Sexy Sex Ed with Tanya Turner
Did your school offer sex ed? If you grew up in the U.S., there’s a good chance it didn’t—or that the information you received was incomplete, unhelpful, or even… inaccurate. Tanya Turner is changing that—by bringing “Sexy Sex Ed” workshops to teens in Kentucky.
Tanya started Sexy Sex Ed when she realized how many teens weren’t getting honest, inclusive, and consent-base sex ed anywhere else. Now she’s bringing her interactive workshops to all kinds of groups, including adults. When she’s not teaching consent-focused sex ed, you can find Tanya spouting “smut and socialism” on the Trillbilly Workers Party Podcast, advocating for Appalachian arts and media at Appalshop, or…maybe even handing out condoms in a parking lot.
Sex ed is not doing its job if it’s not encouraging and motivating people to share knowledge. So, my goal every time I lead a Sexy Sex Ed is that the information ripples out from there and people are sharing what they’re learning.—Tanya Turner, creator of Sexy Sex Ed
We talk about:
- Why so much of sex ed should really be “Communication 101.” “A lot of the workshop is how to talk to other people—how to talk to yourself, really—how to listen to your body, and how to trust your instincts.”
- When and how we should really start educating kids about sex. “It’s never too early to start talking with kids about what love feels like, and consent, and language for their body parts.”
- The value of learning about your own body. “You can’t trust a doctor to know everything going on with you. A doctor is only as powerful, and strong, and good for you as you are able to communicate with them. And you have to be able to listen to your body.”
- …And learning about everyone else’s, too. “I feel like all people have a responsibility to understand the anatomy of all other people so that we can help each other and support each other.”
- Why bringing sex ed to Appalachia matters so much. “Rural sex education has actually decreased by 20% in the past ten years, so we’re getting less than we used to and we weren’t getting much to begin with.”
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Katel LeDu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Okay, so today we are gonna talk about…sex! Sex ed, that is, which…well, way more people need to be talking about and way younger. That’s what our guest is working on. Her name is Tanya Turner, and she is the creator of Sexy Sex Ed, a consent focused sex ed program based somewhere it’s sorely needed: Kentucky.
SWB Ahh, I wish I could have joined this interview because Tanya’s work is so cool, and it made me look back and think about my own experience with sex ed, and…that was definitely a mixed bag. And it made me wonder—did your school have sex ed? And what was it like?
KL Y…yeah? Like I think so? I mean, yes it did, but I barely remember it. It definitely wasn’t in depth; it covered truly only the basics, and those basics were all about one goal: don’t have sex, basically. I remember there were very scientific illustrations of the reproductive organs, but zero discussion about what they did. It was very much like, “there they are, here’s what they look like on the inside, see how different they are! [laughs] And now don’t have sex.” Did you have a more robust sex ed?
SWB We had some of what you describe in the fifth grade. There was a health class where we learned about anatomy. I remember having to label the diagrams of like, “here are Fallopian tubes.”
SWB And I believe it did include some discussion of what things did, but we also got deodorant in that class. [laughs]
KL Sure! [laughs]
SWB Which I guess some kids probably needed at that point. [KL laughs] But I do remember that in high school, part of our health class was sex ed focused. Now, I don’t remember all the details of what we covered, but I do remember that we got to pass around a condom—just one condom, we didn’t get to each get a condom—
SWB They certainly didn’t pass out condoms for like…
SWB…use. It was just sort of like, “here, a condom exists.” And then our instructor put the condom on a banana and showed us how that worked, and then that was kind of that? Other than that, it was just a lot of abstinence talk.
SWB A lot of emphasis on waiting to have sex, a lot of emphasis on how having sex when you’re married is the right or best decision at least. And it’s interesting. I think about that and then I think about my school. My school had an entire yearbook spread on teen moms and their kids.
KL I mean… [laughs]
SWB Which is great!
SWB I mean, they existed—
SWB —put them in the yearbook, that’s fine. But we had a huge dropout rate due to teen pregnancy. And what we received in terms of education was so minimal. There was clearly such a disconnect. And I think that this teacher wanted to do more, but she was kind of bound by what was possible in that district.
SWB So, I remember a classmate even, for example, getting pregnant…while on the pill.
KL Oh gosh.
SWB Well, because she thought she only needed to take the pill on the days she had sex.
KL Oh, honey!
SWB Which, you know, what a failure!
SWB What a failure of whoever should have been providing her information about this thing that they prescribed her!
KL Yeah! I mean, great, she got the pill, but either her doctor or the clinic didn’t do a good job of explaining how it works! And we could spend a whole show on how disappointingly and terribly healthcare professionals treat women. [laughs]
SWB I know. And then I also think—you’re in your doctor’s office once, right? Maybe you get 10 minutes and you probably shouldn’t have such a limited amount of time with a healthcare provider when you are a teenager going on birth control pills for the first time in your life, but that’s kind of what you get. Now, you go to health class every day and you still don’t get any of that education. We’re going to spend all of this time theoretically talking about sex and never really talk about what you need to know.
KL Yeah. I mean, I’m still kind of impressed you got exposure to an item of contraception.
SWB One singular item! [both laugh]
KL But now I also remember—I want to say in middle school maybe—and this was either health class or home ec—I think it was health class. But we did one of those projects where we had to take care of an egg for two weeks. We had to treat it like a baby.
SWB [laughing] Mhmm!
KL You know, take it with us everywhere, don’t break it. Exactly like a real human baby! [laughs]
SWB Oh my gosh. I remember reading about those sorts of assignments in books when I was growing up. It was always an egg or a sack of sugar or a sack of flour?
SWB And I remember feeling sort of left out because my school didn’t do anything like that. I was like, “oh, that seems like such a typical rite of passage ridiculous type assignment, and why doesn’t my school have those?” [KL laughs]
KL I honestly can’t think of one thing it taught me, but [laughs] I do remember at the end of the project, everyone took their eggs outside and smashed them on the ground. [laughs]
SWB I don’t think that’s what you’re supposed to do with a baby. [laughs]
KL [laughing] No. [both laugh]
SWB Okay, so the other thing I remember is—I was mentioning my health teacher before and I think she wanted to do more than she was allowed to do in this particular environment. And I was thinking about her and I was like, okay, I didn’t really understand the politics of teaching sex ed then. That wasn’t so much on my radar. But I do remember that she would try to be more open about things and then as a result of that, she was actually painted as weird. [KL sighs] There were all these rumors that would go around that she was actually a lesbian—which, I don’t know, maybe she was—
SWB I have no idea. And, you know, in my rural, Oregon high school in the late nineties that was like [gasp].
SWB But maybe she was or, alternately, that she was just like…freaky.
KL Oh, sure! [laughs]
SWB Maybe those aren’t mutually exclusive, maybe she could have been both. [KL laughs] But it was definitely like…she gets around.
KL She knows about sex.
SWB And it’s like [sighs] … gosh. It’s so sad to me to think that just because she, as a health teacher, was talking about sex and showing us a condom, that that was enough and people got so uncomfortable. But everybody had absorbed all of the same, shitty shame feelings about sex that she had to be a freak.
SWB Or she had to be gay or whatever. She had to be something that was labeled in that community at that moment “not normal.” Because normal people didn’t do things like that. Normal people didn’t talk about stuff like that. And everybody was sort of projecting their discomfort onto her.
SWB Which makes sense in that context, but it just speaks to how far behind I think everybody in that class was from where they could be.
KL Ugh. I mean, your teacher was trying to give you all a damn gift! [SWB laughs] I mean, I know the kids in my school would have reacted in the same way. It just makes me so sad because it’s just such a perfect example of how not only uneducated, but uncomfortable we are about sex and sexuality in this country. Is there anything that you wish that you’d learned?
SWB Like everything, honestly. [KL laughs] But something I think about as being absolutely not on the agenda was knowing anything about your own body—
SWB —or about masturbation. I remember thinking for a very long time that masturbation was something boys did, but girls didn’t.
SWB Not like that it didn’t exist or couldn’t, but it was normal for boys to do it—
SWB —and it was abnormal and weird for girls to do it. And I thought that for way too long! And didn’t have any frame of reference for it, and that’s really sad.
KL Same. I feel like I wish I had learned a lot more. But I definitely wish we had talked more about our bodies. And I think in the same arena as masturbation, that sex is supposed to feel good and it’s supposed to be pleasurable for everyone involved. And, obviously, there are many things wrong with teaching sex ed where abstinence or abstinence and waiting, like it was in your case, is the focus. But one thing I don’t think folks really think about is that it’s often teaching kids like, “wait until you’re married, and then when you do have sex, it’s only to procreate. So, the man will ejaculate and that’s the most important goal.”
SWB Right. It’s weird to think about how disconnected that is. Because the reality is you’re standing in front of a room of horny teenagers. [KL laughs] I mean—
SWB —realistically, that’s the truth. And yet, you’re going to ignore the whole concept of pleasure? So, to me, you’re just having these alien conversations that do not make any sense to people’s actual lives. So, you get these people who are so ashamed and unable to talk about it and can’t really articulate their own feelings or desires or wants, and yet still have all of these sexual desires and wants because [KL laughs] they’re, again, horny teenagers.
SWB And, of course, that just creates disaster!
KL Yeah! What’s really mindboggling and frustrating is that sex ed today is probably worse now for a lot of kids than it was when we took it.
SWB Oh my gosh.
KL I started researching the state of sex ed in the US and…..ooooof.
SWB Okay, so hit me—what do I need to know about the state of sex education today?
KL Okay. So, first up, sex ed is not even required in a lot of places. 24 states and DC—so less than half of all the states—require that sex education be taught at all. And even in states where it’s required, it doesn’t have to be comprehensive or even accurate. There are 13 states that require sex ed, but have no requirement that the sex ed is medically accurate.
SWB That’s so fucked up.
KL I know! Like how is that even real? And most sex ed in America is abstinence based or abstinence plus risk reduction based only. For example, did you know that 18 states mandate that students are taught to save sex until marriage?
SWB Yeah, like what the hell [KL laughs] does your school have to do with that decision?
KL [laughing] Truly.
SWB Honestly! I think about how weird that is for your school to be getting involved in that kind of decision making. I mean, you can have whatever kind of personal beliefs you want, you can have whatever sort of religious beliefs you want, but your school…
SWB I mean, having sex isn’t a crime.
SWB So, why does your school have an opinion [KL laughs] on that particular matter? Why should your teacher be giving you that particular advice?
KL It’s so wild.
SWB Yeah! And I hate how little we treat kids to trust themselves and how frequently we instead teach them that their decision making skills and their own gut doesn’t matter—that’s not what matters, we know what’s right for you.
KL It’s not good. And I have a lot more bad policies for you.
SWB Okay, go on.
KL Alright. So, 37 states mandate that abstinence information is provided wherever you teach sex ed, and 27 of those—more than half—mandate that abstinence be stressed. Not just talked about, but prioritized.
SWB Yeah, fuck that.
KL Yeah. Okay, and 18 states require that sex ed classes talk about contraception.
SWB Only 18 of them?
SWB So, 37 of them mandate that you have to talk about abstinence when you talk about sex, but only 18 say that you actually have to talk about contraception?
SWB Oof. That is such a travesty. And, you know, we just talked about abortion rights and abortion rates on the show, and it is so painfully obvious that if we want to cut down on unintended pregnancies—which I think everyone wants?
SWB Or at least will say that they want? Then we have to talk about contraception. You have to talk about preventing pregnancy and make that easy for people to do. Or easier for people to do more often. It just makes me infuriated to know that we have so many kids walking around being told, “just don’t do it, just don’t do it, just don’t do it, just don’t do it, just don’t do it,” for ever and ever, and never once being taught how to avoid pregnancy, how to avoid the risk of HIV or STIs. Like…what a travesty.
KL As I read all these stats and research, I just got more and more angry and upset.
SWB Ugh. Not to mention, there’s so much other stuff that isn’t even on the radar at all that doesn’t show up in those stats. For example, how to decide whether you want to do it or how to talk about sex with a potential partner, or how to understand your own body, not to mention somebody else’s body. How to navigate love and desire and trust and the differences between all of those things. What do you do if you’re in an unsafe situation? There’s so many other things—so many other social and emotional pieces of the equation and kids need all of that. No matter when or if they decide to have sex or who they decide they’re going to have sex with, they really need to have all of that. Because kids exist in the world and the world is full of sex. And the world is full of people who are going to sexualize kids, which is the other thing that I really think a lot about it. There are lots of people who will sexualize a child and you have kids out there roaming around with no tools for dealing with that or the words to talk about it.
KL It is baffling. Children live in the same world adults live in; we are all being exposed to the same things. Why aren’t we looking out for kids the way we look out for each other?
SWB Yeah! And something Tanya mentioned when it comes to kids is doing anonymous questions in her classes. And I did that when I worked at the rape crisis center, where I was teaching an education program going in and talking to sixth graders. I think I’ve talked a bit about this before; it was mostly about sexual abuse, consent, handling unsafe situations, being assertive, and just generally helping kids understand what sexual abuse was, that it wasn’t their fault, and making sure they knew where they could get help for themselves or for somebody they knew. But, of course, when we did anonymous questions, we got a lot of different kinds of questions. And some of them were not really about sexual abuse, they were much more basic questions about sex or about anatomy. And it just spoke to what a gap these kids had because they had nobody else to talk to about it; it just wasn’t coming up anywhere else. We’d also get all of these other questions that were about how kids were navigating various common, unsafe situations in their lives. Like, “oh, my older brother’s friend is always talking about my body,” or “there’s a group of boys at the bus stop who are always trying to grab my boobs or snap my bra, what do I do?” Like those kinds of scenarios?
SWB Those kinda of like…part of me wants to call them low level sexual harassment, [laughs] but in some ways it’s not low level at all. But it was so typical.
SWB You just see it so frequently. And it’s such a common experience that kids have, and maybe particularly girls have, where they’re being sexualized by an older person or they’re being sexually harassed by their peers. And so I think about those kids and I think if you don’t teach kids anything about sex, then they also don’t know how to handle that either, right? And they don’t really know where to put that! What’s even happening because you can’t contextualize it in terms of any understanding of a healthy sexy relationship or a healthy relationship in general. So, they don’t have the context and they don’t have the confidence either because mostly what they’ve been taught is shame and fear—
SWB —and to not talk about things happening to their bodies and to not talk about sex as something that they are having any ownership over. So, they don’t learn that they deserve to have autonomy over their own bodies, and they aren’t learning to trust themselves!
KL Oh my god, absolutely. I mean, we were all kids at one point. We remember how it felt not to be trusted and respected, and to feel scared to ask adults questions. Don’t we want to change that for the kids in our lives?
KL You know, it’s a small thing, but a while back I started asking my nephews for permission before hugging or kissing them or even picking them up. I grew up in a family where me and my sister were hugged and kissed by adults and it was just this thing that happened. We had no say in it and sometimes it doesn’t feel good, even if it was coming from someone we loved! And I think about that with my nephews and my niece. I want them to know from early on that I respect them and trust that they know what they want.
SWB Yes! That’s something I really love seeing the parents that I know now do with their kids. They’re having those same conversations and talking to their kids at a really young age about the concept of bodily autonomy—that they get to decide who touches them, and how, and when. And they’re teaching them the names of body parts and the specific parts of their bodies. Like, instead of just calling it your hoo-ha—
KL [laughing] Right.
SWB —or whatever, [laughs] they’re talking about vaginas and vulvas and labia. And I think there’s a lot of people who somehow think that that’s too specific—that little kids can’t manage to learn those words.
SWB But kids know that fingernails are on the tips of their fingers, they know that noses have nostrils. They learn that stuff pretty quick! It’s just another part of the body and if they can learn about a nostril or a fingernail, they can learn about a vulva!
KL Yeah! [laughs] They know nuance! [both laugh]
SWB You just have to tell them what they are or not be weird about it and not freak out when they touch themselves. And generally just try to leave whatever shame feels or other sort of bullshit you have internalized about it—
SWB Try to leave that aside and just let kids learn about their bodies in a super normal way.
KL Yeah, completely. When it’s put into context like that where we’re playing that game with kids of “where’s your head?” “where’s your nose?” and then we’re just going to literally ignore whole body parts. [laughs]
SWB Yeah! And there’s a lot of families where it’s like, ‘oh, it’s not polite to talk about that, it’s not polite to even mention it.”
SWB And that sends such a weird message. It sends this message that part of you isn’t okay.
SWB I know, thankfully, that nobody in my family wants to perpetuate this problem. I know that my nieces and my nephew are going to be getting better information about sex from their parents than what they might get in their schools. [laughs] But something I think a lot about is also making sure that I am the auntie who you can talk to about what’s going on in your life.
SWB I want that too. My nieces, for example, they’ve recently gotten into talking to me on the phone—because they live across the country—
KL The best!
SWB —I don’t get to see them that much. And especially the four year old, which is really funny to me that she is very into talking on the phone to me. [KL laughs] She’ll talk to me for half an hour straight!
KL Oh my god, I love it!
SWB And I don’t know how—I don’t think that typically four year olds want to talk that long, they get distracted. [KL laughs] But no. She will just tell me all about her days and all the stuff that’s going on. One day, she was explaining mortgages to me.
KL Sure, yeah!
SWB Houses are really expensive.
KL [laughing] They really are, she’s right!
SWB That’s why you have to pay them every month for a really long time. [KL laughs] It was so cute. Or she was explaining to me how the price of produce fluctuates—
KL Oh my gosh.
SWB —and that’s why she wasn’t allowed to buy blueberries. [both laugh] Anyway, I hope her calls continue! Because I think it’s really important that as she gets older and has questions or problems or maybe feels embarrassed or maybe isn’t sure she can talk to her parents, I want her to know that she can call me, and she can talk to me about it, and that I definitely have time for that. KL Ughh, I love that so much! Alright, so I know we have talked a lot about the bad news in sex ed, but there are also bright spots too—like Tanya’s Sexy Sex Ed class! Let’s hear more about it. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Tanya Turner
KL Tanya Turner is the founder of Sexy Sex Ed workshops, co-host of the Trillbilly Workers Party podcast, and the Director of Advancement at Appalshop, an organization that supports media production and training for the Appalachian community in Kentucky. I’ve been following Tanya’s work and listening to her voice for a while, and I am so pumped to talk to her today! Tanya, welcome to Strong Feelings!
Tanya Turner Thank you! I’m really happy to be here.
KL Okay. So, let’s jump into Sexy Sex Ed; what is it and when did you start it?
TT Sexy Sex Ed is kind of a multi-arts discipline workshop that I started around 2012. For a while, I just did the workshop when someone asked, I thought it might just be a one-off. I just created it for a youth camp that I was helping put together when I was a part of a youth network called the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project. We kind of got that started around ten years ago and it’s still going strong and doing all these really incredible things with youth of color and queer youth in Appalachia. And when we were putting together I think our second summer institute, kids were filling out registration forms and we were hearing a lot of folks wanting to do sex ed. So, it just happened that that summer I was doing some other youth organizing work with the Highlander Center and I got to go to this Theater of the Oppressed workshop and met some people who were doing some pretty innovative sex ed stuff. That helped me think about sex ed in a totally different way. So, I borrowed a few of their activities, and put together some consent activities, and over time have incorporated some other parts of the workshop based on feedback. But the way it grew is after I did it the first time, I got requests to do it more and that kind of just rippled. And then after the 2016 presidential election, [laughs] I started—as many people—to feel a little bit of panic about the future of healthcare for all people, especially people with ovaries and a cervix that have a lot of needs and need a lot of attention. So, I started dry pitching Sexy Sex Ed to other youth organizations at community colleges. I did one in a church, which was pretty cool. I just started seeking out places to bring this little—it’s just a ninety minute, it can be two hours depending on the size of the group—workshop that I joke could also probably be called “Communication 101” [laughs] because a lot of the workshop is how to talk to other people, how to talk to yourself really, how to listen to your body, and how to trust your instincts.
KL Do you remember what was the first workshop like?
TT Oh yeah, I was scared to death. [laughs] And the place where we were hosting the workshop was a nervous wreck. They wouldn’t let me give out condoms. I was just planning to have a bowl of condoms out for people to take and they were like, “oh, no, no no.” [laughs] And I was just like, you want me to lead a sex ed workshop with no condoms? I’m really not—
KL You’re like, this is table stakes. [laughs & TT laughs]
TT So, I remember at that particular camp, I drove a fifteen passenger van—I had rented a fifteen passenger van—and drove a bunch of kids from where I lived to the camp. And I distinctly remember at the end of the workshop I said, “I have condoms if people need them. They asked me not to hand them out here, but if you come and talk to me, I’m happy to send you home with some condoms.” And then a gaggle of kids followed me to my white van [laughs] in the parking lot [KL laughs] and I was handing condoms out of my van, which I remember feeling was a pretty creepy thing to do! [both laugh]
KL I mean… yeah. I’m picturing that and it sounds [laughs] really great for the people getting the condoms [TT laughs] and very weird to an onlooker. [TT laughs] So, where are you usually doing the workshops? Is it at schools? And who is coming to the workshops? What’s the age range?
TT So, it’s not usually in a formal education setting, not usually in schools. Although, I have done them at community colleges for both teenagers and people in their early twenties. And then I’d say the usual space is a youth drop- in center or some type of youth center where young people are coming every day to play video games and hang out and go through some type of youth programming.
KL So, you’re talking about sex ed for young people, and I kind of want to ask—why, most importantly, for young people? And also why young Appalachians?
TT So, I’ve had people all the way up until their forties and fifties in my sex ed classes and I promote Sexy Sex Ed as all ages and all bodies. There are several reasons for that. One—I say all bodies because I try really hard to use gender-expansive language and not fall on really tired stereotypes about sexuality and gender and sex because there’s a lot of biology talk and anatomy and I feel like all people have a responsibility to understand the anatomy of all other people so that we can help each other and support each other. I spend a lot of time talking about vagina and cervix [laughs] and ovaries because all people come from this system! [laughs] This is how we are brought into the world and because of that, we are all really often connected to people with ovaries and cervix. And I feel like sex ed is not doing its job if it’s not encouraging and motivating people to share knowledge. So, my goal every time I lead a Sexy Sex Ed is that the information ripples out from there and people are sharing what they’re learning. When it does become kind of strange is when there’s a huge age range. So, if there’s a thirteen-year-old and a thirty-year-old—some thirty-year-olds and some thirteen-year-olds in the mix—the questions are really different [laughs], so that can cause some [KL laughs] facilitation issues. But it’s not been too bad and I’ve usually been able to figure it out. But I really prefer talking with young people and working through this with young people because I’ve found that their questions are so much more connected to their health and, for lack of a better word, really innocent questions because they have no mentor—they don’t have people in their lives they can ask these things of. And young people are in a time in their life where they’re gaining a lot of knowledge and across the board, and across our country really—but certainly in rural places— there’s something really telling about how formal education is not only withholding information about sex and sexuality, but they’re often telling false information. I hear a lot of things that kids have got in their sex eds at school that are just lies; they’re being lied to. And for me, it’s unfortunate, certainly, but it’s also pretty violent to tell lies to children that can harm them. Right?
TT It’s scary to think about, honestly. [laughs]
KL It is and it kind of doubles down on this thing that I think I’m seeing a lot more. I see a lot of people just straight up not trusting and not respecting younger folks.
TT Yeah! I just had the great joy to be a part of a Girls Rock Camp here in Whitesburg where I live. It was a group of about twenty teenagers from age eleven to eighteen, and I led sex ed two different days. And it does become clear when you’re in a setting with young people for an extended period of time how people are socialized, how the young people are socialized to ask you for permission for everything.
TT It took two full days for us to convince the kids that they didn’t have to ask anyone to use the bathroom, they could just go to the bathroom. [both laugh]
TT And there were a couple of instances with volunteers who were working with young people that it was clear they felt like they were entitled to being right because they were older and because the power dynamic was leaning towards them. Now that’s not across the board—that’s how I was raised and it’s often how I see things in my family, but I’ve come across pretty innovative parents who do a lot of talking with their kids. It takes a lot of time and they are making a pretty intentional commitment to their kids that changes almost everything in their lives. But I think for the most part, young people are treated inferior and talked down to in a big way. And I mean, we could do a whole other podcast about radical parenting, [laughs & KL laughs] and how we talk to young people.
TT I mean, even our system! We don’t let people under 18 vote, which is outrageous. [laughs]
KL What’s the format of the workshop like? What do you tend to cover? And do you feel like it’s specific to where you’re doing it?
TT The content is focused on safety, consent, and anatomy. So, those are the broad strokes of it. The format is that we do skits, we role play, we draw, and we do anonymous questions in a question box. That’s it, that’s basically it! [laughs] So, I lean on a lot of arts activities, both to cause laughter because I think it brings down a lot of guards and fears. When you go into a sex ed, you just have no idea at the beginning. There’s a lot of variables, right?
KL What are some of the most surprising questions you hear from folks?
TT Oh my gosh! A lot of the common ones I get from teenagers is “how do I get birth control if I’m under 18?” I’ll also hear “how do I get sex toys if I’m under 18?” Because I talk a lot about masturbation! One of my highest recommendations to anyone of any age is to masturbate. It’s good for your health, we need to be exploring our bodies, we need to be in tune with our bodies, and we need to be able to give ourselves joy. We need to be as connected as we can personally to the joy that our bodies can experience—and for people with a clitoris, are meant to experience. That’s what this spot is for! So, especially with young people, I’m like, you can’t trust a doctor to know everything going on with you. A doctor is only as powerful, and strong, and good for you as you are able to communicate with them. And you have to be able to listen to your body. So, masturbating is another great way to gauge your body’s health so that you know what’s normal for your body. And it’s a really powerful way to start your sexual journey as a young person with yourself in a really powerful way, so that you go into sexual experiences with other people really empowered with things that you know are great for you, things that aren’t so good, things you don’t like at all—and you’re able to articulate some of that.
TT And I get some really innocent questions that really hurt me the most because they should have someone in their lives they can ask this question of. Do you know what I mean? I’ve spent an hour creating this safe space for kids and they already feel safer with me after an hour of knowing me than they do with people that they’ve known their whole lives. So, they ask questions like, “do I have to shower before sex?” Or “when should you say ‘I love you?’ You know, emotional things. “What are common red flags in relationships?” I’ve got that question from teenagers before, which is such an astute, emotionally intelligent question. You know?
KL Yeah, it truly is.
TT Yep. And then I get really sad questions like, “how do I have sex that doesn’t hurt?” And often the questions I get—because they’re anonymous, I can’t ask follow up questions, but they’re often questions that I would ask a lot of follow up to to actually figure out what’s going on.
TT And sometimes I have to say, “you might need to go to the doctor; you may have endometriosis.” Who knows, this may be a medical issue. You may have an idiot partner who doesn’t know how to—[KL laughs] who knows, who knows! [laughs]
KL I’m thinking about the kids in my life. They’re really young now, but I’m thinking about them growing up and really hoping that I and the people in their close family can be people that they can come to. So, I’m glad that you are doing this work; it’s inspiring! So, thank you for doing it.
TT I think it’s never too early to start talking with kids about what love feels like, and consent, and language for their body parts. I think a lot of small kids start touching their genitals and their parents are like, don’t touch yourself there, after they’ve told them that was their nose that they touched, and their head, and their ear, and their mouth, but that when they touch themselves, their parents are like, don’t touch yourself there. [laughs] So, we start two-year-olds and three-year-olds out with shame, right? We’re shaming them and their body. And then how many times have you seen any young kid be told to hug their grandparent, or whoever, sit in her lap? So, we’re taking away a lot of body autonomy from kids right out of jump street. So, I think there’s a lot we can do with young people in conversations around consent and saying no thank you, and giving them language about their own bodies.
KL Yeah. When you talk about Appalachia, it can definitely conquer up a lot of stereotypes that it’s conservative or poor or white or maybe even uneducated. What do you wish people knew about Appalachia that they get wrong?
TT Well, any stereotypes created about people are serving someone; someone is benefitting from that stereotype. It’s often elected officials—people who have a stake in voter-disenfranchisement and controlling large populations, decision makers who want less accountability. Then, of course, people who are trying to sell us stuff [laughs]—so, capitalism. So, I think it’s important any time we hear stereotypes or just vast generalizations about groups of people that we think about who does it serve—who does that stereotype serve? So, stereotypes about people here have long served really rich industries like the coal industry, lumber industry, and oil industries—extractive industries. So, stereotyping people as dumb, racist, and no hope in these people makes it a lot easier to just pillage their communities and pay them very little money to mine a very expensive resource, so that rich people get very wealthy. That’s happened for a century here. And then when you think about sex ed, we have a lot of really conservative decision-makers, both in our local community and in the Senate and House.
KL Based on what you just said, I’m curious what the reception of something like Sexy Sex Ed has been in your community and the communities there. Is there anything surprising or what do you do when you get pushback?
TT I’ve received very little pushback, honestly. Often, especially when I have on the younger end of teens like eleven- and twelve-year-olds in my classes, I think, if they repeat some of this at home, we might get a phone call. [laughs] If they go home and tell their parents what pre-ejaculation is. [laughs & KL laughs] Because we talk—
KL But you’re secretly like, I hope they do! [laughs]
TT Sometimes honestly yeah! I’m just always ready to have these conversations. I’m just ready to go.
TT And when I leave, I tell the organizers or whoever works with these young people more than I do, if you get any calls, feel free to give them my number; I don’t want to put that on you all.
KL So, you’ve been doing this since 2012, which is amazing. And I saw that you recently got funding to operate Sexy Sex Ed, so congrats for that, that’s amazing!
TT Thank you! Yeah, I’ve never been paid, and this year I’ve been able to raise almost $5,000 already. And I’m working with another organization to plan a fall training for trainers, so I’m going to train a fleet of people to do this workshop and start to build out the curriculum so I have more to offer as a workshop suite. And I’m really excited about it!
KL That is so amazing! I am so glad that this work is going to spread. Was there anything that made you decide, I’ve got to get this funding started or I need to figure this out? Who did you work with to make that happen?
TT So, a few people. Some of the big motivators is how many of our state legislatures are moving to restrict birth control and abortion. People are making decisions about our lives without us involved, and it’s really violent and it can cause a lot of health issues for all people. So, that’s really scary. Our formal schools are not filling this gap; they’re not creating space for healthy sex education. And when they do try to make a little bit of space, they’re often isolating because it’s so heteronormative and they’re really isolating large groups of people. And that can be pretty violent. So, our political situation is one big reason. A recent report that came out shows that rural sex education has actually decreased by 20% in the past ten years, so we’re getting less than we used to and we weren’t getting much to begin with. So, there’s just a huge need and every time I do sex ed, it feels more and more validating that that is the truth. I was doing this my own savings and spending my weekends, and I kind of hit a wall feeling like I’m actually not going to be able to do this. I’m in credit card debt like most Americans, I was staring at an empty bank account, empty savings, and I was like, I have to start cutting out work that I’m not being paid for. I’ve got to start prioritizing paid work. But this is something that is so rewarding that I was like, maybe I could figure out if sex ed could be more sustainable, and if so, I could do it more and not just cut it out completely because there is so much need.
KL Yeah! I mean, this has basically been a side gig that you’ve been doing. And this leads me to wanting to ask about your day job with Appalshop. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and what you do there, and if there’s a connection at all?
TT So, my title is Director of Advancement and I mostly work with our development and communication teams, and I have been helping to coordinate our 50th anniversary. So, Appalshop turns 50 this year. We started in 1969 and are pretty unique in how long we’ve been doing art and media work in the region. But it does overlap—we have a lot of youth programs. so even though sex ed is not in my job description at Appalshop, I’ve led probably ten sex eds with our youth programming over three or four years. We have a really great reproductive health media project going right now called All Access EKY.
KL Oh, that’s awesome! I thought I saw that, that’s really cool. So, you’re doing a lot—how do you navigate juggling everything and not feeling too spread thin?
TT Well, it’s funny you should ask! [laughs] I am going down to part time at Appalshop next month. I’m going to start working part time at that job as Sexy Sex Ed work amps up because I do feel very stretched too thin. [laughs] And I’m 33 and I’m trying to really starting to think about what is the work I want to be doing, and how do I want to be spending my time because I’ve spent the last ten years—plus, ten plus years—working more than full-time for non-profits because that’s how non-profit work is. And the older I get, the more I think that maybe I need more rest, and more vacation, and more time with my family, [KL laughs] and more time to be creative. Although, I have been able to be creative in a lot of my work. So, it’s a pretty exciting time! I’m shifting around what I’m doing. Trillbilly is just starting to tour more and I haven’t been able to really do that with them. I was just down in Atlanta for a live show, that was really fun. And then we have another tour coming up in the end of September. So, because of Patreon and Trillbillys, I’m really being able to supplement my income enough that I’ve paid off a credit card and I have money in my savings! So, I feel comfortable going down to part-time in my quote unquote “day job.”
KL I think the answer we hear so many times is, I just do it at night and I do it on weekends and here’s my hack or whatever. So, I think it’s just nice to hear that you’re like, no, I sat down and I thought, “I’ve got to prioritize this” and here’s how I’m going to do that. So, I think that’s awesome. I’m so glad you brought up the podcast because I’ve got to tell you, I’m such a huge fan! The Trillbilly Workers Party Podcast is such a treat to listen to. Can you tell our listeners just a little bit about what it’s about and where to listen?
TT Well, it’s hard to say what it’s about, [laughs] but it ends up being a lot of commentary on current events, and we like to say, “a really healthy dose of smut and socialism.” [laughs]
KL Nice! That sounds perfect. So, with that, I’m going to say—Tanya thank you so much for joining us today. Where can people follow along with you and keep up with your work?
TT You can find Trillbillys on Twitter, they’re @thetrillbillys. And me, you can get in touch about sex ed stuff through email as well. You can get me at sexysexedky (that’s for Kentucky) @gmail.com.
KL Awesome! Thank you so much! [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
SWB Okay, Katel. We are almost done with this episode on Sexy Sex Ed and we need something to celebrate. So, what are we saying “fuck yeah” to this week?
KL Gosh, I think I have a good one. I follow this woman named Zoe Ligon on Instagram and on her feed popped up a post where she was wearing this gorgeous, white denim jean jacket and on the back was this beautiful unicorn and it just said, “dildo duchess” across the back. [both laugh]
SWB [laughing] Very good.
KL It was so great. She talks about sex work and sex positivity. She’s a sex educator herself. And she even sells sex toys on an online shop she has.
SWB She’s like literally dildo duchess.
KL She really is.
SWB Mmm, love it.
KL Yeah! And she’s so open about her own sexuality, and she even talks about struggling with depression and anxiety, and I think she’s helping a lot of people because she’s so open about it. I have found a lot of solace in just hearing her stories and really relating to some of the things she’s gone through.
SWB Oh, I love that so much! And then I also still really love this jean jacket, and I know you love a jean jacket too! [laughs]
KL [laughing] I do! I do. She was even on the cover of Salty magazine last year—Salty magazine is something we featured in one of our newsletters recently, so…
SWB Yeah! Salty’s awesome. It’s like a super sex positive and progressive publication—
SWB —that’s still very sexy. Check it out!
KL Yeah! So, fuck yeah to the dildo duchess! SWB Oh my gosh. That is it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and it’s produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is by Blowdryer, it’s a song called “Deprogrammed.” Check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thank you to Tanya Turner for being our guest today, and thank you for listening! If you liked the show, make sure that you give us a rating or a review on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or wherever it is that you listen. And you can also get that newsletter we mentioned right in your inbox. Sign up at StrongFeelings.co. See you again next week. Bye! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]