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Black teenagers defy pop culture portrayals

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
  • Laura Stepp: Media portrayals of black "baby mamas" and young "players" are wrong
  • Pregnancy rate of black teenage girls dropped 44% over past 20 years, she says
  • Stepp: Black teens value relationships over sex; 4 out of 5 value A's over "hotness"
  • With all the media emphasis on sex, Stepp writes, black teens deserve credit

Editor's note: Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both," and "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence." She is a consultant to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

(CNN) -- If you got your ideas about young black people just from the entertainment industry, you'd think they were all players and baby mamas -- and you'd be sorely mistaken.

In fact, the pregnancy rate of black teenage girls has dropped 44% over the last two decades, the teen birth rate 47%. Over that same period, both pregnancy and birth rates declined among all youth, but black youth had the largest declines.

And those black Casanovas? Also a stereotype. Young black men, as well as young black women, value relationships over sex.

These are some of the findings reported in Essence magazine. Essence, in partnership with The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, hired an independent research firm to survey 1,500 African-Americans ages 13 to 21 about their attitudes toward sex, relationships and media.

Not all results were positive.

Among young African-American males in the Essence survey who had had sex, 65% had done so at least once without using protection. And national data show that almost 50% of African-American females ages 13-21 will get pregnant before they turn 20.

Both young men and young women said they felt more sexual pressure from society and the media than from their partners.
--Laura Stepp

But sexual behavior is improving, and unlike the impression we get from popular culture, young people have got other things on their minds in addition to "doing it." The survey reported, for example, that four out of five girls and guys said they'd rather get straight A's in school than be thought of as "hot."

Also, three of four males said they'd rather be in a relationship with no sex than have sex with no relationship, and three of five said guys have more respect for girls who want to wait to have sex.

Both young men and young women said they felt more sexual pressure from society and the media than from their partners. The media -- including television, movies and videos -- took a particular beating from young women: 72% said that media send a message that sex appeal is a black woman's most important quality.

As Kendralyn, a college freshman, told me, VH1's "Basketball Wives" or Oxygen's "Bad Girls' Club" are "not what being a black woman is all about."

Naomi, a high school senior, singled out the BET network. "It's just too much. There's so much sass, playing on the stereotype."

Turning off the television -- even if a parent could -- is not going to help. As the Essence article pointed out, young people carry the media around in their smart phones, leaving grayheads clueless about what the teens are watching, listening to and talking about.

And TV and video characters are not the only ones pushing sexual stereotypes. Older adults, especially white adults, can be quick to make generalizations based on how black youth dress or talk, Naomi said. She and her friends pick up on suggestive stares and snide comments.

Kendralyn noted, correctly, that older adults have always made negative generalizations about youth. (Indeed. "Bye-Bye Birdie" anyone?)

"Every young generation is underestimated and sometimes misjudged," Kendralyn said. What she would like to see, especially for black girls, are more ways for them to showcase their talents beyond what their bodies offer.

She offered one more piece of advice to adults: Listen before you talk.

That means starting with the right questions, according to Essence writer Jeannine Amber. Steer away from "Don't, don't, don't," she wrote. Ask young people what they're doing, how they're feeling, what they're thinking about -- not just when it comes to sex, but also about their relationships.

Parents who are uncomfortable with such conversations can steer their kids to an aunt, uncle or other substitute, Amber said.

Almost all kids in school today learn the mechanics of sexual intercourse, the dangers of unprotected sex and the precautions they should take if they're going to have sex. It's a good bet that sex education -- as spotty as it is in this country -- has had something to do with the decline of teen pregnancies and teen births.

But let's also give credit to black teens themselves. After all, in the moment when it counts, they're the ones making the decision to wait to have sex or to use protection. Adults' role is not to judge, but to help them do what many, if not most, already want to do.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Laura Sessions Stepp.