Antonio Pickard is a father of seven, including four boys, ages 13 to 18. He may not have the answers to all of his sons’ questions, but he wants them to be prepared in at least one area: sex.
“I know that when my boys actually decide that they're ready, I'm going to show them the same way my dad showed me, with a broom and a condom,” he said. “It ain’t no excuse for you not knowing how to use this or how to do this.”
Pickard is one four men inside the basement of Razor Line barbershop in Greensboro on a recent Saturday. The group of fathers sit together and talk about ways to ease into these difficult conversations with their sons.
The class’s location is no accident. Barbershops are pillars in the African-American community, places where men go not only to get their hair cut but also to talk about everything from politics to movies to sports. Leading the conversation is University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor Tanya Coakley, who is conducting a study on how black men talk to their sons about sexual health. She said she wants to give black men a voice.
“One of the things in research is that it's difficult to find and then involve or engage African-American men in research,” said Coakley, who teaches in the Department of Social Work. “We go to where black men may be.”
For Coakley, barbershops seemed to be the place to go. She and her team partnered with various barbershops in Greensboro, Charlotte and Reidsville to recruit men for her study.
Heads Up Barbershop in Greensboro is another one of the shops in her network. Douglas Morton is the owner and said he was eager to help Coakley find participants.
“Any time you're partnering with the community and you’re partnering with men and helping them to teach young men something, I think that's a wonderful effort,” he said. “I think it's needed, not just a good effort, it's needed.”
One of the reasons he thinks the study is needed is because of his own experiences talking about sex with his son and the older men in his family. His father was absent in his life and the topic of sex was an absolute “no-no” with his grandfather.
“You just learned what you got from the other men in the neighborhood,” Morton said. “The other guys in the community, your cousins, your buddies, your friends and that's kind of where it came from. Not kind of, that is where it came from.”
Coakley’s trying to change that conversation through her study.
“People underestimate the power and influence of parents that still is real,” she said. “The issue is parents don't feel that they have this voice or that they're valued.”
Reducing the Statistics
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015, African-American men between the ages of 13 and 29 accounted for 50 percent of HIV infections among all youth.
The statistic is one of the reasons why Coakley is giving black men tips on how to talk to their sons about sex. Yarneccia Dyson is the project manager of the study. She said one of the goals with the study is to reduce sexually-transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy.
“We live in a society that’s pretty conservative, so any kind of talk about body parts or STD’s is taboo,” she said. “One thing we’re doing is to make sure we are honest and forward-thinking and to say, ‘Hey this could happen to you.’”
Coakley agrees. She said it’s important to have a balanced conversation when talking about sex.
“They know what their friends tell them and if you're telling them something different and saying that it's a negative thing, or talking about it in that light, then they may not trust your judgment,” she said.
After they’re recruited, participants attend Coakley’s intervention class where they learn how to have better conversations with their sons.
Curtis Slade was in the class at the Razor Line in Greensboro. His son is 14-years-old and he wants him to get his information from him.
“Anything you want to know, come ask me,” he said when talking about his son. “Don't ask your little joker friends because they ain't gonna give it to you 100. I don't sugarcoat nothing with my son.”
Coakley plans to wrap up her research by the end of summer and hopes to publish the study by the end of the year. She said there are a few tips parents need to know when preparing to talk to their children about sex.
“They have to be calm, open minded and not judgmental,” she said. “They want to have their children come to them and divulge as much as possible.”