A group of sex education teachers in Appalachia are afraid for their lives—so much so that they are having to hide in safe houses—after Christopher Rufo, the right-wing activist credited by the New Yorker for effectively “inventing the conflict” surrounding critical race theory, has now set his sights on “exposing” their program.
On March 8, Rufo began tweeting about a past virtual event called “Sexy Summer Camp,” which welcomed people of all ages in rural Kentucky with limited access to education and resources intended to aid in healthy, safe sexual exploration. The itinerary, which was published by Rufo, includes lessons on “gender exploration,” “self-pleasure” “pelvic floor health,” and “self-managed abortions.” Rufo honed in on the fact that the camp was advertised for all ages —implying that children and adults could be receiving the same lessons—and that masturbation would be “demonstrated,” though the itinerary made it explicitly clear that the act would be demonstrated “on hands.”
Since the thread was published, the program was featured on The Ingraham Angle, was called out in an advertisement for a populist conservative think tank, and has attracted the attention of a slew of well-known conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Matt Walsh. Now, program staffers have been doxxed on Twitter, with a users on social media likening them to “witches,” “predators,” and “pedophiles,” and calling for their arrest. The online attacks have become so prevalent that they’ve recently been forced to seek refuge at “safe houses,” a source close to the women told Jezebel, and an allied local pro-abortion organization has also created a spreadsheet to track threats of violence and death against the staff.
“Since last Tuesday, Sexy Sex Ed, our educators, and our funders have been flooded with hundreds of threatening messages across all platforms,” the group wrote in a statement on their website Tuesday. “We recognize that the current misinformation attack against Sexy Sex Ed is part of a long-term, highly funded, and coordinated strategy of the right to maintain and entrench their power through media and narrative control.”
“Sexy Summer Camp” was established last summer by Tanya Turner, who is also at the helm of Sexy Sex Ed, a workshop series that provides teenagers and people of all ages a space to discuss things like consent, anatomy and engaging with sex and masturbation safely. According to its history, Turner realized the need for such a program in 2012 after participants of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY) Project asked for more conversations on sex ed and gender. By 2017, the series of workshops had evolved and has since expanded across the Appalachian region.
Though she was unavailable for comment, Turner has explained in past interviews that it was also an overall lack of progressive, comprehensive sex ed programs in Appalachia that inspired her to create the program. “I received horrifying Sex Ed, and there’s a lot of ‘abstinence only’ here,” Turner told KRNL Magazine. “I have a lot of friends who have dealt with teen pregnancies.”
Old videos of Turner have now been dredged up and reposted as clips without context to encourage the harassment of her. A popular one, published last year, wherein she discusses masturbation among other topics, has now been reposted dozens of times.
“Masturbation is really healthy, and I recommend it to people of all ages. All Ages. As soon as my nephews could talk, they were doing that,” Turner says in the video.
Conservatives have long tried to restrict any education that might encourage self-determination and bodily autonomy. The Parental Right to Education (or “Don’t Say Gay”) bill is just one recent example of the ongoing effort. Set to go into effect in Florida this July, that legislation states that lessons about sexual orientation are banned outright in kindergarten through third grade. A number of Republican-led states like Arizona and Idaho have also sought to pass, or are in the process of passing, legislation that would make it increasingly difficult for the current sex-ed curriculum to include discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.
Just thirty states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education, with only 22 of which mandating medically-accurate HIV education. The majority of these states are also required to inform parents that sexual education is being taught and 36 states give parents the authority to simply ‘opt out’ on behalf of their children. As a result, according to a CDC School Health Profile, less than half of high schools and only a fifth of middle schools teach all 16 topics recommended by the CDC as necessary components of sex ed. This basic information includes how to prevent HIV and other STDs infection and transmission.
The targeted harassment campaigns against teachers adds an even more disturbing element to the right’s war on sex ed, and it’s not dissipating any time soon: Rufo has promised that a more extensive report on the Appalachia program is on its way. In the name of “protecting children” and policing morality and sexuality, Republicans have literally driven women into hiding—but the sex ed in Appalachia will continue.
“We teach people about their bodies, that their bodies are their own, and that all people deserve to decide what happens to their bodies without external influence or coercion,” the group said. “We know our work will be distorted by those with their own political agendas, but we will not be silenced.”