Education professor’s work centers Black women’s voices in sexual health research
For Shemeka Thorpe, Ph.D., publishing research is an act of sharing stories rarely told. These narratives have been concealed, in part, due to a scarcity of scholars focused on Black women’s sexual well-being. Through her work, Thorpe is ensuring Black women’s voices are included in academic literature.
As a community health educator, Thorpe is flipping the script on explorations of pregnancy prevention and STI-risk. Her work is sex-positive, rather than deficit-based. In turn, she is filling in pieces long missing from what we know about pleasure, pain and communication around sex, as experienced by Black women. She is passionate about giving voice to issues often faced by women, but rarely talked about – even with medical providers.
Known online as “Dr. Shemeka,” Thorpe has been a sexuality educator since 2012. She circulates research findings and creates community via her website, podcast appearances, popular press interviews and social media.
Early in her career as an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky College of Education, Thorpe’s name already appears in numerous research citations. Her work includes analysis of how racial stressors and systems of oppression impact sexual functioning — a topic rarely studied. The act of translating the research into information that helps women is what enables Thorpe to live out her purpose.
“I could sit in my office on campus and do the work, but the work doesn’t matter if people in the community do not understand what I’m saying or their voices are not being heard,” Thorpe said. “We have to make sure research is relevant to the community.”
After coming to UK in 2020 as a Lyman T. Johnson postdoctoral fellow, Thorpe launched The Pain and Pleasure Study, the first to specifically focus on Black women’s sexual pain and pleasure. Pre-menopausal women recruited for the study were experiencing sexual pain caused by factors that had mostly never been formally diagnosed, such as fibroids or vaginismus.
“The study was the first time many of the women could talk to someone about their sexual pain. Many had tried to ask their medical provider, but felt dismissed or unheard. Some were given poor coping strategies, such as ‘have another baby’ or ‘get a hysterectomy.’ There was comfort in finally getting information and referrals for treatment. So many Black women had not heard of pelvic floor therapy. In fact, there is a gap of awareness that pelvic floor therapy exists, even among health care providers,” Thorpe said.
Earlier this month, Thorpe garnered the inaugural Irwin Goldstein “best abstract” award from The International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health. The paper focuses on sexual anxiety in Black women, the causes of which can include sexual pain, partner unfamiliarity, previous traumas, mental health concerns, and other intersecting factors. Few studies have explored sexual anxiety among Black women, who face additional cultural and contextual factors that can play into the development of sexual anxiety.
“There is a stereotype that Black women are already hypersexual and have good sex, so people think ‘what type of difficulties could they have.’ But in my own practice, on Instagram live, or face-to-face in the community, we are hearing these concerns from Black women that no one is addressing it in research. This is important to look at because sexual anxiety can activate the stress response cycle during sex, compromising a woman's ability to experience sexual pleasure. Black women may have compounding factors that increase the magnitude, frequency and odds of experiencing sexual anxiety,” Thorpe said.
Related papers have looked at the emotions Black women report when thinking about sexual pain, the barriers faced in disclosing sexual pain to partners, and Black women's experiences of patient-provider communication about sexual pain.
The sexual wellness work of Candice Hargons, Ph.D., is what initially drew Thorpe to Kentucky. While working on her Ph.D. in community health education at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, Thorpe saw she was frequently citing Hargons’ award-winning work, which also draws from a sex-positive framework.
During her fellowship, Thorpe joined Hargons and a multidisciplinary UK research team helping eliminate health disparities and inequities among marginalized and oppressed groups. She received UK’s Equity Changemaker award for this work in 2022.
Now, as an assistant professor of health promotion in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, Thorpe is continuing her mission. Along with Hargons and a team of faculty and graduate students, all of whom share an interest in health disparities among Black populations, she is addressing research topics that promote sex-positive aspects of Black sexualities.
“The team I work with is a source of constant support. Together, we are unstoppable. It is a dream come true to conduct and share research that will impact the Black community” Thorpe said.
Thorpe says conversations about sexual health need to become normalized.
“We need to provide Black women with accurate information about sexual health to make informed decisions for themselves. There are so many myths and so many people wish they had safe places and people to talk to. We also need to be able to talk across multiple generations, even among elders. It makes talking about sex normal and removes some of the shame and guilt,” Thorpe said.
Other recent research topics for Thorpe and colleagues include examining differences in heterosexual and queer Black women’s sexual experiences — an area that is also severely lacking in data. Another study looks at sexual self-consciousness among Black women in the South.
Prior research has shown negative genital self-image can have a major impact on women’s sexual health and their likelihood to go to the doctor for gynecological exams. To develop a better understanding of messages passed through generations that contribute to genital self-image, four generations of Black men and women took part in a recent study on genital hygiene and grooming. The idea for the latest study, funded by UNITE, came out of conversations that were taking place online.
“Since practice informs research, part of that is being aware of messages on social media. If we see Black women responding to a post saying ‘yes, I do that,’ with thousands of likes and views, then that is relevant and needs to inform our research. As researchers, we cannot be too far disconnected from what is happening and being discussed on social media and in communities,” Thorpe said.
Along with health promotion colleagues, Thorpe works to prepare the next generation of students majoring in health promotion to make an impact on the communities they serve through gathering information about needs and providing education. She is also passionate about recruiting graduate students for research teams that are representative of the populations and communities they serve — and that collect data to inform their work and make an impact.
The key to careers in community health education, Thorpe says, is identifying needs, listening to people talk about the barriers they face, and identifying ways education and research can help. Health educators cover a wide range of topics, from tobacco and alcohol use to physical activity.
“Health educators learn what people need and help find ways to address the barriers that prevent their needs from being met,” she said. “We ask ‘what stops you from getting tested for STIs,’ or ‘what prevents you from going to the doctor,’ or ‘what are things you face that prevent you from talking to your partner about sexual health.’ We educate people in ways that are meaningful to them.”