements as simple as geographic region or neighborhood.

Legislators (and legislative staff) who desire to use research more effectively would do well to ask more questions about experiences that live underneath the data being presented. Particularly if the data is collected by researchers who do not represent the communities they study: asking more questions about how the data resonates with community members’ real-time experiences, and making sure their input leads in articulating which policies emerge from that work is critical to ensuring its ultimate success.

Bookmark these resources

Comprehensive Sexuality Education ACOG Committee Opinion

  • Data have shown that not all (sexuality education) programs are equally effective for all ages, races and ethnicities, socioeconomic groups, and geographic areas.

Sex and HIV Education Policies in the States Guttmacher Institute

  • 30 states and DC mandate that, when provided, sex and HIV education programs meet certain general requirements.
  • 9 states require the program to provide instruction that is appropriate for a student’s cultural background and that is not biased against any race, sex or ethnicity.

Frankly’ podcast University of Chicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3)

  • A seven-episode series co-created with youth participants in  Ci3’s Adolescent X study– a research project that studies narrative methods to explore the messages that young people receive about their bodies, identities, and sexual health.

For more information or connections to research experts in the area of sexuality education please contact fran@stateinnovation.org