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Encore: In Appalachia, sex educators suspend their work after threats

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sex education in parts of Appalachia stresses abstinence. A nonprofit group there that offered a more comprehensive approach has now suspended operations after its members received violent threats. NPR's Maria Godoy reports it's part of a broader backlash against sex ed that's taking place across the country.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in Big Stone Gap, Va., a picturesque Appalachian mountain town of 5,200 people. Outside the local visitor center, crowds have gathered to attend a festival for the area's artists and activists.

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GODOY: A college student stops at an information booth for a group called Sexy Sex Ed. The table is covered with condom packages with the word consent written across the front. Shaylin (ph) runs the group.

SHAYLIN: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I'm good.

SHAYLIN: I love your makeup.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Thank you.

SHAYLIN: You're welcome. So have you all heard about Sexy Sex Ed before?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: We have. I have...

GODOY: Sexy Sex Ed is a nonprofit with a cheeky, irreverent approach to sex education. They do workshops and attend events like this one throughout Southern Appalachia. But this is the group's last event, at least for now. That's because this past year, they were the target of a harassment campaign.

SHAYLIN: We were flooded with thousands of death threats.

GODOY: That's why NPR is only using first names for Shaylin and her colleagues. Here's Shaylin.

SHAYLIN: It was threatening. It was scary. It was anxiety-inducing.

GODOY: The barrage of harassment started in March when conservative activist Christopher Rufo criticized the group on Twitter among other platforms. He accused the group of offering summer workshop courses for children that discussed graphic sexual practices. Other conservative activists also weighed in. Shaylin says those attacks misrepresented what they taught and to whom.

SHAYLIN: They put their own spin on it to make it seem as if we were hosting an in-person summer camp with 5-year-olds when, in reality, the summer camp was virtual. And nobody under the age of 16 attended the summer camp. So it was completely taken out of context.

GODOY: Rufo told NPR in an email that 16-year-olds are still minors and that the group has a very different definition of age-appropriate than most parents. He accused the group of, quote, "doing something way outside the mainstream." The criticisms unleashed a torrent of abuse on social media and in real life.

KIRSTEN: It was really bad.

GODOY: That's Kirsten (ph), a 21-year-old volunteer educator with Sexy Sex Ed from rural West Virginia. She was one of the people directly targeted.

KIRSTEN: They found my family on social media. They would message them and say they were going to break into our house and kill us all. And, like, I was scared. Like, I was afraid that someone would show up at my house. I was worried for my family.

GODOY: At her workplace, Kirsten's boss said she got calls and emails accusing Kirsten of being a pedophile. In Whitesburg, Ky., the mayor's office confirmed it also received calls complaining about Sexy Sex Ed, which had previously held a workshop in town. Similar calls inundated a local Appalachian community fund that was Sexy Sex Ed's fiscal sponsor. As a result, the fund ended its relationship with the group.

Nora Gelperin is with Advocates for Youth, a national sexual health and rights nonprofit. She says since spring of last year, they've seen a surge in harassment and disinformation campaigns against sex-ed providers across the nation. Gelperin charges right-wing groups with stoking fears among parents. She says one strategy often used by both conservative politicians and advocacy groups is to take what's being taught out of context.

NORA GELPERIN: So they might take some topic, say it's being taught at an absolutely inappropriate grade level, which it was never being taught there to begin with. But it leads parents to be really nervous or afraid.

GODOY: She says that's especially true when it comes to sex education offered in public schools. Gelperin says many sex educators across the country are now scared to share even basic information like where to get contraception.

GELPERIN: I've heard from a lot of teachers a lot of reluctance to refer kids to a Planned Parenthood or health center, a health department, making sure where they know what their rights are around - even if you're under 18, you're legally able to access contraception. You don't need a parent's permission to go into a drugstore and buy condoms. We're dealing with that a great deal, unfortunately.

GODOY: The lack of comprehensive sex education has particular implications in places where affordable contraception can be hard to get and where abortion is also illegal. That includes the parts of Appalachia where Sexy Sex Ed operates. Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee have among the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. Dr. Rebekah Rollston grew up in Appalachian Tennessee. She now teaches at Harvard Medical School and has researched sex-education policies.

REBEKAH ROLLSTON: And I think the more serious implications here are that people are not going to be using birth control, or contraceptives, appropriately or at all. And so then, for those people who don't want to become pregnant, they then have very few options.

GODOY: There's a sizable body of research showing that comprehensive sex education can increase the use of contraception among teens and delay when they first have sex. It's also been linked to lower teen pregnancy rates. Shaylin says she's seen from her own experiences growing up in rural Kentucky how difficult people's lives can get when they don't have good sex education.

SHAYLIN: This is information that definitely could have saved my friends and me a lot of unnecessary anxiety being teenagers.

GODOY: How many people did you know in high school with kids or who got pregnant?

SHAYLIN: Oof. There was a lot. (Laughter) There were a lot.

GODOY: Shaylin, who's now 26, says these kinds of experiences inspired her to become a sex educator in the first place.

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GODOY: But for now, Shaylin is folding up her sex-ed information table for the last time. She says Sexy Sex Ed is taking a break until they can figure out how to operate safely. Maria Godoy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.