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Creators

Shattering the Stigma: Meet the Educators Taking On Sexual Health

It’s World Sexual Health Day—so let’s talk about sex! As sex education continues to suffer under societal taboos, we spoke to inspiring content creators working hard to change the narrative.

Celebrated every year on September 4, World Sexual Health Day (WSHD) is about promoting global awareness of sexual health and challenging taboos that stigmatize sexuality. Simply put, it’s a day to celebrate being sex positive and explore a variety of sexual health topics, from gender identity to pleasure. This year’s theme, as decided by the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS), is “Turn it on: Sexual health in a digital world,” which explores how sex education and sexual rights are affected by digital technology.

While sex education is taught–or not taught—to people differently around the world, the U.S. has always been a battleground for the subject. Despite having wide support (Planned Parenthood found that over 90% of parents advocate for sex education in both middle and high school), the Guttmacher Institute reports that as of 2021, only 30 states require that sex education be taught, while only 18 of those states mandate that sex education be medically accurate, and only five states call for consent to be included in sex education.

Thankfully there are people who make it their life’s work to dismantle destructive concepts of sexual health, and we spoke with four of them. These inspiring women are reclaiming the space as sexual educators and content creators by facilitating important conversations about sexual health to a larger audience, and toppling the notion that sex shouldn’t be talked about.

Jenny Waugh, Sex Educator and STI Prevention Specialist

If there was one thing Jenny Waugh could say to her younger self about sex, it would be to focus on her own needs. “Stop having bad sex with sh*tty people—LOL. But seriously, prioritize your own pleasure, girl. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Waugh tells us over email.

Waugh first became interested in sex education by chance, when she was scrambling to find a topic to speak about for a speech class in college. Going to school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where sex education is not currently mandated, she decided to talk about the need for comprehensive sex education in the U.S.

“As soon as I started learning about sexual health and the education system, I was shocked and angry, but also hooked,” Waugh says. “I never had quality sex ed so I was blown away and enthralled with both learning and also sharing this knowledge with others in my class.” Waugh aced the speech, realized how much she loved teaching, and became an educator seven years ago.

Now based in Seattle, Waugh uses her platform on Instagram to share sex positive facts, infographics, photos and memes to her 13,0000 interested followers, and make sex education more accessible to the masses.

“Access to quality sexual health information online is huge for people who otherwise would not have education or healthy conversations about sex.”

Waugh uses Linktree to promote her published articles and to connect with her audience by giving them the opportunity to ask her questions and support her work via virtual tips. “I am NOT tech savvy, so I really appreciate how easy it is to use Linktree, even when I first made my account. It’s also helped lead to more opportunities and ways to connect with folks.”

Sex educator Jenny Waugh uses Linktree to share information about sexual health

Being a sexual health advocate in a digital world has its disadvantages though, as Waugh says that censorship and algorithms often suppress the information she shares. “Online it can be a struggle to balance getting important information out, while sometimes having to tip-toe to protect your platform.”

Waugh is incredibly passionate about HIV education and AIDS prevention, and works to dispel myths and misinformation about the virus, which has been stigmatized since it became an epidemic more than 40 years ago. Despite major advances in HIV prevention and treatment, Waugh wants everyone to know that it’s not a death sentence.

“With access to treatment and the right support, people truly can live long and healthy, thriving lives, without the ability to transmit HIV to their sexual partners,” Waugh says.”HIV is not curable, but it is a treatable, manageable chronic condition.”

Dr. Shemeka Thorpe, Sexuality Educator and Researcher

Living in the Bible Belt of Greensboro, North Carolina, Dr. Shemeka Thorpe never dreamt of becoming a sex educator. That changed in 2012 when Thorpe started teaching comprehensive sex education to teenagers as a part of a teen pregnancy prevention program, and then transitioned to working with college students and women.

As a sex educator, Thorpe especially loves being a mentor to those who are discriminated, particularly Black women. “I love that I get to talk to Black women about sexual pleasure, sexual anxiety, relationships, orgasms, desire, and more,” Thorpe says. “As a researcher, I get to center the voices and experiences of Black women who are often marginalized.”

Though there has been a lot of progress in the past few decades, there is still a stigma attached to sex that Thorpe wishes she didn’t have to deal with.

“It’s not your responsibility to carry other people’s sexual shame. Sex is normal and it is perfectly OK to explore your body and be curious about sex.”

Dr. Shemeka Thorpe shares sexual health information on Instagram.

Navigating sex in a digital world can be overwhelming, and Thorpe says it’s vital to know how to sift through the misinformation. “Social media is a great way to get quality information about sex education, but [it] can also be the land of sexual myths. It’s important that people fact-check the information they receive to make the best sexual decisions for themselves.”

One of the biggest myths that Thorpe wants to dispel is that lube is unnatural. “Lube is your BFF during sex. Lube makes sex better no matter how aroused you might be.”

Thorpe uses social media to promote her work as a sexual educator, and she praises Linktree for helping her stay organized. “Linktree allows me to house links to my website, book wish list, and research articles all in one space. Everything is just one click away.”

Lindsay Michelle, Sexual Educator and Coach

Lindsay Michelle first found herself interested in sexual health as a second grade teacher while conducting a workshop about consent in the classroom. “Basically, you would partner up and ask your partner for a hug, handshake, or high five, or none at all. It was all about asking before touching and expressing feelings about it,” the Florida-based educator shared with us over email. “I found it fascinating and empowering to teach young minds about their health and bodily autonomy.”

Michelle decided to channel her passion into a blog, Sex Ed with Lindsay, to share information that helps people unlearn “the negative stigmas, self-image, and practices that were thrust upon them throughout childhood,” she writes on her website.

Last year, Michelle was accepted into the prestigious dual master’s program for Social Work & Human Sexuality Studies at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, where she is learning how to educate others about sexual health and wellness, including children as young as three.

“Age-appropriate and medically accurate sex education for young children is possible!” Michelle says.

Lindsay Michelle shares sexual education information on Instagram

When it comes to navigating sex in a digital world, Michelle says that there is a lot of misinformation regarding sex online. “Be wary of products and wellness courses that promise the absolute best sex of your life with their one product and one product only.”

On the contrary, Michelle offers a range of services online including coaching, consulting, and workshops, and says Linktree is an easy way to promote her services: “You can find all the information about a person on one page. It saves a LOT of time and energy!”

Confronting the stigma surrounding sexual health and education can be difficult, but Michelle says it’s worth it to know she is providing important information to people who may not receive it otherwise. “I love when I have a student feel more empowered about their bodily autonomy. I just love teaching and helping others,” she says.

Sangeeta Pillai, Founder of Soul Sutras

Growing up with a very traditional family in Mumbai, India, Sangeeta Pillai was taught that sex was wrong and not to be discussed. “We never talked about sex, it was never a part of any conversations. When there was a scene on TV where someone was kissing, my parents would turn off the TV,” Pillai tells us over Zoom. It wasn’t only her family that shared this notion, Pillai says that centuries of patriarchy have normalized shame around sex in most South Asian cultures.

When Pillai moved to the United Kingdom 16 years ago, she realized that this mentality was not just wrong, it was very detrimental to female sexual and mental health.

“Women are taught that we don’t actively own sex, we are the passive recipients. There is a lot of conditioning around it, and I think it damages women very, very much,” says Pillai. “It damages all women, but it particularly damages South Asian women because we’re taught that that [sex] is wrong.”

As a result, Pillai set up the feminist platform Soul Sutras for South Asian women to talk about sex openly, without shame or fear.

“I do a lot of work with women in my community—I’ve done surveys around sex toys and masturbation—and the words always used are guilt, shame, wrong. They come up every single time…Sex is a massive, massive deal. So that’s why I do what I do.”

Having expanded beyond a blog, Soul Sutras now connects readers to the award-winning Masala podcast on Spotify, which explores topics such as “Porn and South Asian Culture” and “HIV in South Asian Culture,” while the Masala Monologues are a series of writing workshops and theatre performances that share perspectives of sex from the viewpoints of South Asian women.

Sangeeta Pillai's Masala Podcast tackles taboos in the South Asian community

Pillai says one of the biggest things she loves about working as a sex educator is receiving supportive messages from South Asian women on how her words have changed their lives.

Still, she wants other women to know that talking about sex is not going to damage them. “Talking about sex is about taking back power. It’s about understanding our bodies, understanding our choices; it’s about really enjoying our bodies, knowing what our bodies are capable of—emotionally and physically.”

Sexual health in a digital world has its ups and downs, and Pillai says sex educators on social media have helped change the idea that sex is only for one type of body. “I didn’t know it was okay for bodies that don’t fit the mainstream norm to be sexual, because that’s the message we receive from the media. That you have to be looking a particular way, smelling a particular way in order to be sexy, and that’s just rubbish.”

As a guest contributor for numerous publications, Pillai uses Linktree to highlight her work around social activism. “I did an article in Cosmopolitan about a week ago and I added that to my profile straight away,” she says.

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World Sexual Health Day brings to light the need for greater awareness surrounding sexual health issues worldwide, and reminds us that sex education is a basic human right. We should recognize that although attitudes have shifted and more of society has progressed to be sex positive, there is still a long way to go until sexual equity is achieved for everyone.

Thankfully there are trailblazers like these women who are tugging away at the taboos, facilitating conversations and pushing boundaries to build a future where people take charge of their sexuality and sexual rights.

 

About the author: Sahar Nicolette is an editor at Linktree based between Puerto Rico and Los Angeles.