Posted by chicagomedia.org on July 29, 2009 at 11:25:21:
'The next Dr. Ruth': Hyde Park doctor takes to the airwaves to deliver sex advice to Chicago's African-American community
Physician puts new spin on safe sex, monogamy
By Megan Twohey | Tribune reporter
July 27, 2009
It was Thursday morning, and listeners of Power 92 were flooding the radio station's phone lines with questions for Rachael Ross, a young doctor from Hyde Park who aims to transform sexual attitudes and behaviors as the hip-hop generation's Dr. Ruth.
One caller was not satisfied with his sexual performance, another was concerned about an abnormal Pap smear, while a third voiced a complaint about difficulty becoming aroused -- to which Ross advised erotic books, movies and self-stimulation, explaining reassuringly that "you can train your body."
The exchanges were typical for Ross, who has developed a growing fan base in recent years for dispensing frank advice about sex and reproductive health as an expert on shows on TV and radio stations including BET, B96 and Power 92. No matter how seemingly taboo the subject, she provides cheery responses, exuding a savvy confidence.
But her friendly tone belies a serious mission. As Ross sees it, misguided attitudes and dangerous sexual behaviors are fueling the high rates of out-of-wedlock births and HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in the African-American community. In 2006, African-Americans accounted for 45 percent of the estimated new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the United States, according to the federal government. Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of African-American children are born out of wedlock, government data show.
By taking frank discussions to the airwaves, Ross hopes to convert listeners to monogamy, safe sex and healthy, honest relationships.
"Black households have been traditionally very conservative in talking about sex, with disastrous effects," said Ross, a tall woman with a broad smile, who wears large, heart-shaped earrings. "I want to capture people where they're at, and then work to change their thoughts and behaviors. It's a balance of sex advice and a safe-sex message."
As she strives to reach the level of prominence of Dr. Laura Berman, another Chicago-based authority on sex, and Canadian nurse Sue Johanson, a cable TV fixture, Ross is drawing support from others battling to improve sexual health in the African-American community.
"She's doing some outstanding work," said Penny Willis of Chicago, who has organized faith-based sex education programs in African-American churches as a director at the national Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. "There's a real need to promote sexual health and responsibility in the black community."
Ross' personality and background have equipped her well to connect with her target audience.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University, she received a degree from the historically black Meharry Medical College in Nashville and worked closely with the New Orleans-based Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies, which focuses on improving the health of women of color and their families.
Now in her early 30s, she treats primarily African-American patients at her family's medical clinic in Gary, where she grew up, while also serving as medical director of a men's prison in Westville, Ind.
With her striking looks and several years as a hip-hop DJ under her belt, she stands out in the field of sexology, which has long suffered from a lack of minority representation, said Stephen Conley, executive director of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.
"She always brings a real perspective on what's happening in the community," said Denese Shervington, a clinical psychiatrist who serves as director of the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies. "I think she can become the next Dr. Ruth."
Trey Da Choklit Jok, morning host on Power 92, a hip-hop radio station that draws as many as 700,000 mostly African-American listeners weekly, agreed. He said Ross has become extremely popular with listeners since she became a regular on the show five months ago.
"She creates this really comfortable atmosphere," he said. "She makes you feel like no question is out of line."
One of nine children, Ross grew up in a strict and conservative household. Her mother and father, also a doctor, emphasized education and prohibited their children from dating around, Ross said.
It wasn't until she volunteered to help those suffering from HIV infection while at Vanderbilt that she became seriously interested in how sex radically affects people's physical and emotional well-being.
"Some of my fellow volunteers went on to study the virus, but I wanted to study how sex can change your life," Ross said.
Shervington enlisted her for a national advisory committee on sexual health formed by then-U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher.
But Ross was disappointed in the process, she said, when the group refused to publish explicit information about sex or condoms. She became determined to create her own platform for frank discussion.
The sexology field is small and largely unregulated. Ross studied sexology at Maimonides University in Florida. After completing that program, now run by the American Academy of Clinical Sexologists, in 2004, she was certified as a sexologist by the American Board of Sexology.
She began publishing information about sexuality, relationships and safe, satisfying sexual practices on her Web site, DrRachael.com, and appearing on radio stations.
"We were all a little taken aback," said her sister, Rebekkah, who also works as a physician in the family's medical clinic in Gary. "But we all became very supportive of her when we realized that she was working to combat STDs in our community and help people be fulfilled and happy in many different aspects of their lives."
Rachael Ross pushes abstinence for teenagers, but believes those who have sex must know how to protect themselves. She promotes sexual pleasure as being necessary for happy, healthy adult relationships, but insists that it come with a commitment and honest discussions about sexual behavior and preferences.
Especially troubling to Ross are African-American men in heterosexual relationships who secretly engage in homosexual behavior -- a phenomenon whose scope has been widely debated, but to which Ross attributes much of the blame for the spread of HIV.
"Men need to be honest about their sexuality," said Ross, who has been in a four-year committed relationship and hopes to one day get married and have children. "And women need to ask direct questions and not be afraid to walk away if their partner is not committed."
Not that Ross comes off as scolding. A firm believer that sex education should be entertaining, she wants participants in her conversations to feel comfortable, even enjoy themselves. That attitude came through on a recent morning as Ross fielded phone calls in the Power 92 studio in Hammond.
Laughter filled the air as she walked one listener through different techniques to increase his stamina, while nudging another toward leaving her boyfriend whose behavior was suspicious.
"Thank you so much, Dr. Rachael," a caller gushed. "I don't know where else I'd get all this information."
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