For Michelle Hope, Sex Education by and For Black Folks Is Crucial Healthcare
There are so many aspects of health that disproportionately affect the Black community, and yet less than six percent of US doctors are Black — a deficit that only further harms public health. Many of the Black folks who work in healthcare have dedicated their careers to combating inequities. That's why, this Black History Month, PS is crowning our Black Health Heroes: physicians, sexologists, doulas, and more who are advocating for the Black community in their respective fields. Meet them all here.
It's safe to say Michelle Hope isn't your average sexologist. She's an educator, an activist with more than 15 years of experience, and the director of social impact and strategic communications at SIECUS (The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), or Sex Ed for Social Change.
"My career has evolved from teaching sexual-health basics to young people and designing sex-education programs to developing content for adults that could fill the gap of the sex education they didn't get and helping them to have the knowledge that they need to have the healthiest outcomes when it comes to their sexuality," she tells POPSUGAR. "And I think that's not just a biological safety, that's also mental, spiritual, and emotional safety."
"I do not believe you can separate sexuality from race."
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sexology as "the study of sex or of the interactions of the sexes especially among human beings," but let's be honest, when you hear the term "sexologist," you probably think it's someone whose work is deeply rooted in the act of sex or someone whose mission it is to teach you how to have great sex. Hope is changing that narrative.
"People like myself that teach sexology . . . you are creating a doorway, a pathway, to seeking more information. And the hope is, and this was always my hope: come for the blowjob class, stay for the feminism," she says. "I always tried to do this when I created content, I would give context to what sexual fetishization was, so then you could see it. I enjoy lecturing on the wage gap. That is a sexuality issue. That is a gender issue, that is a sexuality issue. And I think that people don't think like that."
Her work in marginalized communities has provided her with a deep understanding of the holistic implications sexuality has on all of our lives. Read on to find out how, in Hope's view, race plays a role in sexuality and why it's important that Black folks specifically are working in sex education.
POPSUGAR: When did your interest in sexology begin?
Michelle Hope: Honey, I came into this world wondering. So my background is my mother is a lesbian, and she is an activist. She was incredibly active when I was young. So I started marching for gay rights at the age of 4. And growing up in Indiana, it wasn't safe for my mom to be out, so she was closeted. So having to hold on to that part of my life and my family to create safety for myself always piqued my curiosity in trying to understand why it was so bad, or why did this have to be a secret?
I'm also biracial, and I do not believe you can separate sexuality from race. . . . It's been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember.
PS: What's the most surprising thing about being a sexologist?
MH: I think the lack of understanding and the lack of knowledge on basic bodily function, basic sexual health. I still go and speak at colleges, and it's super dope to see young people really open to exploring sexuality, to knowing about kink and polyamory and how to talk about consent. But then in those same sessions, again, they don't know about basic menstrual health, or when something is happening that's not safe, or people not recognizing that you can be asymptomatic and have an STI for a very long time and not know it. It's that type of stuff that still shocks me to this day.
The other thing that shocks me is how many people have the shared experience of assault. And that's not just women. It's men. And there is little conversation about that. I think the other thing that's really shocking is our lack of awareness around the hypersexualization and fetishism of people of color.
PS: What does a typical day look like for you?
MH: So in my current role, I look at legislation at the state and federal level that impacts reproductive rights, sex education. And I then try to create messaging, talking points, and calls to action to elevate the awareness of what is actually happening at the state and federal level. Also, in other situations, I may teach a class on why it's important to get active and become an advocate of this work.
Prior to this role, my days usually consisted of mapping out lesson plans for sex-education classes across the lifespan.
PS: In what ways does sexology specifically impact the Black community? And why do you think it's important that Black folks are working on the issue?
MH: Because things like abortion impact Black and Brown communities at greater rates than their white counterparts. Similarly, if you look at any STI or HIV infection rate, you will see that disproportionately, communities of color are impacted negatively by the lack of information and lack of healthcare resources when it comes to sexual health — when it comes to maternal mortality, when it comes to femicide, transphobia, LGBTQ+ hate.
You look at a lot of the social issues that communities of color are faced with, 90 percent of the time, it's rooted in a sexuality issue. [Take] toxic masculinity. Masculinity by nature is not toxic. It is only toxic when it starts to go off the rails.
"We need more people to start talking about how sex and politics impacts our lived experiences and our freedoms."
PS: Who is your personal health hero and why?
MH: Dr. Joyce [Joycelyn] Elders, for sure. Because listen, as the first Black woman to be surgeon general, and then getting removed because she said masturbation was a safer sex practice, yeah. You might've had to resign, but your legacy lives on through me. I stand on her back.
PS: What's one specific memory that you have while being a sexologist that's just really stuck with you?
MH: I worked at a program where I had the opportunity to mentor a 14-year-old who was pregnant and was just starting her freshman year of high school. . . . And to see that young woman graduate from high school and go on to college with that baby, knowing that she came from a foster-care system, recognizing that maybe, maybe, maybe I had a small hand, I was able to leave a thumbprint on her vase of breaking the cycle.
There's been so many other ones. Trying to explain through a two-inch glass window to an inmate what is an ultrasound — who didn't know what they were looking at. Seeing young men speak at maternal-mortality conferences, young, high-school-age Black men asking the panel, "How are you educating Black men to understand maternal health? They need to know as well." Those are the moments that stay with me.
PS: Can you describe the path that led you to where you are now?
MH: I think that having a mother that was closeted was the first thing. And then experiencing sexual assault in high school and not having the education to understand what resources were available, or how to get help, feeling silenced, and then how that impacted how I felt about myself and the things that happened. And then, eventually, having the cojones to tell a friend about my experience with assault, and then hearing that same story come back to me, and then being like, "Huh." And then telling it again to someone else, and hearing another similar story. . . . When I told it to another woman, then that just really solidified to me that, "OK. Clearly, we are not having conversations about this, and I'm not alone."
And on top of that, growing up, I was so interested in Dr. Drew and Dr. Ruth, and I was like, "Hold on. These people don't look like me. And why is there not somebody that looks like me having these conversations? And how can somebody that looks like Dr. Drew try to talk to me about sex, love, and relationships, when they don't understand the full context of what my lived experience is as a Black woman, as a woman of color?"
I think we cannot separate race from sexuality in any sense. And even as a child, I can remember always wanting to be seen as beautiful or as cute or as pretty. But for whatever reason, when it came to my looks, it was sexy, it was exotic, it was hypersexualized.
[Then, in my career,] I went to what sold, which was telling people about sex and how to have great sex. But when I would try to create content that was about STI rates or legislation, nobody would be interested in that. I haven't created content as much as I used to, because it seems like everybody is a sexologist and everybody wants to talk about their experiences with sex. And I think that's great and healthy and wonderful. But I'm starting to wonder and have wondered, "How are we developing context for beyond the bedroom?"
We have seen that reproductive rights wins on the ticket regardless of what the race is. Abortion can win on the ticket. And our reproductive rights are being stripped from us. Our sexual freedoms are being ripped out from under us like a rug. And while it's cute to talk about how to have a great orgasm, we are going to get ourselves to a point that we are not going to have any opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of sex or our own sexuality because there's going to be too many laws that take away our rights. And we have to wake up. We have to start paying attention to that.
While I would love to go back to doing the orgasm stuff — there's a lot of people doing that, and I think they're doing a great job, keep it up. But we need more people to start talking about how sex and politics impacts our lived experiences and our freedoms and our rights and our access to healthcare.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of Michelle Hope and do not express the views or opinions of SIECUS.