Ayanna Coleman and Jenisa Inoa are friends experiencing the highs and lows of New York City living in their 20s. The Brooklyn residents explore the five boroughs together, are learning employment skills, and are continuing to develop their identities through conversations and life experiences with each other and their peers.

“I live in Brownsville, Brooklyn,” Ayanna, 24, said. “I like to be independent. I’m very outspoken. I like to have fun. I like to go out to places and volunteer at places. I love food.”

Jenisa, 26, has been living on her own in Bushwick for nearly a year. “I like to pay my own bills. I like to learn on my own. I like to be independent. I like to be able to do things alone,” she said.

As a part of Project SHINE, AHRC New York City is partnering with Planned Parenthood of Greater New York (PPGNY) and five other organizations committed to closing long-standing gaps in equitable access to sexual health for youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Year One of the project is about understanding youth’s experience with sexual health. AHRC NYC helps engage youth, parents, professionals and advocates in formal research groups led and facilitated by PPGNY while looking to create space, listen and learn from advocates as they share their personal experiences with sexual health.

In a recent conversation with AHRC NYC, Jenisa and Ayanna expressed their opinions on several topics related to sexual health, including dating, independence, their experiences with sexual education, misconceptions from the general public, and more.

On Independence

Ayanna said that being independent encompasses having more personal responsibility. “You pay your own bills, you wash your clothes on your own, you cook for yourself,” she said.

“Being independent means taking care of your own life, in a way. It’s taking care of your responsibilities on your own,” Jenisa added.

Both young women agreed that independence and sexuality are closely tied. Jenisa explained: “You have control over your sexuality when you’re independent. You have control over your own lifestyle and who you’re able to talk to and who you don’t want to talk to.”

Independence and personal freedom are crucial for all persons, according to Ayanna. “I want people to know that even if you have a disability you are able to live your life however you want. Don’t let a disability stop you from what you want to do as a person—in your personal life, in your sexuality, in anything.”

On Having Someone to Talk To

Ayanna and Jenisa agreed that they both have confidants, including each other, whom they go to when they need to talk about issues related to sex. From AHRC NYC, they both trust Tanika Marshall, Community Support Supervisor with Employment and Business Services—Brooklyn, to provide an ear to listen and advice when needed. Tanika also serves as a Project SHINE Advisory Board member, as well as an innovator for Year Two on the project.

“I talk to my mom and one of my cousins, too. I was probably 16 when we talked about sex for the first time,” Ayanna said.

Jenisa said that she would have liked more open communication about sex issues when she was still living at home. “I ended up just being intimate with somebody and realizing things. I would have preferred to have a more open discussion, and that was with a lot of things.”

On Dating and Relationships

Ayanna and Jenisa said they have experience dating men but are currently single—and clear about what they want in a future partner.

“I don’t really have a relationship right now. I want somebody that’s understanding, that’s able to relate to me, that understands where I’m coming from with everything, that’s nonjudgmental,” Jenisa said. “I want someone to be there because they care for me, not because they want something. I’ve been in relationships like that, and at this point in my life I want to put myself first and be single for a while and focus on myself for me to be better for the person that I’m with.”

Ayanna has more specific taste for what she wants in a man. “I like dark-skinned and light-skinned Black men. I like tall men. I like a boy that has muscles.” However, she is adamant that she does not view men strictly for their physical attributes and expects the same respect from a future partner.

“The reason why I want to be in a real relationship is that some guys just want girls for their bodies,” Ayanna explained. “There are guys that want you just for what you have and not for you, and I don’t like that. I can tell when a guy wants me just for my body and they don’t want me for me—the way they look at you, the way they stare at you, the way they just come and talk to you. You don’t love me for me, you love me for what I have. If you can’t accept me for me then we can’t be together.”

On Sex Ed

Sexual education is a critical component of most high school curriculums, but does it provide a fully comprehensive view of sex and sexuality? Ayanna and Jenisa do not think so.

“I feel like in sex ed they will teach you certain things, but not everything,” Jenisa said. It’s class and they are really restricted about certain things, but I still felt they could have taught us more about it.”

Sex was generally presented negatively, not mentioned as a pleasurable activity. Ayanna remembers one teacher coming with graphic pictures of sexually transmitted infections and says she was turned off by the presentation.

Tanika thinks all students are done a disservice when sex ed is framed in a pejorative light. “In high school, the fear is of pregnancy and preventing STDs, but that is not an all-encompassing picture of what sex is,” she explained. “They also don’t go into intimacy, which is another important part of sex. You’re not understanding certain implications, and I think they can approach sex ed in a more holistic fashion. It’s not just biology—there are so many more aspects that go into making sex what it is.”

On Advice for Their Peers

Ayanna stresses that anyone interested in dating needs to get to know the person they are interested in. “Be careful who you fall in love with and be careful who you are around. People can have things you don’t know about; they can have kids you don’t know about. People can be nice to you in the street but they can have issues!”

Jenisa agreed, adding “I would tell them to be safe. Know who you are going to be with to make sure that you don’t put yourself in a bad situation.”

Thank you to Ayanna and Jenisa for sharing their voices and experience. Interested in learning more or getting involved with Project SHINE? Visit the official Project SHINE website for more information.