Grantee Spotlight – Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University

In 2018, the Patty Brisben Foundation awarded a grant to the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University to support African-American Women’s Sexual Lives: Translating New Research Into Education. This project, led by Dr. Debby Herbenick and Dr. Ashley Townes, involved translating data on the sex lives of black women from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) through a sex-positive lens to create educational materials.

The project was inspired by a desire to address gaps in research on the sexual lives of black women. Prior to this study, most information about African-American women focused on negative statistics, such as the occurrence of sexually transmitted infections or unplanned pregnancies. Dr. Herbenick and Dr. Townes heard from researchers, educators, and clinicians that there was a need and desire for positive representation of the sexual lives of black women.

The inspiration for us to oversample African American women through our NSSHB came from a senior sex researcher (an older African American woman) who had come up to me at a conference years ago and said that, throughout her career, she had longed for research data that portrayed the most basic parts of African Americans’ sexual lives. She had said, ‘I would like to be able to say to my students things like X% of African American women have ever masturbated or had an orgasm – things that we’ve had for white students forever, but we haven’t had in our community.”

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Because African-American women make up a smaller portion of the population, even surveys conducted nationally didn’t yield enough information to statistically analyze the responses of black women. As a result, most of the statistics relating to women and sex, such as the percentage who have orgasms or the number of women who use a vibrator, largely reflect the experiences of white women.

Dr. Herbenick and Dr. Townes set out to change this. With the support of the Patty Brisben Foundation, they conducted the NSSHB and collected data focused solely on the sexual experiences of black women. They used their findings to create two sets of educational materials for use by researchers, educators, and clinicians.

In order to help shape conversations on complex topics and debunk some of the myths and negative stereotypes associated with black women and sex, they published two lesson plans in the American Journal of Sexuality Education (linked below). The lesson plans, slides, and content are frequently requested by educators to implement in their own settings, including for distribution by Planned Parenthood. The goal of these lessons is to help prepare patients and providers to have better pleasure-focused conversations about sexual health care.

Additionally, with the help of artist Erin Tobey, they created beautiful postcards that have been distributed free of charge at campus and community events across the nation, including at the Pure Romance National Trainings.

The support of the Patty Brisben Foundation was instrumental in helping Dr. Herbenick and Dr. Townes complete this incredibly important work to highlight the value of pleasure-focused research on the sexual lives of black women.

 I absolutely loved being able to show off the postcards by taking them with me to conferences and embedding them in my presentations. We received great feedback and several educators mentioned to me how much they appreciated the representation of Black women in sex-positive educational materials – which was significantly lacking at the time.

Dr. Ashley Townes

Not only did their project result in valuable information in this under-researched field, it helped elevate the work of Dr. Townes, who completed the study as part of her doctoral degree program.

Having the support of PBF made these data-centered educational postcards and related materials possible. Their visibility also helped elevate Ashley’s already growing reputation as someone whose research and education efforts were focused on Black women’s sexuality. Since then, she completed her doctoral work and moved into a diverse portfolio of work through her work at the CDC. She has established a national reputation in translating sexuality research into education for the general public, such as through her Instagram as well as through conference and community talks.

Dr. Debby Herbenick

To learn more about how the Patty Brisben Foundation supports women’s sexual health, click here.