Sexual health is a concept that represents a real break from my past. As I am fond of pointing out in my lectures and my classes, I am the son of a urologist who was very concerned with sexually transmitted diseases in his medical practice. I grew up in the 1950s and early 60s, when sex was not the topic of polite conversation and certainly not a subject that dads and sons discussed regularly. However, when I reached the age when boys were expected to sew wild oats, my dad did more than just struggle through the obligatory birds-and-bees conversation.
He told me about his work.
Gonorrhea was his most frequently seen STI, but he’d seen his fair share of syphilis and a variety of more exotic infections. He was really invested in my understanding how vulnerable I was. More importantly, he even managed to alert me to the risks that I would face as a young Black man, years before public health professionals would cite STIs as a defining condition of race/ethnic health disparities.
My dad was good. He was more than a physician. He was a pioneer. He was the first African American president of the North Jersey Medical Society, and he managed to publish articles based on his clinical observations from a unique vantage point in private practice. When he sat me down years ago to tell me about the evils of STIs, he did it with a kind of quiet eloquence and expertise that scared me to death.
His words affected me deeply and I am pretty sure that I wandered about the house for a few days looking, well, dazed and confused. Interestingly enough, it was my mother who first introduced me to the concept of sexual health. It didn’t take much, but it was effective. She asked me point-blank if my dad had given me what he called his soap-and-water-and-rubbers lecture. When I looked away in obvious discomfort, she said with a wicked grin (and without missing a beat), “Well, did he tell you sex was fun?”
I would love to claim that my path to becoming a public health researcher in HIV/AIDS began with that simple but powerful observation, but in truth, the only concrete outcome of that sound byte was that I stopped immediately thinking of sex as an occasion for disease and got on with being a young guy whose explorations of intimate relationships were hugely helped by having FULLILOVE as a last name.
Nonetheless, those early experiences from more than a half a century ago did leave their mark. I suspect that at this point in the 21st century, shifting our national cultural focus from sex-as-sin-and-risk-for-disease to sex as the quintessential expression of human behavior is an idea whose time has come. And what does it matter that it took so long? We have our entire future to get it right this time.
Robert Fullilove, EdD