Photography by Mike Dickens

Dr. Tanya Coakley speaks with a student at a local barbershop.


UNCG research: birds, bees and barbershops

Article adapted from a UNCG Research Magazine story by Robert Lopez



African American barbershops have long been places for the black community to open up and speak freely. Dr. Tanya Coakley is looking to them in her attempt to help foster better health communication between fathers and sons.

A professor in the UNCG Department of Social Work, Coakley recently received a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study how African American fathers talk to their sons about sexual health. One of the study goals is to reduce sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy.

She has enlisted a network of barbershops in Greensboro, Charlotte and Reidsville to help recruit participants.

“Barbershops are pillars in the African American community. People respect them,” Coakley says. “So that seemed like a natural resource to tap into.”

The research, which includes collaborators at N.C. A&T State University and Duke University, focuses on pre-adolescent sons.

“We would like to reach boys before they engage in sexual activity,” she says. “We’re helping fathers think about what to say to their sons and when to say it.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American males between the ages of 13 and 24 account for half of HIV infections among all youth. They also are disproportionately affected by other STDs. Coakley is determining the frequency of the conversations taking place and examining the content of those conversations.

“We’ll talk to fathers and sons,” she says, “because sometimes the father’s report will be different from the son’s. They may think they said something or covered a topic, but the son heard something different.”

What fathers should not do, Coakley has found, is glorify sex in sharing their own experience or, for that matter, solely talk about the negative aspects of sex, which might cause sons to dismiss anything else they have to say. Many fathers, she adds, don’t feel prepared to talk about sex with their sons.

“They may not feel they have the knowledge,” she says. “Their fathers may not have had those conversations with them. So it’s sort of like a cycle. They can’t teach their sons what they don’t know.”

Some fathers, she says, fear being too forthcoming.

“They’re concerned they might give their sons too much information, or that their sons might be intimidated and not want to have a second conversation,” Coakley says. “Fathers want to give just enough information in a way that encourages sons to keep the lines of communication open.”