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In this episode of The Turn On, Erica and Kenrya talk to sex educator and pleasure witch Haylin Belay about tapping into your personal spirituality; achieving a pleasurable, integrated sex life; rooting out anti-Blackness in sex education and all the shit popular culture gets wrong about witchcraft.
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Kenrya: Come here. Get off.
Kenrya: Today, we're talking to Haylin Belay, pronouns she and her. Haylin is a seasoned sex educator and holistic health promotion professional with a focus on reproductive justice and youth empowerment. With over a decade of hands-on experience developing award-winning health education programming and providing professional development for clinicians, educators, and activists, her expertise is in teaching practical skills for a healthier, more pleasurable life. Love it. She's also a yoga instructor and a spiritual coach who offers group classes, workshops, and one-on-one coaching from a trauma-responsive, integrated mind-body-spirit perspective.
Kenrya: Haylin is the creator of Sex Ed For All and My Feminism Involves Witchcraft, and she hosts a web series called How to Sex Toy. Haylin's mission is to support everyone, regardless of gender, orientation, libido, relationship style, kink, fetish, ability, size, trauma background, or sexual experience in living their best and healthiest lives. A practicing witch and professional tarot reader, Haylin lives in New York City with her cat, Princess Walter, and a kitten.
Haylin Belay: And a kitten. Also, I'm so sorry, I just realized that that's outdated as well. I've moved to Baltimore. I moved to Baltimore about five seconds before corona hit, so I really snuck in under the deadline.
Kenrya: Welcome to the area.
Erica: Welcome to the area.
Haylin Belay: Where are you all calling from?
Kenrya: We're just outside of D.C.
Haylin Belay: Okay. Hey, neighbor.
Erica: Hey, girl.
Kenrya: And, on that note, thank you for coming on the show.
Haylin Belay: Yeah, of course. Happy to be here and [crosstalk 00:02:00].
Erica: What's the kitty's name? I mean we can't have Reverend Jackson, Reverend Kitten, what do you call it?
Kenrya: Princess Walter.
Erica: Taking all the shine.
Haylin Belay: The big cat, he's not that big, but the big cat is Princess Walter, and then the baby kitten, she's got a little mohawk pattern on her head, [crosstalk 00:02:19], that's her name.
Kenrya: I love it.
Erica: I love it.
Kenrya: Yay. So, we first learned about you and your work when you did a tarot reading on Another Round, rest in peace.
Erica: Rest in peace.
Haylin Belay: Rest in peace, yes.
Erica: That was a horrible air horn.
Kenrya: Horrible air horn.
Erica: You know what? It was a chicken, okay?
Haylin Belay: That definitely was a chicken.
Erica: I'm from the Midwest. It took me a while to-
Kenrya: Even know what the fuck an air horn was?
Erica: Yeah. I was like, "What is this?" At a monster truck rally, maybe.
Erica: My bad. Continue. Shout-out to Another Round.
Kenrya: So, when I was working on my book, “How We Fight White Supremacy,” I reached out to you and I asked you to write what ended up being a really beautiful essay about what it means to be a witch and how that's tied to your liberation and all of our liberation, and folks need to go read that essay, but in the meantime-
Erica: Available at your favorite bookseller, we'll include a link.
Kenrya: Your favorite Black bookseller.
Erica: Black bookseller.
Kenrya: But in the meantime, can you tell us a bit about what being a practicing witch means to you and how you come to this work?
Haylin Belay: Yeah. First and foremost, thank you for the opportunity to write that essay. I'm trying to remember, I'm very bad with time, was that in 2017?
Kenrya: Shit. Probably. Listen, it came out in 2019, so, yeah, sure, 2017.
Haylin Belay: Yeah. I haven't read it in a minute, but I stand by everything that I said in that essay, most likely. If anything, probably the only edits that I would make now are just the same thing, but even more emphatically. My relationship to witchcraft takes a lot of meandering turns. It's a story that I tell in many of my workshops because I think the story of it explains why I'm teaching all of the seemingly disparate things that I teach. I will say that I am an Ethiopian, and most Ethiopians have a really strong negative relationship with the word "witchcraft." So, as a child, I was not thinking of anything that I did or that my family did as witchcraft or magic, it was either religious or it just didn't have a name, these cultural-
Erica: You just do it.
Haylin Belay: Yeah, exactly. When I have a stomachache, my mom puts her hands on my stomach and takes the sickness out, that was just a thing that happens. So, it wasn't until probably college that I actually started using the word "witch" specifically, and it really started, embarrassingly enough, from this pretentious academic anthropologist lens, like, "Witchcraft is a construct," which I don't regret, I think that-
Erica: Don't you love your collegiate self? You're like, "I learned some shit," I'll get on everybody's nerves at Thanksgiving.
Haylin Belay: But, luckily, the books that that led me to were books that were useful for me to read. So, the snobbery aside, it was a useful period of time. So, I first got interested in the concept of witchcraft from this anthropological lens, but it didn't really become personal until I got my first tarot deck, and I got my first tarot deck at the same time that I was experiencing processing a pretty high-impact trauma that happened during my college years.
Haylin Belay: So, as anyone who has experienced trauma knows, when you're in that aftermath, especially really early on, it feels like your organizing idea of what the world is has now shattered, either because you were one way and then something happened and now that way doesn't exist anymore, or because, in my case, my organizing principle of the world for a very long time had been organized around my abuser, and so now that that person's no longer in my life, who am I? How do I know stuff? How do I make decisions? How do I deal with things?
Haylin Belay: I got a tarot deck mostly because I was like, "This will be a fun way to procrastinate from things when I don't feel like doing what I'm supposed to, at least I'll have this pretty thing to look at and play around with." And every time I picked up my deck, it was like, "Okay, well, there goes the next three hours because I'm going to have to process this, I'm going to have to journal about it," and talk about it with my therapist, and process it really deeply.
Haylin Belay: Finding that that experience was not just, when I say that I had an anthropological or a political interest in the word "witchcraft," what I really mean is that the construct of witchcraft as being specifically in, I wouldn't say conflict, "conflict's" a harsh word, but in contrast to a hegemonic view of the world that is top-down, hierarchal, dogmatic, these institutional ways of thinking that is, "Here is the truth, it's this thing outside of you, and you have to learn how to adopt it," that witchcraft was a statement of personal power, "I have the power to do things with my will or intention," and also a statement of knowledge, "I have the power within me to understand truth. I don't need somebody else to tell me what truth is and learn how to fit myself to truth, I already have it."
Haylin Belay: So, that was, I think, first something that I came to, again, politically. I went to college, I got radicalized, I was like, "No more institutions. Everything's a social construct. I'm a witch because I exist in opposition to these constructs." But, over time, it became something that little teenager-me, who was so areligious that she started a Secular Students Alliance in high school, which I now look back on and I'm like, "What was I doing? What was my area of focus that I was like, "This is a really important thing I need to be my spending my time doing is starting an atheist club at school."
Haylin Belay: But now, at almost 27-years-old, I consider myself a deeply spiritual and a deeply religious person. And I've realized, in retrospect, that, actually, that's not something new that I developed as an adult, it's something that I've had my entire life, but I didn't have the language for a spirituality that wasn't organized religion. I didn't have language for a spirituality that actually did allow for me to be the person that I knew myself to be, that allowed me to work my way out of some of the traumatic experiences of religiosity that I had as a young person.
Haylin Belay: And so, at first, it started with the political stuff, like book stuff, and then it became this spiritual thing. And then I actually moved into this really embodied work. So, as you mentioned in the bio, which was so fun to listen to, I love listening to people talk about me, happy Leo season, you mentioned-
Erica: Give yourself your flowers.
Haylin Belay: Many things I do. I am also a sex educator, that's my main "professional" thing that I've been trained to do, thing that's on my resume. So, I had been doing work around values and health for a while, but the connection of those two things came pretty late in the game, I think it was probably 2018, 2018 is when I did my yoga teacher training, and that was a choice, I was like, "I know I'm a good sex educator, but I feel like I could be a great sex educator if I was able to not just talk to people about these social-emotional skills, but also talk to them about these sematic experiences that they don't have other places to talk about. How do you know what pleasure feels like? How do you know what distress feels like and how to regulate it?" And those kinds of questions came later, partially because I'm an over-educated hyper-intellectual analytic person, I'm just like, "How do we figure out the-
Erica: "Now that I know this, I need to study it."
Haylin Belay: Yeah, exactly. I want different theory, yeah, which was useful for a while, and then you get to a certain point, and anybody who's done anything with enough intensity or commitment knows that, at a certain point, you hit the wall of you just have to feel it. You can know it, you can say it to other people, but that is not the same thing as feeling it and living it and feeling like it's a part of you. So, in the last two years, especially, I feel like, this could be a long story, but I feel like it all came around probably in the last two years that I really felt like these different things that I was doing as a sex educator, as a social-emotional skills educator, as a witch, now feel like they're all part of the same thing, which is pleasure.
Haylin Belay: Obviously, that's related to my sex ed work, that comes as no surprise, but it's also fundamental to what I think of as my spirituality and my witchcraft. A lot of times, I call myself a pleasure witch, to bring attention to the fact that my practice is really centered around acknowledging the sacredness of my own intuition, which I use pleasure and intuition interchangeably, that body feeling of, "I know that this thing is happening and it's good," that's what I want to privilege in my life.
Erica: You hit on so many points, I'm like, "Yes, yes, yes, yes," particularly the point where you talked about being the president/founder of the Secular Student Club, the SSC. So, you and your SSC homies, it's funny because I think about my girlfriends, and they laugh, because I will make a joke about Jesus in a minute, that doesn't mean I don't believe in him, it's just I'm working through some things and I'm trying to figure out where I fit in it all. So, I think it's really dope that you have been able to, now, stand on the mountaintop and look on everything and see how it all lines up into seeing who big Haylin is, because my next question is: what did baby Haylin think she wanted to be when she grew up?
Haylin Belay: Oh my God. Baby Haylin wanted to be a film critic? I say that with a question mark at the end because, actually what I wanted to be was an anthropologist, but I didn't know that. I thought that what I wanted to be was a film critic because I was really interested in film as an artifact, the way to study culture. And then I got to college, in the film department that I'd applied to be in, and took one class and was like, "I hate this. What? Why are we talking about this weird psychoanalytic theory that has nothing to do with lived ... This is boring."
Erica: "I was just trying to throw stones at Indiana Jones."
Kenrya: Film is my second minor, it's definitely its own separate world.
Haylin Belay: Yes. So, I was interested in film as a young person, and I did a film studies essay that I'm still really proud of, at 18-years-old, this really good essay about movie adaptations. And then I went to school and was like, "Actually all the classes that are about film in the way that I want to talk about them are in the anthropology department. That's interesting. Let me see what's going on over there." And then I got to four years later and here I am.
Erica: Bam. I love it.
Kenrya: I'm always curious, now that we're hanging out with little Haylin, about the contrast of how we grew up and how we are now. What was the prevailing attitude about sex in your home, growing up?
Haylin Belay: I think she's kidding, but still, to this day, my mom will tell me she's a virgin.
Erica: But there's still like 10% of maybe-she-believes-it.
Haylin Belay: To this day. I'm like, "I don't know if you think that I don't know where babies come from. I'm not really sure what this is about, who you're saving face to by saying this." The relationship to sex, I mean baby Haylin, actual baby Haylin, my mom has this really lovely story about being in the grocery store, and I must have been like five or six, I was young enough to be sitting in the little cart thing, and I was like, "Mom, do you know where babies come from?" And she was like, "This is going to be so funny. Okay, yeah, where do babies come from?" And I was like, "Well, when a sperm and an egg ..." because I had been watching my “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and I saw the episode about how conception works and was like, "That's really interesting, that's really cool."
Haylin Belay: I think that I've always, on some level, even before I really knew what sex was, had this interest in human sexuality. I think, when I was younger, that interest was something that I felt very guilty and embarrassed about, it was not a subject that we talked about in my household. I didn't learn the actual names for body parts until ... I learned them in Amharic, which is the language my mom speaks, but she wouldn't even say them in English. And really had to learn a lot of things on my own, whether that was from “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” from educational resources, or from the internet. Little bit bigger baby Haylin, adolescent Haylin, spent a lot of time online, "doing research."
Erica: Do online research and you have to do, what they call it, in-person research-
Haylin Belay: A practicum.
Haylin Belay: So, I was really just trying to understand what was going on, and I don't think that I knew it was job that I could have, to talk about sex, until college. Up until that point, even when I had taught sex ed, I had taught sex ed in high school, as a youth activist. Oh my God, sorry, the kitten and the cat are ...
Kenrya: They really are right there. Hey.
Haylin Belay: They're teaming up on me.
Erica: Hey Robin Williams. Cat reverend.
Haylin Belay: You got to get out of here. Where was I? So, as a high school student, I taught sex ed as part of my youth activist work with the Texas branch of the National GSA Alliance, I don't know if GSA still exists in that way anymore.
Erica: What's GSA?
Haylin Belay: Okay.
Erica: We're in D.C., I'm thinking General Services Administration, I'm like, "I don't think that ..."
Haylin Belay: No, that wasn't it. Gay-Straight Alliance.
Erica: Okay. Yeah, we just called it Gay-Straight Alliance.
Haylin Belay: I feel like when I was coming into college was around the same time that GSA was falling out of fashion as an acronym, there's all these new fun things that people call their affinity clubs, but we were a GSA. The sex ed work that I did with the GSA Alliance was from the perspective of health education as a human right, queer folks don't get any education that's relevant to their sexuality, I mean none of us take good sex ed, but especially queer folks don't get good sex ed, so we're going to teach young people how to give sex ed to their peers. And I was like, "That's so cool that I get to do this. It's really fun and engaging and meaningful to me. It's too bad that I don't know what I want to do for a living," or "I'm not sure how I'm going to find a career at some point when I grew up."
Haylin Belay: And then I went to college and was volunteering in another peer education program and working at the Health Promotion Office, and just like, "Yeah, I'm really just trying to figure out what I want to do with my life and I can't figure it out." And, finally, it literally until probably my junior or senior year, I think it was a mentor of mine said to me, we're talking about, I think, just my resume, I was just talking about stuff that I had done, and she was like, "Do you realize that you have been working in the field for six years?" I was like, "Oh. No. But now that you said that, that sounds really cool. I've been working in the field for six years."
Haylin Belay: So, it's something that, I think in part because it was so secret and taboo, like I knew that it existed and that I wasn't supposed to be talking about it and, on some level, like my mom in the grocery store being like, "No, don't talk about the sperm," I was like, "Oh, I'm not supposed to talk about the sperm, okay."
Kenrya: Right. "Was that a nerve?"
Haylin Belay: I'm like, "Okay. Interesting. I'm going to file that away for later."
Erica: I love it. So, I was digging around on your website, to prepare for this, great website by the way, and what I love is your manifesto. It's just so dope, it's like, "This is who I am, this is what I believe." And one of the things you said is that it's grounded by belief that everyone deserves an integrated sex life and healthy pursuit of pleasure. What does that mean to you?
Haylin Belay: So, on my website, I break it down piece by piece, I'm going to break it down piece by piece here as well. So, starting with that first part, what it means to have an integrated sex life, I think, speaking from my own experience, we are really trained to think of our sex life as something that is completely separate and distinct from our real life, and that, I think, even goes for people who do have some kind of sex ed or do have a more open relationship to sexuality. There's still this idea of it's dirty, it's secret, it should be hidden, it should be in the shadows.
Haylin Belay: And I think that that separation, in and of itself, does so much damage, causes so much harm, is the root of so much pain and hurt and trauma because when you are separating and bisecting these parts of yourself, inevitably, part of what happens is that dissonance comes out in, I mean as I was saying earlier, I have a holistic perspective, so not just in your emotional life, not just in your relationships, but literally, physically in your body.
Haylin Belay: I have had a lot of conversations with folks, not just women, but most often women, where we'll be talking about things that they assume to be anatomical or biological things happening with their body, and then through dialogue and education, finding out that, actually, that is something that has way more to do with an emotional reality, a psychological reality, that it's not, "My body just does X, Y, Z," it's your body does X, Y, Z under very specific circumstances.
Kenrya: Like a dry ass pussy.
Haylin Belay: Yes. For example. Not to say that that vaginal dryness isn't a thing that people can struggle with, and also I think there's a lot of people in the world who are experiencing "vaginal dryness" who actually are just not aroused and don't realize what it feels like to be aroused in a way that would allow them to know, "That's why this is happening. I need to ask for X, Y, Z. I need to do A, B, C differently."
Kenrya: I've been there, with a whole ass partner who told me there was something wrong with me, but I just didn't want him.
Haylin Belay: Yeah. I've worked in a couple of sex shops, on and off, for the last few years, which, oh my God, that was my side fun money in college and right after college. Best job. Worse job because it's retail, but best job for everything else. So, the ...
Erica: Dry pussies.
Haylin Belay: Dry pussies. Working in sex shops is probably the best ethnographic research, sociological study of sexuality that I think is even possible. It's really hard to get people to self-disclose or self-describe their sexuality, but when you have them in a context where they think they're having a retail interaction, they'll actually tell you a lot more and be a lot more honest than a situation where it's like, "Okay, I'm the sex educator, I'm the public health police, basically, and you're going to sit here and lie and tell me that you use condoms every time because you think you're going to get in trouble if you don't tell me the truth."
Haylin Belay: Being in sex shops, again, I cannot count how many times I felt like I was not just educating somebody about sexuality, but also doing some relationship counseling and mediating some conversations that partners felt like they could not have directly with each other. Being that third external point to help communicate things in language that folks didn't have, and why do people not have this language? Because we're taught to think of our sex life as something separate from our real life, so why would you need to know this language? Why would you need to have an expertise around sexuality? Why would you be curious about it, unless it was for dirty reasons?
Haylin Belay: And that stigma, in my own personal life, I, as I was saying earlier, have always been interested in sex and sexuality, I've also, ever since I hit adolescence, have always been a highly sexually-motivated person. I think sex is fun and cool. And even just that, not even talking about what I do for a living, but even just being a person, an adult woman who thinks that sex is fun and cool, automatically with it comes, "Well, if you think sex is fun and cool, it must be because you are a prostitute," that's the only reason, right? Those two things go hand-in-hand because why else would you care about sex and sexuality, unless it was for reasons related to what society is going to think of as vulgar reasons, profane reasons.
Haylin Belay: So, even just that part, not even talking about the healthy pursuit of pleasure, but just having an integrated sex life, to me, is one of the most important aspects of the work that I do, being able to have a conversation with somebody about sex and sexuality and help them develop that language of you can describe yourself with your personality traits, that you're brave or that you're funny, whatever, to have that same language about your sexual desires, your sexual personality, your erotic imagination, your relationship styles, your needs, your wants, your boundaries, all of these different things.
Haylin Belay: The healthy pursuit of pleasure is, ideally, where that integration will lead you, that to be able to repair this part of yourself allows for a connection to what pleasure is and a kind of confidence in the pursuit of that pleasure that makes it easier to make healthy decisions, that makes it more natural to make healthy decisions because the experience of sexuality isn't, if you're watching a scary movie, like I'm covering my eyes, I'm holding my breath, I hate everything about this, it's so nerve-wracking to be doing this at all, and so I'm stumbling through it and I'm not even maybe noticing what my experience of it is.
Haylin Belay: I've noticed that there's something kind of specifically transformative about sexuality and embracing sexuality and healing the relationship to sexuality. It's one of the reasons why I love being a sex educator, just in general. One of the best pieces of career advice I ever got was, "You should do the thing that people you love love to do," and I love sex educators. Not every single one of them, not going to name names, but not every single one of them is an amazing person who I want to hang out with, but, on average, when I'm going to a conference, when I'm going to an industry event, when I'm meeting somebody who works in the field, again, not all of them, but oftentimes, these are people who are really comfortable holding onto challenging conversations. They're people who have taken the time and the effort to work through their own internalized biases and bullshit.
Haylin Belay: They're people who are, on some level, just by virtue of what they do for a living, saying, "I reject this respectability notion that's based in white supremacy that sexuality is somehow antithetical to humanity, expertise," all of these things. To be able to do that work with sexuality, which is this really embodied thing, this thing that requires you to have a relationship to your body that is curious and introspective and, again, most importantly, accepting, I think is a really specifically useful way of thinking about healing some of those emotional, psychological, social wounds that come from not just acute, capital-T trauma, but also the general trauma of, I used to say existing as a marginalized community or existing under these specific oppressions; in 2020, existing, just, period, existing.
Haylin Belay: We're all walking around with cracks in the armor, we're all walking around with this experience of there's something outside of me that is bigger than me that's saying I am wrong about what the truth is and that I can't do anything about it. And to be able to say, "Actually, no, I know what the truth is and I can do things about it," whether that is from the perspective of sexuality, like, "I actually know that wet ass pussy is a good thing and I reject this narrative that it is not a good thing, and I'm going to go make that wet ass pussy a reality." That is one form of liberation that I think really naturally brings us to other forms of liberation, being able to say, "Wait, actually now that I've experienced the pleasure of believing in and acting on my own internal knowledge, where else can I do that? Where else in my life am I going to be able to have this same experience of saying, ‘I know that you said X, Y and Z, but I say A, B and C, and so A, B and C is what it is.’"
Erica: We have a list of questions, as all interviewers do, and I feel like you've answered so many of them already because you're just such a ... I would do my air horns, but you all be hating on them.
Kenrya: I mean it's not good. It's fine, I can't do it at all, so I appreciate that you even try because I won't.
Haylin Belay: Bold, brave.
Erica: Exactly. Okay, so I'm going to jump around a little bit because you touched on this. Through this podcast, I have realized that I have a love for sex education and am working to become a sexuality educator. Yay. And I've met so many cool, amazing Black femme sex ed educators. But I feel like I'm in a bubble because I'm in this amazing little Turn On bubble, I find amazing people like you, I'm over here on mute, shouting, "Preach!" But then I realize, as I go to classes and workshops and conferences, this is a white ass community. And I just wanted to find out what do you think the role of anti-Blackness plays in keeping us from pursuing this as a profession and what can we do?
Haylin Belay: Well, I'm glad you asked. So, this is a soapbox that I find myself standing on really frequently because it's actually pretty common for me to teach some adult workshop, and then someone comes up to me afterwards and is like, "You can do this as a job? How do I have this job?" They have that same awakening moment of, "Wait, this is actually really cool. How do you do this?" One of the first and most obvious ways to switch careers and to build a new skillset is certification. And certification, as a concept, fundamentally, is anti-Black. So, let's start there. The fact that there are certifying bodies-
Erica: It's expensive, it requires a shit load of money, time. I don't think that I would have been able to pursue certification as much as I have these past few months is because I am in the middle of a pandemic, and so I'm able to work from home, and before that, I, unfortunately, had a sickness and was on medical leave for a while, but in that time, had the ability ... like I had a job that gave me good benefits, that gave me ability to stay home. And I say this, I'm sorry, I'm talking to you, I'm fussing and all this, but I say this all the time, so many of our aunties have been sex educators and it hasn't been formalized, or you got a cool cousin that tells you, "Girl don't forget to pee after you have sex," just little things like that, and we fail to remember that this is a thing.
Haylin Belay: Yeah.
Erica: So, thank you, gals.
Haylin Belay: A lot of my sex ed came from Lil' Kim and Trina, they taught me a lot. I learned many things about pleasure and sexual communication. So, on the note of certifying-
Haylin Belay: I've been a sex educator for over a decade, at this point, and I am not even eligible for a sex certification. I could not get certification if I tried. Again, not going to name any names, but I've also met certified sexuality educators who I would not trust in any classroom because the specific parameters of what you have to know to be a certified sex educator through AASECT and the parameters of what I think makes a quality sex educator, there's some overlap, but there's also some really important things that are not considered part of your critical knowledge for being a certified sex educator.
Haylin Belay: For example, you don't have to engage with any kind of conversation about anti-Blackness, which seems like a really big blind spot for someone who is going to be working specifically in sexuality, working specifically against sexual stigma that is, by its nature, really heavily rooted in anti-Blackness. There is a colleague of mine who ran a POC-led SAR, which is a training you have to do to get AASECT certification, on top of all the other things that you have to do, and the training that she led, I think it was the first POC-led SAR, either the first or one of very, very, very few. And this is an institution that's been around for a while, so if this institution's been around for a while and this was the first POC training that they had, what does that tell you about the standards for certification, going back to the origin of this institution?
Haylin Belay: What's the purpose of saying, "Okay, you've got a stamp next to your name that you can be a sexuality educator," other than to create a barrier to artificially keep people who have tons of knowledge, tons of expertise, and some of the best sexuality educators I know are not just not public health professionals, but they didn't study sex ed in school. Some of the best educators I know come from peer education programs. I'm not just saying that because I came from a peer education program, I'm saying that because I think that peer education programs really uniquely equip people to learn sort of what I was alluding to earlier, not just the content, but also feeling and living and experiencing what your students are experiencing.
Haylin Belay: And I think that's so, so crucial for being a sexuality educator, and that's not something that AASECT measures for. To be clear, I'm not saying that the problem is that there should be a better certification. What I'm saying is certification is bunk, as a concept, especially in a field like sex ed, like I would have people ask me, "Do I need certification?" And, usually, my response would be, "If you feel like you have a lack of knowledge that pursuing certification would help you build, like you need a foundation of the main components of a comprehensive sex ed program, sure. Find a way to make it work for you. Know that there are other ways you can get that education that aren't through a certifying program, it just might be harder or take more work to track those things down.
Haylin Belay: But if you already know stuff about sex, if you've been working in a sex shop for four years, if you're somebody who, like me, is just very interested in sex and sexuality and went out of their way to study sexual anatomy and to read lots of books and to develop a really robust language around it, if you know things, that's all you need to know. You just have to know things and know how to communicate them to other people. It's not like being a yoga instructor or a pilot, where you legally are not allowed to give sex ed unless you have the certificate saying that you can give sex ed.
Haylin Belay: Really, as you were alluding to earlier, all of us are sexuality educators in some form or fashion. If you are having a conversation about sex, if you're sharing information, if you're having conversations about different perspectives, you are engaged in that work of helping somebody else and helping yourself develop your sexual sovereignty, that's a really political word for something that ... I'm trying to talk about something very human, just having language for who you are, knowing yourself.
Haylin Belay: So, in conclusion, certification sucks and I really wish that it was possible for ... I mean look at it this way, the history of sex ed in America really starts with patriarchy, it starts with essentially marriage education, "Here's how to be a husband, how to be a wife." And then we get into a version of sex ed that's about moral purity-
Erica: Yeah, "Don't come back with those dirty diseases from"-
Haylin Belay: "Don't get pregnant, don't get infected," exactly. And then, of course, HIV, the AIDS crisis, that pandemic means that, to this day, in New York City ... Right now, I think it's a city policy that you have to do comprehensive sex ed, but there is a statewide policy that you have to have six hours of specifically HIV/AIDS curriculum. Not sex ed curriculum, HIV/AIDS, and that's a byproduct from a period of time where sex ed and HIV and AIDS prevention meant the same thing.
Erica: That is just rooted in so much negativity and stigma and just wrongness that ... I'm usually not a speechless kind of gal. Like, huh? There's so much more. There's so much more about sex than just how not to get a disease because then you have all these kids walking around, like the first thing you think about with sex is disease.
Kenrya: Well, and it doesn't do anything to address the structural racism that leads to the very real fact that we are the people who have these high transmission rates either. It's just a shaming tactic that does nothing to actually educate people or make them safer or do any of the things that sex education should really do, like educating you about your bodies and helping you to feel rooted in that and safe in that.
Haylin Belay: Yeah.
Erica: I'm sorry. This reminds me of when my son wouldn't brush his teeth, and so I'd google images of rotted mouths, like, "Brush your teeth."
Haylin Belay: Like, scare him straight.
Erica: There was no in between. Yes, I was wrong. But it's just like, "This ain't doing shit." Sorry.
Haylin Belay: Well, no, those scare tactics, for something like sex and sexuality, I can understand and empathize, on some level, especially ... My younger sister, she just turned 12, and even as a sexuality educator, sometimes she'll say stuff to me about sex where I have to take a breath and be like, "It's developmentally appropriate for her to ask this question." Nothing weird is happening, even though, on some level, I'm like, "Oh my God, but you're a baby." And I can only imagine, as a parent, feeling like, "Oh my God, but you're a baby, I want to protect you, I want you to not experience all of these what public health world calls "negative health outcomes" related to sexuality, like STIs or unwanted pregnancies, or whatever the case may be, abusive relationships."
Haylin Belay: But the research shows, research both meaning actual formal research and also just lived experience, look at the world, if all you do is tell people, "Don't have sex" or "Don't have risky sex," they're just going to be like, "Okay. Whatever," they're going to sit in the room and they're going to look at you and they're going to write what they think they have to write on the little form, and then they're going to do whatever the hell they were going to do anyways. And now they're going to go do it without any extra information about how to do it safely, about how to do it responsibly, how to communicate about doing it. They're just out here, doing it, with the information that they got from TV, movies, their older cousin, kids at school, sources that, because we live in a society that does not generally have good sex ed as a baseline, all of those sources are suspect sources for receiving sexuality education.
Haylin Belay: It's especially upsetting, as someone who's in the field, to know that this information exists. For example, great example, sexual violence prevention, without going too deep into the weeds, one of the most effective things to prevent sexual violence from happening in the first place is consent education with a focus on social-emotional skills, so that's stuff like empathy and boundaries and emotional regulation, things that you almost never hear people talking about in sex ed classrooms. The fact that that is information that exists in the world, and yet it's not information that's widely known, it's not information that policy gets written around, it's not even information that most curriculums get written around.
Haylin Belay: A lot of curriculums are still using language, like, "Pregnancy prevention program, that's what we're here to do," and that's not really going much deeper than that. When people ask me what I think my job is, talking to middle schoolers and high schoolers about sex, my job is telling young people how to have good sex. And I think on a baseline level, people hear that and they're like, "But that's gross," but it's not gross. Do you want them to get to adulthood and not know how to have good sex? To not know what's pleasurable, what's safe, what exists in the world, what their options are?
Haylin Belay: Because I think what about my formative experiences were of sexuality and of relationships, and I was lucky that I had been teaching sex ed for a while before I had sex for the first time. So, I was like, "I know how to put a condom on, and I have one with me, and I'm going to use it and I know how to communicate about it, and, also, I'm going to have an orgasm because that's something that I am allowed to ask for in this experience and feel entitled to," and that was a huge benefit that came from having even that baseline education in condoms and anatomy.
Haylin Belay: But the relationship trauma that I experienced in college was something that the sex ed that I had been teaching didn't talk about, it didn't prepare me for. To have had that information, as a young person, and again, to know that the information exists and that people don't get it, it literally keeps me up at night. I'm getting kind of choked up, talking about it now, that so many people experience trauma, or even if it's not traumatic, just bad sex.
Haylin Belay: It breaks my heart to think of all the people in the world who do not have the sex life that they want to have, and I don't mean they're not having the orgies and multiple orgasms that they want to have, but I just mean literally the things that would bring them pleasure and the things that exist in their life are mismatched, when we know how to make things different, we know the information of how do we keep people from being in abusive relationships? How do we keep people from getting pregnant when they don't want to be pregnant, or from spreading infections? It's not by going in and saying, "Don't have sex." We know that, actually, going in and saying, "Don't have sex," does the exact opposite thing.
Kenrya: Wow. So, we know what keeps you up at night. What's your favorite thing about what you do?
Haylin Belay: I mean my favorite thing about what I do is that I get paid to do the thing that I care most about in the world. How many people get to say that in 2020, in this stage of late capitalism? I feel so strongly that this is not just something that's important to me because I care about sexuality, but also, as an aspect of the greater work towards social justice and the greater work towards liberation, I feel so blessed that the exact thing that distresses me most is also something that I get to get up every day and do something about, and also people pay me for it. That's fantastic.
Erica: Yeah. So, what do you wish more Black people knew about sex and sexuality?
Haylin Belay: Okay, wow, there's a whole long list of things. I mean the first and most easy basic one is it is okay to talk about it, and talk about it meaning talk about it with vulnerability and openness and honesty. There's this really, I think, painful double consciousness, like this internalization or reflection of the hypersexualization of Black people and Black bodies mingling with our natural human psychology and physiology, and leading to these circumstances where I see ... For example, I used to work with a group that was exclusively high school girls, mostly Black and Brown teenage girls, and there was so much expectation around sex and sexuality that was, if you compared it to the independent schools that I also taught in, which, in New York, independent meaning wealthy schools, so these are super rich kids, mostly white kids, they cannot even say "vagina," let alone "pussy" in a classroom, they're too scared.
Haylin Belay: And then being in this other classroom and, superficially, it looks like, "Well, they're using the language, they're talking about it, they know about it," but the relationship to it is just the exact mirror reflection opposite of the expectation for white femininity. If white womanhood is being desexualized, being beautiful, but not sexy because that's trashy, then Black femininity has this obligation to be sexy, and to be sexy is not necessarily the same thing as experiencing pleasure. I mean I know we've talked about it a couple of times, but I'm going to bring it up again, Wet Ass Pussy has everybody so mad, not because it's about sex, because there's plenty of music about sex, but because it's about women's pleasure, and that's the part that I think I wish that it felt like something ...
Haylin Belay: I'll put it this way, me existing in the body that I have is something that I have to think about in every single classroom that I'm in, and one of the reasons why I was doing work with a group of all girls is because, at a certain point, I realized, "At about age 13, boys learn that one of the ways that they can feel good about themselves or get status with their peers is to be demeaning towards women. So, me going into that classroom to talk about sexuality, which is going to immediately trigger all their stuff and they're going to need some outlet for it, and I'm the person who's standing there, by age 13, 14, they've already learned that; by age 16, 17, they're taller than me. So, that's probably not the classroom where I'm going to be the most impactful and the most effective."
Kenrya: And there's no safety there.
Haylin Belay: Yeah. Physically, I'm not worried about a young person physically attacking me, but to be in a space like that and have to hear, I'm saying "have to hear" as though I don't have this job on purpose, but it's still really painful to have to hear people expressing things as not just fact, but, "This is the way the world is" because what I'm hearing is that external truth that's been saying, "I have to consume you. You have to believe in me, you have to ascribe to this, or else you're wrong." They got you. They completely got you. And you're doing it now in a way that, because of who I am and how you perceive me, I'm not going to be the one who's going to be able to pull you out of it.
Kenrya: That's real. You got to know what you can and what you can't do.
Kenrya: I want to take it back a little bit and tie in the book that we read last week. It stars a witch and it has this whole intricate mythology that centers Black people, which was really hard for us to find. We've known that we wanted to have you on the show, legit since we started the show.
Erica: Like, you were one of our first-
Haylin Belay: Oh my God.
Kenrya: Yeah. Seriously.
Erica: You were one of our first people.
Kenrya: But we had a hell of a time finding a book that we thought was a natural tie-in, to the point where we were just going to be like, "Fuck it, let's just have her on the show."
Kenrya: We finally found something. But it was interesting because it's a fantasy book, right? It doesn't feel like anything that I've ever read about what modern witchcraft is. I'm wondering, what does popular culture get wrong about being a witch?
Haylin Belay: Almost everything. Pretty much every single thing. The popular conception of witchcraft, especially in North America, is pretty interchangeable with Wiccan, or Wicca, which, for folks who don't know, is a religion, it's a specific collection of beliefs about how to use magic, and magic is one of the tools that that religion uses. Witchcraft, as a practice, is a lot more malleable, it's a lot more magical, in my opinion, because witchcraft doesn't describe a collection of beliefs, it describes a way of interacting with the world.
Haylin Belay: So, this motif I keep coming back to of I have knowledge within me and I can effect change in the world, that's intuition and manifestation. And, arguably, all magic falls under those two big umbrella categories, you're either trying to access your inner knowledge or you're trying to make your internal desire into an external reality. Magic in popular culture is usually ... First, we have to consider the fact that witchcraft is going to be generally maligned. There is reasons by a lot of the examples of witchcraft that we see in our popular culture are negative depictions of scary witches because we live in a country that is "built on Judeo-Christian values," and one of those values is no witchcraft.
Kenrya: But putting kids in cages and shit-
Haylin Belay: Yeah, that's super normal. And, also, to be honest with you, a lot of the things that I do in my current witchcraft practice are things that I learned to do as a young person in the Orthodox church because, guess what? That stuff is also magic. But because it's coming from this external source, you're going to call it a different form of knowledge, but guess what? What you do and what I do are actually not that different.
Haylin Belay: Something else that I think is missing in the popular conception of witchcraft is an understanding of what magic does, like the function of magic and why people practice magic. I'm thinking about just movies, and mostly Halloween movies that I'm thinking of, frankly, that have witches with the pointy hats and the broomsticks. But I can't think of a time where I've seen a depiction of a witch in popular culture that was a disenfranchised person, it was a Black person, using magic to seek justice as an alternative to institutions that were denying them justice or using it as a way to access healing in defiance of institutions that were denying them healing. And that is, especially in America, the foundation of so much of what witchcraft is. Witchcraft is a tool of the oppressed to use their personal power, their willpower, to enact change in the world, in a world that otherwise maybe doesn't give them many other routes or avenues for effecting change. And that's really a perspective of magic I don't see very often. Usually, either it's bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, it's that kind of fanciful magic, or it's tarot cards and black makeup and-
Erica: “The Craft.”
Haylin Belay: Yeah, exactly. Which, I will say, one thing to say about “The Craft” is that they are using magic the way that magic is really meant to be used. You all feel downtrodden, use some magic. Lift yourself up. Literally lift yourself, levitate off the ground and get [crosstalk 00:54:45].
Kenrya: What books, or resources outside of books, would you recommend for our listeners who want to delve into their own sexuality or spirituality?
Haylin Belay: Oh my God. So, first, I'm going to give my annoying answer that I give when people ask me this question in classes, because usually I get the question of, "What book should I read about spirituality specifically?" And my response is usually, "I'm not going to give you a reading list. The tool, the resource that's going to help you learn more about your spiritual practice is your own intuition. So, I'm happy to talk to you about how to hone that tool so that you can really feel confident in it, but I'm not going to tell you, "Here's five books that you should read" because then we're just doing the thing that you said you wanted to get away from over again. You said that you were done with having these external truths enforced upon you, so don't take mine, I don't want mine to be the replacement, I want you to find your own."
Haylin Belay: So, that's my caveat for any recommendation I gave ever, like the resources that I find useful are not going to be universally useful, they're the language that made sense to me, and I'm an expert, but I'm not the only expert. You're also an expert in your own spirituality and your own sexuality. That being said, there is a book called “Magic: The Real Alchemy,” and I'm blanking on who it's by. I'm not even necessarily naming it because I think everyone should go out and pick it up, but it is a book that came into my life very randomly, it was a gift, I think, it was a gift from a friend of mine around the time of my graduation because I had just started using this language of witchcraft, and it's a book that I think has helped me to develop a language of how do I describe my own spiritual practice. I don't agree with everything that's in the book, but I think it's a really beautiful way of looking at magic and witchcraft not just as a thing that you do, it's not just a collection of rituals, but as a philosophy, as an organizing way to see the world.
Haylin Belay: As far as sexuality, I think opening up or discovering your sexuality is, very much like spirituality, a super, super individualized process. So, on a similar note, I would recommend to anyone who's curious to ... I was about to say go to a sex shop, don't go to a sex shop, but go to a sex shop's website and look at their book section.
Kenrya: Right. This damn coronavirus.
Haylin Belay: Yeah. But there's so many books that are out there, covering every possible different topic that you could want to learn about with sexuality, and almost all of them are going to have information that, in some way, disagrees with each other or presents different versions of the same information because sexuality is, partially because it's so taboo, an area where our knowledge is always growing and changing, and also there's a lot of misconceptions that we're working through in real-time.
Haylin Belay: The one book that I would say, if you're interested in being a sex educator specifically, I would really strongly recommend is “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” the title is a play on “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and the entire text isn't specifically about sexuality. The section that is about sexuality specifically completely changed the way that I teach sex ed. And, honestly, the entire book, it's huge, it's an encyclopedic kind of text, and it's something that I use as a reference and go back to all the time. I think, as a cis person, I had been teaching queer-inclusive sex ed for a long time, and I don't think that I actually had a really deep understanding of what that meant until I read “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.” So, that's a book that I would whole-heartedly recommend. Everything else, sorry, you're going to have to figure out by yourself.
Erica: Okay, so, really quickly, I want you to rank the following things that bring you pleasure, I want you to rank them. We've got food, sleep, sex, music and books, that's one together, and pets. Rank them.
Haylin Belay: One question, is it based on how often I do it or how much enjoyment when I-
Erica: The enjoyment.
Haylin Belay: Enjoyment, okay. Sex, pets, food, music, books, sleep.
Haylin Belay: Was that a controversial list?
Erica: No, I like it. Yeah, all right.
Kenrya: What's your ranking?
Erica: Me? It would probably be food, sex, or if I could incorporate the food in the sex, that would be great, I love my dog so much, music and books, pets, and sleep.
Haylin Belay: Wow.
Erica: And I love sleep.
Haylin Belay: I'm going to tell your dog you put him in fourth place.
Erica: I know. He's the sweetest thing. Somebody else will take care of him.
Haylin Belay: He going to feel bad.
Erica: What about you, Kenrya?
Kenrya: I think it's sex, sleep, food ... No. Sex, sleep, music and books, food, and pets because I don't really like animals.
Haylin Belay: Wow.
Kenrya: I'm sorry. I love your dog, but, listen, I am a person who could live her whole life without having something crawling around in her house.
Erica: Oh my gosh, they just love you so much.
Kenrya: They do. They do, though. Every time I go down to Erica's house, her dog rushes me. I think it's because they know.
Haylin Belay: They know that you need a dog in your life.
Kenrya: Here's the thing, I am so allergic to every fucking thing, and I think that's why it's not a pleasurable thing to me, like I have to pop an extra Zyrtec, just to go to her house. And we have friends whose houses I can't go-
Erica: Mind you, I clean.
Kenrya: And her house is spotless.
Erica: She made it seem like ... I was watching “Hoarders” last night, so I got triggered.
Kenrya: No, your house is spotless. But we have friends who have cats, which I'm extraordinarily allergic to, I can't even sit in their house because I get super sick. So, pets are last on the list, to me.
Haylin Belay: I'm technically allergic to cats, but I just love my cat a lot, so I get over it.
Erica: That's how I am about wheat.
Kenrya: I literally can't breathe, it's too bad.
Haylin Belay: Yeah, I mean my cat allergy is just, "I didn't wash my pillowcase since last week and now it's his pillowcase and I got to wash it."
Erica: Okay, so what is next for you?
Haylin Belay: That's a great question. You all have any ideas what is next?
Erica: Getting to know the city of Baltimore.
Haylin Belay: How am I supposed to do that?
Kenrya: But not, because it's not safe.
Haylin Belay: Right.
Kenrya: So, staying your ass in the house.
Haylin Belay: I moved on March 1st. First of all, I moved here, thinking it was going to be a temporary move, I thought I was going to be in and out of New York every other weekend. I didn't even say goodbye to anybody.
Erica: "Baltimore because I'll be in New York all the time."
Haylin Belay: I was like, "I'll be there all the time, no worries. I'm not even saying goodbye to you all, I'll see you in a couple of weeks." Cut to-
Erica: Six months later.
Haylin Belay: I was going to say, how long has it been? Cut to now. So, I have explored ... There's one park within walking distance of my house, and it's beautiful, and I'm trying to go there at least three times a week, and that's really one of very few things that I have planned. My agenda, generally speaking, I've been trying to keep as clear as possible. Being stuck in the house, having really not a lot of confidence that I know enough to plan as far in the future as I normally would, I was diagnosed with ADHD, 10 months ago at this point, which-
Erica: Oh, wow.
Haylin Belay: Yeah, at my big age, finally figured out what was going on in my brain for that whole 26 years leading up to it, and I'm so glad that I have that language and knowledge now because it's really helped me to see how much of my planning and organization and future-orientedness was a coping strategy for just trying to deal with the brain chaos. So, as far as what's coming up next for me, I'm still teaching, I'm still seeing clients, but I'm really trying to go with the flow as much as possible and take this time as an opportunity, especially as a person with an executive function disorder, to just be very gentle with myself.
Haylin Belay: I have three things that I'm trying to do per day, and one of them is yoga, so really two things that I'm trying to do per day, and if I don't do them, that's also fine. We were talking about this before we started recording, but I've been, for a while, in my adulthood, working through perfectionism and internalized anxiety about performance. And, now, in 2020, I give infinite amounts of grace to myself, to other people, compassion, compassion, I understand, life is hard, so I'm trying to be understanding with myself.
Kenrya: It is.
Erica: That's dope.
Kenrya: Yeah, it is dope, and I'm glad that you're there. Where can people find you?
Haylin Belay: So, pretty much everything I do is at Haylin.co, my website is Haylin.co, my Instagram is Haylin.co. And then probably the easiest way to find out what I'm doing as I am doing it is either to follow me on Instagram or to bookmark my links page, Haylin.co/links, that's where I post all of my upcoming workshops, my availability for bookings, stuff that I'm writing and working on, etc.
Kenrya: Dope. And that's H-A-Y-L-I-N.C-O, not .com, folks. Thank you.
Haylin Belay: We're in the future.
Kenrya: Exactly. Thank you so much for coming on, this has been so fucking dope.
Haylin Belay: Yeah, thank you.
Erica: Yeah. You're an amazing person, so thank you for finally, I mean not that it-
Kenrya: Not that it took you a long time because you were like, "Yes."
Erica: It took us long to get our shit together to invite you, so thank you for joining us.
Haylin Belay: Yeah, thank you, guys, so much for having me. It's been a joy to talk to people, that's so exciting. Wow. Thank you for the invitation, it's been a joy to talk about these topics. I feel like the thing that I haven't been able to do during quarantine is talk about sex ed. My conferences got canceled, my professional development trainings, no more, so it was really a pleasure.
Kenrya: Yay. Well, thank you for being with us, and that wraps up this week's episode of The Turn On. Thank you all for listening.
This episode was produced by us, Kenrya and Erica, and edited by B'Lystic. The theme music is from Brazy. Now you can support The Turn On and get off. Subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app, then drop us a five-star review, and you'll be entered to win something that's turning us on. Just post your review and email us a screenshot at TheTurnOnPodcast@gmail.com to enter. Our Patreon page is also live. Become a supporter today and you'll gain access to lots of goodies, including The Turn On Book Club and two-for-one raffle entries. And don't forget to send us your book recommendations and your sex and related questions. And follow us on Twitter @TheTurnOnPod and Instagram @TheTurnOnPodcast. You can find links to books, merch, transcripts, guest info, and other fun stuff at TheTurnOnPodcast.com. Thanks so much for listening and we will see you soon. Bye.
The Turn On
The Turn On is a podcast for Black people who want to get off. To open their minds. To learn. To be part of a community. To show that we love and fuck too, and it doesn't have to be political or scandalous or dirty. Unless we want it to be.