Youth Sexpert: An Interview with Tara Michaela
We’re big fans of young people taking sex ed into their own hands. So, it’s no surprise I was thrilled to interview Tara Michaela, who recently founded the Youth Sexpert Program (YSP) when she was nineteen. Young people remain a major source of information about sex for each other and her program takes inspiration from those informal, peer to peer conversations about sex. YSP wants to equip young people with information and skills to educate each other about sex and relationships well. Tara took time to chat with me about her own experiences with sex education, her process of becoming a sex educator, and her hopes for the organization she’s created.
What was your own sex education experience like?
I was raised in Massachusetts which is a notoriously liberal state. As a sex educator now who gets to hear sex ed horror stories daily, I’m sure my sex ed experience was better than most. Even so, we mostly learned about STIs (in an extremely stigmatizing way) and birth control. Not once were we taught about pleasure, consent, queerness, and so many other topics we deserved to be able to discuss. If we learned anything about anatomy, it was about the ovaries and fallopian tubes, never the clitoris or even the vagina. There was a lot that I’m sure all of us had to do to supplement what we missed. I was not one of the lucky ones who had parents to give them the birds and the bees talk. As cringey and uncomfortable as many people describe it to have been, surely “the talk” is better than nothing. That’s what I got, nothing. Sex felt like a learn-as-you-go type of thing for me, which resulted in a far from healthy relationship with sex from an early age. There were many uncomfortable, confusing, and upsetting interactions that could have been avoided had someone just bothered to be open with me about sex.
Can you tell me a little about how you became a sex educator?
With nowhere else to go to talk about sex, I turned to the internet. As a chronic social media oversharer, my private Instagram account was my safe space to ask questions and share my experiences on the topic. As I did so, I noticed more and more people engaging with that type of content, and thought to myself that this was a community role that I could take on. I decided to dive into books, podcasts, academic journals, movies, shows, just trying to learn as much about sex as possible, which turned into a lifelong search for me.
Are there any sex educators you look up to or take inspiration from?
TONS. As a Black woman in this field particularly, I believe it cannot be understated how important the existence of Black sex educators is. The lens they bring to this work is one of understanding the unique cultural factors that affect our sex lives. Some of my favorite, and some dear friends of mine, are Portia Brown, Tatyannah King, Dirty Lola, Sex with Irma, Ev’yan Whitney, and Shan Boodram. My non-profit also has an INCREDIBLE advisory board full of sexuality professionals I trust and admire immensely.
You recently launched the Youth Sexpert Program. What was the inspiration for that project?
I’ve always felt personally motivated by the idea that the time period that I really could have used transparency around sex was during high school. Entering those early sexual interactions without any of the crucial information I needed caused a lot of harm for me. One day this past November it dawned on me that I wish I had a “me” while I was in high school, someone who had taken on the responsibility in my community to be educated about sex and be a trustworthy confidant. This is my livelihood now, so surely I can help high schoolers in their various communities to do the same. Not to mention, through my years of doing this work I have built up a network of other renowned sex educators who youth might not be able to have access to otherwise. I want to make their work and expertise as accessible as possible for those who need it most.
How do you decide what topics to cover in the YSP?
I love this question! My first step in building our curriculum was looking through all the notes I had from written pieces and past workshops I had done. I compiled a list of topics that I knew were incomplete, but I didn’t realize just how incomplete it was until my first meeting with my advisory board. Having such a diverse group of sex educators there, with specialties in all sorts of topics, has really helped me to feel like we have a wider range of topics. They will be helping me as I work through the specifics of the first semester’s curriculum in the coming months.
Have there been any reactions to YSP that have surprised you?
Definitely. As someone who’s mostly worked with brands in an influencer capacity, where the person on the other end of the collaboration already knows who you are, what has been interesting about starting the Youth Sexpert Program has been reactions from potential funders or collaborators about how young I am. I find it funny, truthfully, but it caught me off guard at first. I’ve known myself for my whole life, and I’ve always been the kind of person who has an idea and just pursues it, hence starting my career as a sex educator at 19 years old. It makes perfect sense to me that I would have an idea for a nonprofit and a week later already have 501(c)(3) status, but the shock is understandable, my hope is that it doesn’t turn into doubt. I believe my youth is an asset for this organization. As the primary educator in the Youth Sexpert Program, I hope the fact that high school wasn’t all that long ago for me will allow students to connect with me and feel more comfortable with me.
YSP and Scarleteen share the belief that pleasure as a topic is an important part of sex education. What does pleasure-centered sex ed look like to you?
This is huge. Philosophically, I am a firm believer in the concept of Pleasure Activism, that pleasure has the power to connect us to our bodies, to our nature, to what it means to be a person outside of everything happening in the world. I believe that shame and stigma are political tools, a means of oppression. The way we rise above them is not only learning, learning about our bodies and how to respect others’, but also unlearning. We should strive to unlearn the invented relationship between sex and morality. Pleasure is about empowerment, pleasure is about self-care, pleasure is about joy, things that should be accessible to everyone.
What are your hopes for the young people who become peer educators for YSP?
My biggest hope is that they realize just how important this work is. The most rewarding moments in my own life have been those where I was able to help people in ways I couldn’t imagine, relieve their shame, find justice and peace around their trauma, etc. I know that youth educators can have similarly rewarding moments, that is my biggest goal for them.
What do you hope the sex ed landscape looks like in five years?
In terms of sex education online specifically, there seems to be an idea that people (adults) are perfectly comfortable talking about sex openly, perhaps even too comfortable. I can tell you from the hate-filled messages and comments I’ve had to field, that this is far from true. I hope that in 5 years I will be able to initiate the conversations that I do without the interruption of others' judgment. Beyond that, I hope sex educators are compensated fairly for their work more often than we are, and I hope that more people are able to recognize that there is nothing wrong with needing sex therapy or sex advice.
If you could give your teenage self a piece of advice, what would it be?
I’d probably tell myself to start doing this work earlier, which makes sense in terms of what The Youth Sexpert Program is striving to do. This work has been empowering not only in allowing me to better understand my body, mind, and society, as well as helping others, but has also taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to. That would be a great message for my high school self, to just keep going, the world is yours