The media today is awash with the news that a national study found 1 in 4 teenage girls has a sexually transmitted infection. This statistic is certainly alarming and incredibly unfortunate, and this issue certainly requires media attention. The study, however, has been covered in problematic ways that serve not to inform but rather create and reinforce stereotypes.
First, the coverage has been inflammatory and is taking the form of a sex panic; The New York Times’ headline for the news story, Sex Infections Found In Quarter of US Girls, uses non-medical terminology (sex infections?) presumably for curiosity and shock value (the NY Times has been known to do this before), and phrases such as “infections from sexual activity of teens” are clearly used to demonize girls’ choice to engage in sexual activity. The news stories make little or no distinction between the words “infection” and “disease,” and most don’t even mention boys.
Most importantly, though, the study has found a huge disparity in the burden of disease, with the rates of infection in African-American girls as high as 50%. This alarming data is a clear indicator of just how pervasive the obstacles that women of color face in healthcare really are, and this report should be followed by a discussion of these obstacles. Instead, most articles merely report the statistic and move on without any discussion of the systematic reasons why African-American girls carry such a heavy burden of disease, leaving it up to the reader and the general public to surmise why this might be.
The result of such carelessness is not trivial, and could contribute to increased discrimination and stigma, in turn increasing the obstacles women of color already face in healthcare and possibly exacerbating this disturbing trend.
–Veronica Bayetti Flores