(CW: mentions of youth sexual violence, teen pregnancy, lack of consent, policing black bodies)
It’s 2012 on a Monday morning. I am a Freshman at Harlan County High School. I’m hysterical, ashamed about what I did over the weekend. Everyone had to know, which left me no other choice. I head toward the office of the school counselor, a white man, to process what happened. I was afraid of what people would say about it; about me. The whole school was probably talking by now. I hesitated, but the school counselor assured me that his office was a “safe space” and that he would help in any way he could. I believed him, so I looked this man dead in the eyes and said, “I gave someone a blow job at a party on an abandoned strip mine. I think everyone knows.”
He sat with the information for a second, then asked, “Why do you think everyone knows?”
I told him that I might have given the blow job in the back of a pick-up truck. Anyone walking by could have easily seen us. To make matters worse, I didn’t know that you’re not actually supposed to blow on it, and that’s exactly what I did. I was completely humiliated and certain people were going to make fun of me. He paused again. I could tell by his facial expressions that he was not equipped to deal with this kind of problem. The pause felt like it lasted forever. Finally, he assured me that people would forget about it in a week and sent me to class. Weeks went by and the counselor was right. Everyone forgot. I continued going to parties and began to understand that my peers were equally as horny, confused, and inexperienced as I was. We were all just figuring it out with little to no sexual guidance from the adults who called themselves guides.
Growing up as a young black woman in rural Eastern Kentucky, to say that my journey to sexual liberation has been challenging is, to say the least. I was fortunate to have a mother who made me feel comfortable approaching her with questions about sex. However, I remember watching several of my classmates experience pregnancy and childbirth before graduating high school, without the same support. I knew that in order to start on this journey I would have to first understand my body. That required inclusive and comprehensive sexual education. Even though I had an understanding parent, I cannot recall a single class that covered reproductive health, birth control, or consent in the Harlan County public education curriculum.
The many uses of birth control.
There are many reasons for someone to take birth control that have nothing to do with being sexually active. I was put on birth control my freshman year of high school after being diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). According to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, PCOS affects Women of Color more frequently and more severely than white women.1 PCOS impacted me in all the ways that studies have shown it impacts black women, and the only treatment I received was birth control. Birth control does help, but after years of living with it, I’ve learned that there were several other options that could have helped me manage what was happening to my body. Black women also have higher rates of hirsutism (excess hair growth) as well as a higher rate of infertility. Yet, Black women have less access to fertility treatments.2
It’s not surprising that black women receive less treatment for reproductive health, but it is disappointing to see those of us who are most vulnerable are still struggling to access the care that we need because of the color of our skin. Birth control can regulate your period, balance your hormones, help prevent ovarian cancer and even help treat acne. It helped with my period cramps, regulated my period, and helped with acne.3 I felt lucky to have access to it as a teen, and I wanted my friends to know about it. So I encouraged my friends to talk to their parents and get on birth control, but I quickly learned that transparency about sex and reproductive health was not as easy for them. Not only did my peers lack guided communication, but they also lacked access to the resources.
The nearest hospital in Harlan County is a 45-minute drive away. Many people do not have cars, and there is no public transportation system. In rural areas, young people have little to no access to reproductive health resources such as birth control and lack inclusive sexual education. Growing up I felt like our state was setting us up to fail. The “Abstinence Only” sexual education model was not working; and it was obvious that it had not worked in the past. I knew a girl who became pregnant in the 8th grade, and in high school there were pregnancy scares every other day.
Abortion support should be accessible.
Back in those days, I was known to be an advocate for abortion. My friends would come to me for information, resources, and education. My best friend during Freshman year was dating and sexually active but was not on birth control. I begged her to talk to her mom, but she was too afraid of what her mom would think. So she didn’t. She became pregnant that same year. If only my school and friend’s parents knew how many times I helped my friends plan trips to abortion clinics. Or how many times I went with my friends to the nurse’s office because they were terrified of asking for a pregnancy test. Adults need to understand the danger that comes with shaming young people for having sex. I had friends who were trying D.I.Y. abortion processes and remedies because they couldn’t talk to their parents, who refused to acknowledge they were sexually active. I felt bad that my friends didn’t have an adult at home to talk to about reproductive health. My mom didn’t have that growing up, but she decided to break that cycle with me.
In 2016 I attended my first Sexy Sex-Ed workshop, facilitated by Tanya Turner. Sexy Sex Ed is a workshop series that uses visual & performance art and open dialogue amongst other popular education methods to compel people of all ages to discuss sexual health. Sexy Sex Ed fills a vital gap in reproductive education as a creative, cultural healing solution in rural Appalachia.4 The workshop was fun! It created a nonjudgmental space for people to ask questions and share their experiences with other people in community. During the workshop, we came up with songs, created art, and had amazing discussions about our bodies. All while laughing. By the end of the workshop, I was full of excitement, but I was also angry because this was life-saving information that we should have learned in school.
The policing of Black bodies starts early.
It was in grade school that my bodily features started to develop prematurely. It was like my body’s natural process suddenly overshadowed the fact that I was still a child. Doing normal things like wearing shorts or tank tops suddenly made me appear more promiscuous, especially in comparison to non-black girls. I was made to cover up my skin, and to wear jackets over my outfits. Once, an old white woman walked up to me in CVS and grabbed at my pants, claiming they were too tight. They weren’t too tight. I was just blessed with a nice ass that she was mad about. In high school, a group of male teachers would line up against the wall and watch all of the students walk by in between classes. It would make me so uncomfortable as I felt their eyes glazing over me and other young girls when I walked by. The shit was weird. It was normalized then, but as an adult looking back, I realize none of that was okay.
There were lasting effects from these experiences on my self-image. It wasn’t until college that I began to understand that black bodies are hypersexualized at an early age. Historically, black women have been treated as sexual objects. This image of the black promiscuous woman dates back to slavery when black women’s bodies were used to breed slaves. All to justify rape. Times have changed, but the stereotype that black women are somehow more inclined to be sexually active remains.
Although I was blessed with an understanding parent and was never judged at home, there were people who would say that the young black girls in our community acted “fast” and “grown.” Meaning we looked promiscuous. Normally the comment has nothing to do with whether a black girl was sexually active or not. These comments came out of judgment for our physical appearance, and how we express ourselves. Experiencing this kind of shame as a child was horrible. It made me hyperaware of my body. As a child, I became responsible for the negative attention from an adult. Their attraction was my fault because of what I was wearing. As if my pubescent body was something I should/could hide. Instead of helping me embrace my body, and teaching me to love my features, these adults told me that my body would get me in trouble. That if anything happened, it would be my fault because I was “acting fast” just by being alive. But my clothes cannot consent.
For a long time, I had the idea that my natural body was too sexual and that it made me a target for unwanted attention. This normalized perception of black bodies makes it harder for black women to come forward when we experience sexual violence because we have constantly been told that we are asking for it. Even as children. The adults in my community were so concerned about what I wore and how it made me look to other adults, but none of them ever taught me about safety.
When young people have questions about their bodies, they are often forced to figure out the answers themselves. In my youth, we looked up videos on the internet, learned from watching television, and tried to make sense of what we saw in our real lives. Consent was never a topic of conversation in school, and because of this, we struggled with understanding and practicing consent. I can recall several situations that could have been avoided if we were taught how to practice consent. Recently, I had a conversation with my best friend from high school. They were struggling with the realization that what they experienced back then was sexual assault. They did not know it at the time because we were not taught about consent. This realization is not uncommon. The “boys will be boys” mentality, in small towns, is the extent of informed consent.
Rural sex education is the future.
So, in 2018 I became a sex educator. I saw a need for comprehensive and inclusive sexual education, and I wanted to be a resource for my community. At that time I was attending Berea College and while Sexy Sex-Ed was based in Whitesburg at the time Tanya would send the educators tons of condoms, information about birth control, and emergency contraceptives. I knew so many college students in need of these resources because Berea did not allow first-year students to have cars, and made it harder for some people to get these resources when they needed them. I was lucky enough to become a resource for them during my time at Berea. I eventually started doing Instagram Lives for Sex-Ed, then I was asked to run the social media accounts in 2020.
Now, I am the Headmistress of Sexy Sexy-Ed. I am the first-ever paid employee of a volunteer-based organization. Being a part of this team has not only given me a platform to fight for what I believe in, but it has also given me the opportunity to make the changes I want to see in my community. I knew when I became an educator that I wanted to be a resource for young people in my community, I knew what it was like to grow up without that guidance. I knew that when they grew up they would face the same challenges I did. My team and I have been working tirelessly to raise funds in order to continue this work and come up with virtual ways to share information and make resources accessible to rural communities. When the pandemic began, Sexy Sex Ed sent out over 1,000 condoms and emergency contraceptives to people in need through the mail to make sure that people could stay safe during the lock-down. We have over a dozen educators throughout the region, with most of us identifying as queer. Sexy Sex-Ed has allowed us to be who we are and do the work we are passionate about in the communities that we love.
I wish the education system knew how much we needed them to be who they said they were… teachers and guides. It’s hard to imagine they didn’t know what was going on. Kids were having whole-ass kids in middle school, and we were taught ignorance, to just go on about our lives like it was normal. That is not normal, that is a cry for help. I was a high school student, just a kid myself, helping my friends plan how to get an abortion without their parents finding out. This shit is not okay! There is no logical reason for our education system to keep withholding life-saving information from the people who need it most.
All of these experiences are how I know that the work we do is needed. Just like me, young girls are forced to be hyper-aware of their bodies instead of being taught about reproductive health. The youth need us. They need support and understanding. Shaming them only stops them from seeking help or coming forward. We cannot continue to fail our youth. They deserve better, and so did we.
Shaylan Clark, 24, is a Black filmmaker from Harlan, Kentucky. She is a 2020 Graduate of Berea College with a BA in Communication, focusing on Broadcast Journalism. She is passionate about filmmaking and raising awareness about issues that affect the people of Appalachia. She is the director of a documentary that discusses Black Lung disease called Dying Breed, in partnership with Appalachian Media Institute. Her second film discussed the lack of sexual education in rural communities, in partnership with All Access EKY. Shaylan has also worked with the community theater project Higher Ground since 2014, helping to gather stories, create scripts, and portray complex Appalachian characters. Shaylan aims to educate others in creative ways, and have a positive impact on her community.