Bedside With Eileen Kelly: Sex Ed For The Digital Age
B edside is an interview series that examines the influence of sex and gender as it pertains to the work of affluent creators, entrepreneurs, and educators. By contributing to the shifting cultural dialogue, we aim to break down the many stigmas of sex and normalize its context in the everyday.
Eileen Kelly best describes herself as a sex educator for the digital age. With her platform Killer and a Sweet Thang, she and her team make a point to cover topics of identity, sex, and love in an easy-to-digest way that walks readers through different sexual experiences by firsthand account. She explains that her platform is not clinical; rather, she wants her audience to know that her writers are right next to them in that Planned Parenthood waiting room, or learning about intro to BDSM. Her work is powerful and her voice is vital for her near half million followers—most of whom are Millennials and Gen Z.
We sat down with Kelly to talk all things growing up, social media, and of course, sex.
I’m curious about your childhood, what were you like as a kid?
I played a lot of imaginary games honestly up until a really late age [laughs]. Most people I knew in middle school were on MySpace, and I was still playing house.
Did you readily embrace coming-of-age?
By the time I entered high school it was a very night and day switch. I did ballet really intensely until I was sixteen, and it was my entire social life. Because of that I didn’t go to homecoming or the football games, and when I quit I wanted to fully experience being a teenager.
You first started on tumblr answering questions for your peers. How did you find the courage to be so candid and open at such a formative time?
I found it organically just from a lack of what I was getting in my own life. I was like, “Oh I can go out and create what I wish I had in the simplest form, which at the time was tumblr.” I talked about sex, being depressed, hookups, just all the things every teenager feels.
Did you have any sort of dialogue growing up in your household?
[Laughs] like none. I grew up really Catholic with a single dad. I went to Church every Sunday, and by the time I entered high school I chose not to go anymore, which my family respected. It was never pushed on me, but everyone within my community was in the conservative Catholic bubble of Seattle. It was a strange juxtaposition simultaneously growing up in one of the most liberal cities in the country.
Were you ever nervous about your tumblr getting out?
No because everyone I knew had a tumblr. It was the dawn of the social media age. There was really only tumblr and Twitter. We would find out about every party or drama on Twitter, and it’s funny because I feel like it doesn’t hold that same weight anymore.
It makes me wonder about the outlets teenagers have now.
I’d say predominantly Instagram and Snapchat. I talk about this a lot, but most people my age remember pre-internet. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like growing up with that in your life 24/7. It complicates our level of communication, self esteem, and how we date and hookup. That’s definitely something I want to research in the future: how social media is changing the way we communicate and have sex.
Instagram can be such an intimidating space. How do you create validation for yourself and your work?
Instagram honestly gives me a lot of anxiety. Maybe over the past year more so than ever.
That’s kind of refreshing to hear!
Pretty much everyone I know feels similarly. I actually deactivated my Instagram last Spring for a bit. I’ve had this online persona that’s been around since I was sixteen and I wanted it to be gone for a few days, I wanted to know what that felt like.
That’s definitely something I want to research in the future: how social media is changing the way we communicate and have sex.
How do you support your readers in bridging the gap between intimacy online and offline?
I think there’s a really big difference between intimacy on and offline. Online you can build a facade, but I don’t want to seem so negative because in part I think it’s great. It evened out the playing field for artists, photographers, and models, that traditionally wouldn’t be so successful if they had to go through the system that was already in place. At the same time, you’re putting your best foot forward. I could be in bed on a Friday night feeling left out of plans, and post a party photo from the week before. So just realizing that it’s not real is important. But how do we do that when it’s so ingrained in our lives?
Your platform is peer-to-peer, is this where you believe contemporary sex ed is headed?
Yeah, I love peer educator programs. Planned Parenthood and Day One both have great ones, and I think people, myself included, get so much more out of having someone around their age talk about these subjects. For me, I had a P.E. teacher with no credentials talk to me about sex. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t bring your car to anything other than an auto body shop to get fixed so why aren’t we doing the same thing when we’re learning about sex.
I had a similar experience, there was never even conversation about things like consent.
No consent, no pleasure, maybe you’ll get a conversation about birth control options, but that’s even if you’re getting sex ed. In most states they’re allowed to teach misinformation around sex.
Right! I had a girl I was looking after once tell me they put plastic fetuses on the table in grade school.
Yes, or sometimes girls are passed around a tiny present and it’ll have a bow on it, and once they tell you to undo the bow, they correlate it to losing virginity – that no one will really want you anymore. I used to audit this course at NYU for a professor of mine, and she showed us all these textbooks for when abstinence is taught in schools, and it’s insane. They can teach full on misinformation! Like that if you have an abortion you won’t be able to carry a pregnancy again, which is completely false.
You’ve mentioned before you’re interested in moving down south. Is that still something you’re considering?
Yeah for sure. I went two years ago on a road trip around Mississippi and Louisiana, and it was crazy just seeing how there were like 10 churches to every school. Those areas have the highest rates of STI transmission, highest rates of teen pregnancy, and it predominantly affects low income people of color. To me it’s this much larger systemic issue. I love what I do living in New York, but it’s not as needed here, there’s access in big cities. So yes, I really want to work down south.
Do you still believe that sex ed should be taught in classrooms?
Absolutely. I don’t think that we can depend on parents having these conversations. It’s not great, but somewhere I get it and can respect that, so what can we do as a country with our policies to change the outcome of these diseases and pregnancies.
What does sexual wellness mean for you? What’s your routine, if any?
I get tested a lot. Even if I’m having the same partner. That’s a big one, because even if you’re in a monogamous relationship I really push that people get tested every 5 months. It’s not about distrust, it’s about putting your health and safety at the forefront of everything. But it’s interesting even how the medical community treats their patients. I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt really judged trying to have an honest conversation about my sex life. Where the first question OBGYN’s ask you is how many partners you’ve had. Why do they even need to know that? It’s reinforcing a stigma.
So you get tested. What else?
I’m really aware of what products I put in my body. I don’t get a period because of my IUD, but if I did I would definitely use certain types of pads or menstrual cups. I like the organic stuff. There’s a lot of misinformation out there that correlates to bad health. They bleach a lot of tampons, and the rayon in them can be toxic. I think if you can afford it, to make that a priority. Then of course there’s the greater question of why sexual health is a privilege.
If you had one takeaway for your audience, what’s the most important thing you want them to know?
To let go of the shame associated with sexual experience. No matter the environment you grew up in, everyone has some level of shame to uncover. Whether it’s your identity, sexual health, how your vagina looks, masturbation, achieving an orgasm there’s just so much shame. I want people to realize that other people go through this too, and no one’s alone in their experience.
Anything new that we can look forward to coming up in your work?
Yes! I have a podcast launching called Pillow Talk that will be releasing in January. Stay tuned.
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