Raised by her lesbian mother, Michelle Hope grew to understand some of the hardships her mother experienced as well her own growing up as a biracial child in Indiana during the ’80s and ’90s.
Her experiences led her to become a sex educator in efforts to expand society’s perceptions of sex and break down barriers that contribute to stigmas about sexuality.
“It is our duty to fight for our people and what was instilled in me was you do what’s right,” she said. “ Love is love and all people should have access to education so they can take care of themselves the best way they know how.”
“Sexuality is from the womb to the tomb. When it comes to sexuality and sex education or even conversations about sex, we tend to think it should be reserved for a specific time, place and age and that’s actually not right. We start applying sexuality onto an individual before they’re even born [and] when we have a gender reveal party. But gender identity may shift as we mature, may change, may evolve [and] may expand beyond the binary of ‘boy’ or ‘girl,’” Hope said.
In her work, she expands on the fluidity of sexuality and believes sex education should be taught at all ages but be appropriate at the same time. Lessons in anatomy, she says, remain vital for children to understand not only how their body functions but also that their body is theirs.
“I think we oversimplify sex. When it comes to that three-letter word, we have to remember that it is a loaded word for a lot of people but it shouldn’t be. I look at sexuality as something that is integral to our everyday lives,” she said.
Wholistic sexuality is what Hope believes connects the biological, psychological, sociological and spiritual variables to one’s understanding of themself as it connects to the self-perception of body image, gender identity and how a person views relationships.
“I often think that maybe there would be less stigma if we didn’t just stop at sex but instead looked at it through the lens of how sexuality implicates our whole lives,” Hope said.
She points to current legislation in the Commonwealth for illustrative purposes.
In Virginia, “schools have the authority to choose or approve curriculum for sexual health education and STD Prevention instruction” according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Analysis of State Health Education Laws Virginia Summary Report. Additionally, the summary report notes that “instruction regarding contraception is not addressed” in Virginia law. Abstinence counts as a required topic that must be addressed during sex education instruction.
In Maryland, the analysis states that the curriculum for sex education being medically accurate is not included in the state’s laws. The only common attributes of effective school-based sexual health education noted in the CDC analysis included in Maryland’s state laws: the curriculum must be delivered by trained instructors and parents/stakeholders be “involved in the review, development and/or approval of curriculum.”
In the District, instruction regarding contraception is required to be addressed as a topic during sex education instruction alongside STD prevention, according to the CDC analysis. Abstinence does not count as a topic that must be addressed based on District laws.
But what about perceptions of STDs?
Hope believes the stigma associated with sexually transmitted infections is dangerous because of the way it is perceived and labeled, which she says “puts more people at risk because it de-centers proactive protection, communication and relationship building which are actually what’s needed to protect against infections and creates a false sense of safety by those not engaging in certain sexual activity.”
“I think the danger of this kind of conflation and stigma is that it labels certain people and certain sexual activity as riskier or more susceptible to disease than others. When people are labeled this way, it puts them at risk of being attacked, isolated and unprotected because of an actual or perceived affiliation with an identity group,” Hope said.