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Eileen Kelly
courtesy of Instagram/@eileen

Let's talk about sex: Eileen Kelly on the importance of sexual education

TextAlex Peters

Killer and a Sweet Thang's Eileen Kelly talks sex ed, the state of birth control and how to keep your vagina clean

It’s no secret that sexual education for young people is not what it should be, with schools often not teaching students about contraceptives or menstruation, let alone topics surrounding STIs or the LGBTQ+ community. It was only last year, in fact, that Scotland became the first country in the world to embed the teaching of LBGTQ+ rights into the school curriculum

In the absence of proper education, teens are left to their own devices to learn about sex, often relying on rumours, misinformation, and experimentation to do so. This was the experience of Eileen Kelly, whose conservative Catholic upbringing and all-male household after the loss of her mother left huge blanks in her sexual knowledge – blanks for which she turned to the internet to fill. Kelly then decided to pass on what she had learned to others, fielding questions from her bedroom about puberty and sex from fellow confused teens on what would become her very popular Tumblr page Killer and a Sweet Thang. In 2016 at the age of 20, Kelly made it official and set up Killer and a Sweet Thang as an online resource and forum for young people to connect with their sexual and emotional health.

Since then, KAAST has evolved into a global platform, publishing articles from over 100 young writers on pleasure, identity, and social media – providing the inclusive and informative sex-positive education Kelly wishes she had received. Not only that, but Kelly herself has become a qualified sex educator, certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, speaking at high schools and universities around the country, in particular, sororities and fraternities where rape culture is rife. Multiple studies have found that men in fraternities are three times more likely to rape, while women in sororities are 74% more likely to experience rape than other college women. 

We caught up with Kelly to find out more about her life growing up, the current state of birth control and how to keep your vagina clean.

Tell us about yourself and where you grew up.
Eileen Kelly: I grew up in Seattle with a single father, my mom passed away when I was eight. Even though I was raised in one of the most liberal cities in the US, my upbringing was Catholic and quite conservative, which, as you can imagine, was very confusing. Growing up without a mom and in a house where topics around sexuality weren’t openly discussed led me to be hypervigilant in seeking information on my own. I had a few barriers when it came to figuring out my body and how it works; being deprived of this led to my eagerness in spreading sexual health knowledge. I had to find it out on my own, mainly via the internet, as details surrounding sexuality and the body weren’t available to me at home or at my Catholic school. Life isn’t easy, but I firmly believe you can always improve it (to a certain extent) with enough determination. Knowledge is power, and it’s my life goal to make the topics that weren’t available to me more accessible and inclusive to young people around the world.

When did you first become aware that your body was going through changes?
Eileen Kelly: I was a late bloomer, I was still very prepubescent all throughout middle school. I got my period at 14, which came as a big shock at the time considering how little I knew about menstruation. I didn’t really understand what it was or how it worked. I have a lot of uncomfortable memories associated with puberty; it was difficult for me to find people I trusted to talk about what was going on. I also did ballet very intensely during that period of time and menstruation was treated very “hush hush,” which didn’t help the discomfort I felt around the changes my body was going through.

You grew up in a household of guys how did that affect your understanding of the female body as you ventured into adulthood?
Eileen Kelly:
It was definitely warped. I was never shamed for my body or desires, but I think it made my dad and brothers uncomfortable so it was rarely spoken about. Female puberty and the changes I was going through were a bit of an “elephant in the room.” At the same time, because I was usually the only girl around, I felt like I had a special energy about me… a distinctly feminine energy that made me feel powerful at times. I knew I had to advocate on my own behalf, so I became very outspoken at a young age about expressing myself in ways that made me feel good about myself and liberated.

How did Killer And A Sweet Thing come about? What prompted you to actually start writing?
Eileen Kelly: I had just gotten into a near-death accident and had to drop out of school to recover. When I moved back to Seattle for four months to heal and be with my family, I had a lot of time on my hands and decided to put my passion to work. As silly as it may sound, I felt like I got a second chance at life and wanted to do something meaningful with it. I began writing small explanatory articles about my own experiences on topics ranging from birth control to yeast infections and shared them on my website (which was just a small blog at the time). I felt like other outlets were lacking in addressing the emotionality behind sex – a lot of what I was reading presented the facts in a very formulaic, scientific manner that made it difficult for a reader to relate. My website was never going to give out sex tips, blurt out statistics, or tell you what to buy or wear, but instead be a one-stop for coming of age issues, a place where you could feel that you were heard and not alone.

What was the reaction like to it when you first set it up? How has it changed over time?
Eileen Kelly: I started it when I was 20, so a majority of the initial reactions were, “What does a 20-year-old know about sex?” That kind of response has shifted as I’ve gotten older, received more credentials, and gained overall experience in the field. I recently completed a sex ed program and got an Associates Degree, and I’m going back to school next year to finish my BA. It’s a bit funny, however, as I never pretend to be something I’m not. I don’t act as though I am a gynaecologist who’s been in practice for 30 years. But I do have a story, a specific experience, and know what my education and surroundings lacked. I have done my own due diligence to gather and provide the information I so desperately sought out when I was younger.

At the time, what space did you want to occupy? How has it evolved since? 
Eileen Kelly:
Initially, I only shared my own experience but I quickly realized how narrow of a perspective that was. Personally, it was important for the site to be free from beauty and fashion. I felt that there was a space lacking that focused primarily on health and not trying to sell you stuff. Since its inception, we have had over 100 writers share pieces on sex, dating, identity, and social media. It’s been exciting to watch the community grow and be exposed to topics I’ve never thought of because they don’t personally affect me. I stay inspired by reading the pieces on the site, the reactions from our audience, and the discourse that takes place on our social media platforms.

Why is sex still something of a taboo, particularly for women?
Eileen Kelly: There is a tremendous hush hush attitude around sex that is deeply embedded in our culture which one can argue stems from religious roots. In the most prominent religious texts, regardless of which religion, sex is for procreation purposes and so having any sexual relations outside of “marriage” was deemed taboo and unacceptable. The suppression of female sexuality – and pleasure specifically – keeps the patriarchal framework in place and sends the message that women serve one purpose: to receivers or dependant, opposite the men who are providers. The shame around our bodies and lack of education, has been passed down for generations. It starts with something as simple as young girls not being given the correct names for their genitals. Usually, young boys are given correct labels or names but little girls are not, and this teaches us from a young age that our body is not as important or shameful.

What do you think of the current state of birth control options? There’s been a lot of talk about how pills are linked to depression and anxiety and also talk of a male contraception.
Eileen Kelly: The birth control pill is almost 60 years old which may seem like it’s been around a long time, but it hasn’t. So I think there will be more and more studies coming out on the long term effects of the pill and other contraceptive methods. Personally, I prefer more localized methods of birth control such as the IUD, for a hormonal option, which keeps the hormones in your uterus. I think it’s important that people with vaginas stay informed and not be afraid to ask questions to their doctors. Many people live with side-effects because they think they’re normal and these birth control options should only enhance your way of life, not make things worse. They’re there to make things easier and let you plan when or if you decide to get pregnant.

What treatments and products would you recommend most?
Eileen Kelly: You do not need any products to clean your vagina, this is a huge misconception. You only need to wash your vagina with warm water, no soap, no cleansers. Vaginas are self-cleaning and I can’t stress it enough. I like probiotics to keep things in check down there and keep your pH balanced. I’m also a fan of boric acid suppositories for yeast infections and D-Mannose for UTIs. Pleasure products are a different story and I’m completely for them if you feel that they enhance your sex life.

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