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Why These Sexual Health Educators Took Their Activism Online

Education can be radical.

by Gretchen Brown
March 16, 2020 | Our Future

Sonalee Rashatwar believes education can be radical.

“Any time we are giving someone information about their own body, we are informing them about their rights, and that’s political,” she said.

“It destabilizes the structure when I tell someone they don’t have to opt into it.”

Rashatwar is a clinical social worker, sex therapist and grassroots organizer.

Known under the Instagram handle TheFatSexTherapist, she also works as a public speaker and sex educator.

She does this through her own lens as a person who is queer, south Asian and fat. Much of that means sharing her own personal story — experiences with dieting and sexual trauma, bifobia, fatphobia and xenophobia.

“I’m not generalizing, I’m not universalizing, and I’m allowing folks to map onto my narrative the parts of their own lived experience,” Rashatwar said.

That’s not the kind of sex education you typically get in schools. It wasn’t what Rashatwar grew up with either.

[ICYMI: Steps to Finding Love After Sexual Assault or Abuse]

Photo of Sonalee Rashatwar, sitting on a picnic table in a park. Rewire PBS Our Future Sexual Health
Sonalee Rashatwar is a clinical social worker, sex therapist and grassroots organizer.

Her teachers taught with the assumption that most people having sex were cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, thin and white. There wasn’t information about sexuality, or gender identity or different body types.

Only eight U.S. states require that sex education programs be free from racial or gender bias, and only eight mandate that programs include information about sexual orientations.

“Sex has routinely been thought of as something that doesn’t happen pleasurably to people who look like me,” she said.

But there’s a new class of sex educators like Rashatwar — on the internet and beyond — who have flipped the script on sex education.

They teach it as a justice movement, as activism, as personal. And they include folks and identities that had previously been left out of the conversation.

Normalizing sexuality

Research suggests that many adolescents look to the internet for more information about sexuality.

Toronto-based sex educator Eva Bloom grew up on Youtube channels like "Sexplanations," famous for their warm, casual and non-judgemental tone.

She’s always used the internet to fill in the gaps.

So when she became a sex educator herself — complete with her own YouTube channel, “What’s My Body Doing?” — it was a tone she wanted to emulate.

But Bloom is also a researcher, and just finished her Master’s degree in July, with an emphasis on sexting. She brings a distinct, research-based approach to her videos, many focusing on queer youth, like Bloom herself.

Photo of Eva Bloom smiling with a flag. Rewire PBS Our Future Sexual Health
Eva Bloom is a Toronto-based sex educator.

She also talks about something that’s ignored in the classroom — pleasure.

“I talk about sex toys, I talk about kink,” she said. “And I try to really normalize and approach all of that with curiosity and excitement.”

Along with Nadine Thornhill, Bloom also hosts a Youtube series for kids, “Sex-ed School,” which has episodes on consent, gender identity, sexual orientation and masturbation.

“There’s one comment that sticks in my mind: ‘I’m really excited I can share this with my nonbinary kid,’” Bloom said.

Their goal is to make episodes that are normalizing, not dramatic. Think: the opposite of the sex educator in the film “Mean Girls.”

Thornhill and Bloom take into account that many kids already have knowledge about sex and sexuality. So the kids are the center of the show, and it’s about hearing from them, more than talking at them.

Access as justice

For some young people in the U.S., the internet is their only resource for sexual health. Many teens don’t get sex education at all.

Only 24 U.S. states require sex education, and only 20 require that it be “medically, factually or technically accurate.”

Haylin Belay grew up in Texas, a state where sex education is abstinence-only. So her career began as a teenager, as a youth intern and peer educator through GSA, a student-run organization for LGBTQ+ youth and straight allies.

A decade later, she’s still teaching sex education — often to adults who never had that education and are feeling that gap as they try to navigate their sexuality.

“They’re not new to sex, but they never had an opportunity to learn, ‘Here’s how your body experiences pleasure, here’s what you can learn if you are uncomfortable experiencing sex,’” said Belay, now based in New York.

Photo of Haylin Belay smiling on a patio. Rewire PBS Our Future Sexual Health
Haylin Belay is a New York-based sex educator.

“... Just understanding how their body works, you can see the light go off in their eyes.”

She teaches with the manifesto, “all people deserve an integrated sex life and the healthy pursuit of pleasure.”

“Access to this information is a form of justice, it is a right, and it’s unsurprising that it’s a lesson that I was able to learn in high school through working with a queer organization,” she said.

Whether she’s going into a classroom and talking to young people about how to be sexually responsible adults, or teaching workshops about communication to adults in a sex shop, it’s liberation, she said — work that started with the reproductive justice movement in the 1990s.

So while she doesn’t call herself an activist directly, the work that she does runs parallel to activism. Information is power.

Space for survivors

“Something I like to bring into the classroom is how to say yes or no,” said Jimanekia Eborn, a sex educator and trauma specialist.

“...I had never had that. And I think that goes hand in hand with consent, and with learning boundaries.”

Eborn, who also goes by the moniker “Trauma Queen,” initially worked as a crisis counselor, in a mental health facility for young adults. The same life experience kept coming up: sexual assault.

Eborn, who is a sexual assault survivor, saw a need for sex education catered to other survivors, especially those from marginalized identities.

Photo of Jimanekia Eborn looking off-camera. Rewire PBS Our Future Sexual Health
Jimanekia Eborn is a sex educator and trauma specialist.

That’s a space she had to carve out herself. Sex education is typically not catered toward survivors.

“There’s so many people that talk about the pleasure aspect, forgetting that people can’t get to that aspect because of the trauma,” she said.

Her approach is emotionally-focused, and treats recovery from trauma as a journey. As a Black, queer, polyamorous femme, Eborn wants folks like her to feel like they have someone to connect with.

It is a heavy labor. Eborn gets personal and teaches through sharing her own story. She finds that many folks have been sexually assaulted, but don’t have the words for it.

“I heal through my work. I’m constantly finding new things out about myself,” she said.

“And I think it’s nice for people to be able to see someone being able to share their story.”

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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