A Leader in Sexual and Reproductive Health Poised to Influence Policy Worldwide

Before the Women’s Marches and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements made headlines and brought issues of women’s rights back to the forefront, Rutgers scholars had been working for decades as ardent advocates through their research, teaching and outreach. Rutgers Today is highlighting many of the women whose work is making a noticeable impact. This article is the latest in our series.

Over three decades, Leslie M. Kantor has touched the lives of countless Americans. As an undergraduate at Barnard, she organized an AIDS peer-education group, counseling fellow students about safe sex. As director of community advocacy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, she helped 250 communities in 36 states develop comprehensive sexuality education programs. And as vice president of education for Planned Parenthood, she guided the development of digital education tools aimed at reducing unintended pregnancy that have been used by more than 600,000 middle and high school students.

Now, as the inaugural chair of the Department of Urban-Global Public Health, part of Rutgers School of Public Health, Kantor is poised to extend her influence around the world. A leader in sexual and reproductive health and an advocate for underserved and marginalized populations, she understands explicitly how both vocations intersect. “There is almost no health issue,” she says, “on which there aren’t significant and persistent racial, ethnic, and economic inequities.” 

Consent is inarguably one of those issues, and it’s a subject Kantor has thought a great deal about. She produced a series of videos aimed at teaching young people how to give, ask for, and understand consent in sexual situations. The videos depict a variety of young couples, both heterosexual and same-sex, in scenarios in which consent is asked for—and given or refused. Frank, informative, and occasionally funny, the videos were designed to reach older teens and young adults.

The consent videos are one element of what Kantor would like to see as a broader discussion of sex education introduced at a younger age. “If we wait to talk about these issues with college students,” Kantor explains, “we’re really missing the more important prevention opportunity, which is to help young people learn communication, negotiation, and refusal skills.” If we exposed students early to the issue of consent, she says, “we wouldn’t be seeing the kinds of problems that we’ve been seeing on college campuses.”

“Help should not depend on your zip code, and yet in this country, it is almost wholly determined by that.”

Kantor notes that sexual harassment and assault are among the experiences in which women are more likely than men to be victims, but she’s quick to add that “we lose our way when we start to frame this as only something that men can do to women.” Still, she recognizes that virtually all forms of sexual harassment and abuse have at their origin differentials in power, and that in our society, men hold more power than women. It’s a reality that’s led to inequities in, among other things, women’s access to reproductive health care.  While some states are working actively to increase access, others are doing exactly the opposite.

“So much of this story—very, very sadly—ends up depending on your geography,” Kantor says. “If you want to look at the big story of what’s happened in reproductive rights in the last couple of years, it’s not the national story; it’s the state story.” A woman living in California, for example, is almost certainly benefitting from its commitment to women’s health and the large number of providers serving the state. A woman living in Texas or Ohio, on the other hand, is likely to find it harder to access those services, due to restrictive legislation. “Help,” Kantor says, “should not depend on your zip code, and yet in this country, it is almost wholly determined by that.” 

Her view, shared by the birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, is that access to family planning services is inextricably enmeshed with women’s equality. “The struggles for reproductive rights and for broader gender equity,” she says, “are really the same struggle.” In turn, both of those struggles are a part of the fight for social equity overall. Kantor cites the large disparities in access to health care between New Jersey’s wealthy suburbs and its cities, with their high rates of poverty. “On almost any health indicator,” she says, “the negative outcomes are significantly more prevalent in our state’s urban areas.”

To Kantor, correcting inequities of public health isn’t just important in and of itself; it’s also an essential way to address injustice overall. “I’ve dedicated my career to public health,” she explains, “because it’s a pathway to social and economic justice.” Her new position is a significant step along that pathway and “one of the reasons,” she says, “that I’m so excited to join Rutgers right now.”


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