Sexy Sex Ed in Appalachia


Shaylan Clark, a Sexy Sex Ed educator and filmmaker, smiles on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amber Ritschel

Larah Helayne met their classmates in the bathrooms of their eastern Kentucky high school to give them Plan B and condoms. Helayne wasn’t afraid or ashamed to hand these out in the hallways, but their peers sometimes felt uncomfortable receiving contraceptives in public, so bathrooms were a refuge. When Helayne was reprimanded in the principal’s office, which happened often, Helayne told disgruntled administrators that they would keep being a resource for their peers until the school put something in the rulebook or they found some law stating that they couldn’t. Helayne insisted they were doing the school a favor by promoting safe sex.


“There were six pregnant girls in my graduating class,” Helayne said.


It's a tradition Helayne, the former Montgomery County High School “Condom Fairy,” who now works part-time for an unconventional sex education program in Appalachia known as “Sexy Sex Ed,” has continued as a freshman at UK, making emergency and preventative contraceptive products accessible for others. Sexy Sex Ed receives donations from abortion clinics and other organizations. For Helayne, pleasure and safety are their main concern, even when their efforts to educate are met with resistance.


Kentucky’s 2019 teen pregnancy rate was the seventh highest in the nation, according to the CDC. That is the kind of statistic Helayne and their fellow educators are intent on lowering with the Sexy Sex Ed program.


Sexy Sex Ed is an interactive workshop series that encourages teenagers and people of all ages to openly discuss personal and political consent, sexual safety and anatomy. Using visual and performance art, open dialogue and popular education methods, Sexy Sex Ed aims to fill a vital gap in conventional reproductive education as a resource of liberation, positivity and love and acceptance for all bodies and all ages and all types.


Tanya Turner is the founder of Sexy Sex Ed. She was raised in Pineville, Ky., and has been living and working out of Whitesburg for 10 years. In college, Turner studied sociology, political science and special education.


Turner identified the lack of progressive, accurate and inclusive sexual education curriculum in the Appalachian region where she grew up. She began hosting workshops in after-school drop-in centers, rural community colleges and church gymnasiums, developing her own curriculum that covered the diverse needs of young people she believed weren’t being met in schools.



Tanya Turner, Founder of Sexy Sex Ed, poses for a photo on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. Photo provided by Natasha Raichel Photography

“I received horrifying Sex Ed, and there’s a lot of ‘abstinence only’ here,” Turner said. “I have a lot of friends who have dealt with teen pregnancies.”


In 2012, Turner began hosting Sexy Sex Ed workshops alone, relying on word of mouth to bring the public to her. She went to youth centers, youth camps and after school programs, hosting dozens of workshops. By 2017, the workshops had grown into a series expanding across the Appalachian region.


Sexy Sex Ed workshops are based on a popular education model, a student-guided approach to learning that centers on the workshop participants’ life experiences.


“I think it's a tool of survival and it's certainly about healing, not just for individuals but for community,” Turner said. Workshops mostly cater to people between 13 and 40, though the curriculum can be altered to fit younger or older individuals.


Turner recruited a team of educators who used their personal experiences to grow Sexy Sex Ed into a cooperative that has over a dozen educators in five states.


Shaylan Clark is a Black filmmaker from Harlan, Ky. She is the first and currently only full-time employee of Sexy Sex Ed and acts as the “Headmistress” for the program.


Clark first attended a workshop hosted by Turner at “It’s Good 2 Be Young in the Mountains” conference, a festival that aims to give youth in Appalachia a voice in the future of their region. She went with her boyfriend at the time, which opened a dialogue between them about consent, sex and their own bodies.


“After that first workshop, I just wanted to tell all my friends about it,” Clark said. “I just wanted to kind of quiz them and see if they knew these things that we should’ve been taught as like seventh and eighth graders. When it came to consent, I learned things that I should’ve been taught as a child.”


A common icebreaker for workshop participants is a song about the five bodily fluids that transmit STDs.

One verse went like this:

Breast milk, breast milk.

Don’t drink it unless you’re a baby.

Breast milk, breast milk.

If you’re sick with STDs, don’t feed the baby

(Unless your doctor says otherwise)



Caitlin Cummings, a Sexy Sex Ed educator, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amber Ritschel

In the “Birth Control Newsflash” exercise, participants pair up and give breaking news style presentations on the different forms of birth control, the effects of it, what it does to the body, how effective it is and how it reacts with certain bodies.


“Everything they learn they have to come back and teach to the group,” Clark said.


At the beginning of workshops, participants are given three minutes to draw their own sexual reproductive system. Clark said that the exercise is normally really fun and gets people out of their comfort zone.


“We all realize in that moment that we don’t know as much as we should about our bodies,” Clark said. “No one gets it wrong, but people aren’t good artists; they have to label it, though they forget to add things because they weren’t really taught about them.”


Educators are there to “fill in the gaps,” Clark said. She remembers a conversation with one young person in a workshop who didn’t know that birth control didn’t protect them against STDs.


“Let us tell them what they know, then they’ll step in and correct things they might not know all about, or things they’ll have completely wrong,” Clark said.


Sexy Sex Ed workshops enforce the idea that “no” is a full sentence, not a bridge for pressure or cohesion.


“When we talk about consent, it’s probably my favorite. We start off with asking the people in the room, ‘What is the first word that comes to your mind when you hear the word consent?’” Clark said. “Just hearing from the audience what they feel when they hear the word consent helps us know where to take this conversation.”


In one exercise, participants discuss their favorite song or movie. Then, they ask each other to perform a scene from the movie or sing the song. Some attendees spring into song or dramatic monologue. Others simply say no.


“Boom, consent! They liked the movie, but they didn’t want to perform it,” Clark said. “Just because you like something doesn’t mean you want to do it.”



A workshop participant showcasing their artwork at a Girls Rock Whitesburg workshop in Whitesburg, Ky., in August 2019. Photo provided by Natasha Raichel Photography

Part of the workshops is offering participants language to help them communicate what they want and don’t want to do with their bodies.


“I think, in general, people need permission sometimes to be who they are and to love who they love and to do what feels good,” Condom Fairy” Helayne said. “If we can be that for people, I think that can be really lifesaving and life changing.”


Helayne recalled the misconceptions they were taught in their Catholic-based Sex Ed classes, which they said caused confusion and fear of identity. They remember disturbing photos of AIDS patients and verbal and visual threats about what homosexuality led to. Helayne said afterward they stopped talking about sex, exploring their interests or asking questions.


“I was raised by my grandparents, so I was not about to ask my 64-year-old grandma about gay sex,” Helayne said.


It wasn’t until Helayne attended their first Sexy Sex Ed workshop at a Girls Rock Camp in Whitesburg as a teenager that they felt empowered to have frank conversations about sex.


“We just started having all these really honest conversations about consent and sex and what we were into,” Helayne said. “It kind of released my vulnerability, and my personal journey of liberation was having that same effect on other people, and that’s what drew me to become an educator.”



Larah Helayne, "Condom Fairy" and freshman at UK, poses for a photo on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amber Ritschel

Sexy Sex Ed workshops encourage comfort with your own body and exploring your own sexual preferences. Helayne describes how after their first workshop, they felt okay with the idea of masturbation and appreciated the reinforcement that it wasn’t something dirty.


“My friends went together and bought me a really nice electric toothbrush as my first vibrator. That was my first Sexy Sex Ed moment,” Helayne said. “You have to figure out what you like before you can try to figure out what someone else likes. You need to know yourself before you go in and try to do anything.”


When talking about masturbation in workshops, Clark wants the focus of the conversation to be on the exploration of the self. She hopes that participants consider what they can do for their own pleasure first.


“Sex doesn’t have to be co-dependent,” Clark said. “Sex does not have to include giving yourself to someone else unless you want to. But if you like sex and you like pleasure and you don’t necessarily want to give yourself to someone else, or give someone access to you like that, that’s perfectly fine. You can do everything that someone else could do.”


Caitlin Cummings, a Sexy Sex Ed educator from Hazard, Ky., remembered early conversations in school about sexual education being centered shame and abstinence.


“It just had me scared to death,” Cummings said.


She got involved with Sexy Sex Ed via her work with All Access EKY, an organization that works within 10 Southeastern Kentucky counties to build support for policies, programs and services that ensure young people have access to the full range of contraceptive methods. As part of her grade school Sex Ed curriculum, she had to desexualize “hypersexual” songs. Hers was “Buttons” by The Pussycat Dolls.


“Why would you just sit there and make a bunch of kids do that and think like that?” Cummings said.


The educators are bound by their shared negative experience of sexual education they found especially lacking in LGBTQ+ inclusion and steeped in cis-hetero norms, which often means that the multi-faceted educational needs of LGBTQ+ folks in Appalachia are not met.


“There are so many more options for relationships than a straight cis-gender monogamous relationship,” Helayne said. “For me as a Queer person, polyamorous person, when I look at the relationships in my life that have failed, I feel like 90 percent of it is because they refused to explore any other options. If people were empowered to have these conversations like, ‘Hey! I really like our relationship, but I also think that maybe this could be cool or that we could experiment in this way.’ You have all these options to make it work.”


The Bible Belt of rural Appalachia shortens the reach of sexual health in schools. Kentucky law requires that sexual education in public schools must include abstinence as “the desirable goal for all school-age children; the only certain way to avoid unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems” and assert that the best way to avoid disease is to “establish a permanent mutually faithful monogamous relationship.”



Tanya Turner shows off a hand-drawn sex ed diagram at a Girls Rock Whitesburg workshop in Whitesburg, Ky., in August 2019. Photo provided by Natasha Raichel Photography

But the conversation about Sex Ed and the need for a comprehensive education for young people in Kentucky is changing. In January 2020, State Rep. Lisa Willner (D-Louisville) sponsored House Bill 296, which would require school districts to offer age appropriate, inclusive and medically accurate sex education classes. Schools would be required to cover human anatomy, reproduction and development, also examine topics like healthy relationships, consent, sexually transmitted diseases and the effectiveness of contraceptives, plus the benefits of abstinence.


“Being from Appalachia, that's something I'm constantly having to remind myself, it's not Appalachia’s fault,” Helayne said. “It's the systems that we live in that are at fault.”


Recently Helayne has been working with another organization to pass a bill to ban conversion therapy in Kentucky. This type of therapy is meant to change a LGBTQ+ person's sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression to fit within the cis-hetero societal structure.


LGBTQ+ curriculum is included in every Sexy Sex Ed workshop.


“If we can start with these conversations of ‘Hey, it's OK to be gay,’ and ‘It’s OK to have sex. It's OK for things to feel good.’ I think that's the ground level of how we’re gonna get anywhere,” Helayne said.


Clark recognizes that Sex Ed voids aren’t limited to Appalachia. For her, our inability to talk about safe sex, consent and pleasure is part of American culture.


“There are a lot of areas in this country that hate sex workers, that hate pleasure, that hate women’s rights, that hate women, that hate the LGBTQ community,” Clark said. “These are actual humans; these are actual bodies with needs of knowledge that is ultimately vital to their well-being.”


According to a 2015 CDC report, In the United States, 43.6 percent of women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime and approximately one in six women experience sexual coercion (being worn down by someone who repeatedly asked for sex, or sexual pressure from someone using their influence or authority); one in three female rape victims experience it for the first time between 11-17 years old. Nearly a quarter of men in the United States experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.


At every Sexy Sex Ed workshop, there is a box that attendees can drop in anonymous questions that they don’t feel comfortable asking out loud. Clark said that boxes are filled with a lot of different questions by the end of the session. Common questions are about sexuality. When the box is opened, educators don’t answer it as educators. Instead, Clark will ask, ‘Does anyone have an answer to this?’ For her, it goes back to people teaching people.


“Community helping community. They’re exploring what they are, what they want to be what they think is ok?” Clark said. “People of all bodies really looking for validation.”


Clark remembers how comfortable and supported she felt the first time she attended.


“I wasn’t cringing in my skin,” Clark said. “Everyone was having fun, everyone was being creative, and it was okay to be wrong.”


Clark wants people to leave Sexy Sex Ed workshops knowing that sex shouldn’t be shameful, that everyone deserves pleasure.


“If the only thing you can give to yourself is pleasure, give it to yourself!” she said.