If you’d asked Tanya Turner eight years ago what she’d be doing over the long term, she’d have said she didn’t think she’d still be teaching sex education to young people in eastern Kentucky.
In 2011, she thought it would be a one-time thing during the annual summer gathering of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project, an initiative that seeks to involve local youth in building Appalachian communities they’d want to continue to live in.
But as word got around that Turner’s “Sexy Sex Ed” workshop created a fun, educational, and nonjudgmental space in which young people could get real answers—and a sense of agency lacking in other aspects of their lives—the gigs started rolling in.
“When somebody calls you and says they have a big group of kids that need sex ed, and they don’t know where else to go, it’s very difficult to turn people down,” Turner said. “It’s taken on a life of its own at this point.”
Requirements for sex education vary broadly across the country. Only 24 states mandate general sex education, with just 18 requiring information about birth control and only 13 requiring medically accurate sex education. The Guttmacher Institute reports that declines in formal sex education, especially concerning birth control, for young people are most concentrated in rural areas. It reports that the percentage of rural young women who were taught about birth control decreased from 71 to 48 percent from 2006 to 2013.
In states like Kentucky, where Turner is based, sex education is mandated by the state legislature, but it is not required to be medically accurate or age-appropriate, and abstinence must be stressed as part of it. Even with these standards in place, sex education curriculum varies widely based on the school district and who is teaching it.
Turner has been offering Sexy Sex Ed for eight years with very little advertising and having only been paid once. She’s held the workshop for hundreds of young people in five states, meeting in church gyms, the basements of people’s homes, at community colleges and youth centers. She said she is not an expert and has no formal health care training, but has learned much over her time teaching the popular-education-style curriculum. She said it’s filling a major gap in the education young people receive about sexual and reproductive health.
“Kids are like sponges, and they are desperate for this information, and they just don’t have access to it for all kinds of reasons,” Turner said.
With formal sex education in schools lacking, young people are left to turn to their peers, parents, health care providers, or the internet to seek the answers they need. In rural communities, though, these options are often inaccessible to young people who fear judgment and ostracizing from their communities and peers. Also, as Turner said, the internet is not always going to offer the most accurate information.
“These kids don’t even know what is in their body.”
The problem, she said, is that searching questions about sex will almost always lead young people to porn sites, and though she said she is not necessarily antiporn, “there isn’t a ton to be learned from the porn industry” overall.
“When kids have innocent questions about their body and about safety, they can’t Google it,” Turner said. “It’s difficult to find answers to it the way that they know how to find answers.”
Even if young people are taught sex education in their schools or by other adults in their lives, Turner said, most kids still don’t understand the basic functions of their anatomy.
“These kids don’t even know what is in their body,” she said. One of the activities in Sexy Sex Ed is a drawing activity wherein participants are asked to draw their reproductive systems. Turner said most of the participants do not know how to label the parts.
“This is concerning,” she said. “When a kid starts talking, and they touch their ear, we give them language for ‘ear.’ … [B]ut when they touch their vagina, we’re like, ‘Don’t touch yourself there.’ And we don’t even call it vagina. We don’t even give language—the bare minimum—that someone needs to advocate for themselves and about what’s going on in their world.”
That’s where Sexy Sex Ed can come in. The workshop is designed around three pillars: consent, safety, and anatomy. The goal is to help young people feel more comfortable discussing their bodies, sex, and reproductive health as a way to empower them to advocate for themselves. Activities are designed to help destigmatize sex and reproductive health, and promote a safe environment in which youth can speak and ask questions freely through open and honest conversations. And most of the information shared is not about the mechanics of sex.
“Teaching a kid how to use a condom is so far down the list of the things they need,” Turner said. “The actual issue is not about lack of information—it’s about lack of safe space to talk through issues and ask questions. It’s often a lack of ability to communicate.”
Addressing that need for more information is also one of the driving forces behind All Access EKY, a collaborative initiative that hires young women and nonbinary youth to make multimedia campaigns centered on reproductive health.
The gaps aren’t just in education, though. They also exist in tangible resources.
The Empower Project collects donations and raises money through fundraisers to purchase pads and tampons in bulk.
Alexia Ault directs the Empower Project at Southeast Community and Technical College in Harlan County. The project was born out of a group chat started by another woman who saw a need for local school family resource centers to be fully stocked with tampons and sanitary pads because some girls in the school system rely solely on the centers for their supply of feminine hygiene products.
The Empower Project collects donations and raises money through fundraisers to purchase pads and tampons in bulk. They send bundles to all nine public schools in the county at the start of the school year. In its first year in 2016, the project donated about 1,000 products; in 2018, it donated 3,000.
“This is a big need in our community, but it’s not a need that costs a lot,” Ault said.
She said pads and tampons cost between 12 and 15 cents per item, but still some girls don’t have access to them because of a number of factors, including poverty, homelessness, and lack of sex education.
“If you’re not willing to talk about sex, and you’re not willing to talk about the basic natural processes that your body goes through, how are you going to talk about what you need?” Ault said.
One of the Empower Project’s goals is to open up communication about menstruation, just like Sexy Sex Ed does for sexual health. By doing this, and by providing necessary feminine hygiene products, girls can feel more confident in asking for what they need to engage fully in their schools and communities, Ault said.
“If you provide the basic necessities for young women in public schools to get through their day, they can do anything else,” she said. “You empower them to do anything else if you meet their basic needs.”
That’s Turner’s main goal, too. She hopes to empower young people to have more agency over their own bodies that will in turn lead to more agency over their lives and communities. The change she sees in the young people who participate in Sexy Sex Ed over the two-hour-long workshop is “unbelievable.”
“It’s all about agency, and we deny it to people,” she said. “If kids were actually given more info about consent over their own bodies … if we were teaching this at an early age, you could not convince me that our political system wouldn’t look different because we could give and not give consent to what happens in our communities.”
This article was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation.
Ivy Brashear is the Appalachian Transition Director at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.