By some estimates, sexual health for minority teens is looking up. A survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July revealed a significant decline in sexually risky behavior among black high school students in the past 20 years.
Despite the decrease, however, health officials caution that HIV still poses a serious risk to youth, regardless of race.
23-year-old Mark Johnson believes that sex ed's emphasis on teen pregnancy is a reason why HIV rates among teenagers remains high. "We get preached to about not having children, because 'We don't want our kids having kids,'" Johnson told The Huffington Post. "I think [we need to] talk to them more about not just having kids and being stuck with that, but also that you could contract HIV and that's something you just can't give back."
Johnson adds that experience has acted as one of the strongest lessons in prevention in his life, especially having watched his girlfriend give birth to his daughter at the age of 19.
But 18-year-old Niani Moran says that even pregnancy and STD scares aren't enough to help her peers make better decisions when it comes to sex. "HIV is pretty much never discussed between my friends," Moran says. "They are fully aware of STDs -- gonorrhea, chlamydia, all that is talked about more than HIV. I'm guessing maybe they think that they're immune to it, like it can't happen to them," she adds, explaining her decision to remain celibate until she's married.
Both Johnson and Moran detail their attitudes toward sex and the outside influences that inform them in a new 19-minute documentary funded by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health called "GenerationNext: Uncovered."
A third youth in the film, produced by filmmaker Shenille Latrice, also revealed his thoughts on the subject and detailed here the life-changing HIV diagnosis he received at the age of 13. Check out Latrice's film to see how his peers reacted to his disclosure and to find out more about who he is.
As told to HuffPost Black Voices:
It’s never easy to tell the story. Even though I’m so familiar with it and I’m so used to telling it, it’s always harder each time.
I’ve been positive for the past 26 years. I was infected at birth from my mother who contracted it from my father, who was using drugs at the time. She didn’t know until she gave birth [that she had HIV], and I didn’t find out I was positive until I was 13, which was a couple of months after my mom passed away in September of ‘99.
I have a younger sister and a couple of brothers on my father’s side … none of them are HIV positive, thankfully. This is just one of those things.
When I found out, I was still young so it was more so going to the doctor and your parents telling you you’re sick and you have to take medication in order to feel better -- that’s pretty much what it was. It was like, “You have to take these pills everyday and it’ll make you get better and give you longer life.”
There was a point in time when I felt like I didn’t need to take the medication anymore; I didn’t want to. My mother had just passed and my regimen switched a lot of times. I was even hospitalized a couple of times. The size of the pills played a part in it, because there was one pill I used to take and it was huge. I couldn’t stand how big it was or the smell of it, and it wasn’t just me -- a lot of kids that I knew who were also positive complained about the same thing. There’s always something that kind of blocks you and stops you from doing the right thing and those were the things that had me not want to take the medication.
But as I started to get more aware of what HIV is, I began to keep taking my regimen very seriously, because I knew that each time I missed a dose, it was taking life away from me and I can’t afford that. Now it’s just four pills once a day. And thank God, my regimen has been pretty slim. I know a lot of kids who I mentor who are taking six to eighteen pills maybe once or twice a day -- that’s a lot of pills. I also don’t really get any side effects with the medication I’m taking now, because once you get in the habit of taking it, the side effects kind of wear off. And I kind of got smart -- I take my medication at night, that way I’ll sleep off any side effects.
At the time, I had no idea what HIV was, but I used to hear about it from my peers. As I started to get older, I started to hear more negative words and stories about it and what it does to you and how you should look if you had it. Knowing that I had it, I couldn’t tell anyone because I was embarrassed, one; two, I was afraid of being cast out; three, I just didn’t have any type of education about it. And I was already experimenting with sex at a very young age -- I started having sex when I was like 12 -- so it was scary. It was like, do I tell these girls that I’m having sex with that I’m HIV positive or do I not? I didn’t tell. It was like, what is the point? I’m using protection, so why do I have to tell them? That was my thought process back then.
I remember a point in time when I was angry at my mother and it hurt so bad because it was my mother and I never thought she could do wrong; she never hid anything from me. But to keep something so large like this from me? And for my father to do drugs at that time and didn’t know? I felt like it was careless behavior on both parts and it messed up a life. My father is still in prison, my mother is no longer here; this is something that’s passed down, something I didn’t ask for. I didn’t have a choice. I was really angry.
I feel like anger is definitely something that needs to happen though, because it motivates you. I took that anger and I turned it into something positive.
As I started to get older and started experimenting with more sex, I’m like, "Alright, you know what, I have to chill. I have to really educate myself about it." It wasn’t just an easy step, it took years for me to get comfortable living with HIV, loving myself more and knowing what my purpose was here on this earth, and that was to share my story with as many people as possible. It was a rough time.
I went to Philadelphia FIGHT and my got certification in HIV and AIDS peer education. That program is called Project Teach and you have to be HIV positive to be a part of the program. They educate us like bookwork, whether it was HIV 101 to how HIV works in your body; how it lays dormant; what changes happen; how rapidly it changes in your body; what are the ins and outs as far as having HIV; side effects; what the medication does to your body on the inside; how [HIV] really conspires in someone’s body and how people get it. It was literally like going to school and getting a degree.
That helped me out a lot; it educated me a lot. Here I am, HIV positive and not knowing anything about it.
The first person I told my HIV status to was one of my best friends growing up. We knew each other since we were kids. [We] shared pretty much the same lifestyle as far as not having a father and being raised by a single mother. [We] were always connected, we were born around the same time, and I remember one day just thinking, “This is one of my best friends [who] needs to know if something happens to me.” That was the only person I felt comfortable with talking to about anything.
I just prayed about it and told him and he was cool with it. I asked, “Could you keep it a secret between you and I until I’m ready to take those necessary steps to become more comfortable with myself and with sharing it with other people and the world and my family members?"
Certain people are brought up to be stuck in their ways and my grandmother is very old school so she’s like, a secret is a secret, no one is supposed to know. But she doesn’t realize that in this time period, people are a lot more accepting. At the time when my mother was alive, people didn’t take keen to people with HIV; they really did shun people, they really did cast them aside. I think she was just more in protection mode, mother mode. She wanted to make sure that I was going to be okay and I understand that now. I understand that everything that was happening was for my own protection, but I feel like my belief in God has definitely gotten me far and I feel like once I took that journey to say I wanted to do this, I would be okay and nothing or no one would really stop me from getting my story out.
Are you living (and thriving) with HIV? Show us what HIV looks like. Email your story to firstname.lastname@example.org and help put an end to the stigma associated with the disease.