Race Bias Influences Who Gets STI Tests


If you need some evidence that we’re not actually in a post-racism world, here’s another bit of proof.

When adolescent women show up at emergency rooms saying that they’re experiencing lower abdominal pain and/or urinary or genital symptoms, just over 26% of them test positive for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and/or trichomonas. And since many adolescents don’t have primary care doctors, they end up at the ER, so it’s especially important that they get appropriate care. Of course, in a society that offered both accurate sex education and universal, affordable health care, we wouldn’t be asking ER staff (who are more used to dealing with actual emergencies) to deal with STIs, would we?

In any case, it turns out that when young women (13-21 years old) go to the ER, their perceived race has a lot to do with what care they get. If they’re white, they’re less likely to be asked about their sexual histories than black girls. And among the ones with symptoms that are consistent with STIs, they’re also less likely to receive testing and therefore appropriate treatment.


Of course, this is related to the stereotype of the Jezebel, the hypersexual, lewd, and lascivious black woman who is both promiscuous and predatory. (This article at the Ferris University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia has some really good stuff on the subject.)  It makes it easier for ER staff to think of getting STI tests for black girls because there’s often already a belief that they need them more.

The thing is- all young people need to be getting tested for STIs, especially when they have abdominal pain or urinary/genital symptoms. If over a quarter of them are testing positive, clearly we need better education, testing, and treatment. While this is a rare instance of  a racist stereotype leading to a benefit for the target group, the real solution is to improve sex education for all young people and to stop assuming that someone’s race makes them less likely to be sexually active. And it’s certainly another example of how racism is still alive and well, unfortunately.

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