After years as a peer health educator in high school, Brooklyn-based writer and sex educator Haylin Belay decided to work with Columbia University’s Alice! health promotion and wrote a sex advice column while in college. Now, she talks about relationships and sexual health and helps to spread the good word at Shag, a boutique sex shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
But sex ed isn’t Haylin’s only passion. As a practicing witch, she also shares tips for budding urban witches in her newsletter, My Feminism Involves Witchcraft. Demystifying tarot, providing recipes for kitchen magic, and composing spells for self-care are just a few ways Haylin has created an ideal resource for any Black woman interested in dipping a toe into the world of magic.
I settled down with Haylin in the corner of her favorite coffee shop to talk about sex, black womanhood and self-acceptance and in the second part of our interview, the role witchcraft has played in her life.
Maya Pascal: What are some standout things that you wish more women knew in the sexual and reproductive health space? Are there any myths that you really want to see busted?
Haylin Belay: There’s so many…there’s so many. If I can give one kind of umbrella one, I think there’s this idea that there’s your “real life” and then there’s your “sex life” and they’re super separate. And your sex life is very private, and it’s shameful, it’s something that you don’t talk to people about. You know, maybe you do some googles if something is wrong. I can talk to my friend about a cold that I’m having, but I can’t talk to my friend about like—
MP: A UTI.
HB: Yeah. So, I would say one of the big picture myths that I try to tackle with my work is dispelling this idea that your sex life is a totally separate thing from your real life, and I always advocate for folks to live more integrated lifestyles. That’s not a specific health or pleasure thing, but I think it feeds into all of the other misconceptions about health and pleasure that we have, and that get propagated because people aren’t comfortable having the conversation—and I don’t even just mean with friends or partners, but like, with me as a sex shop employee.
As far as more specific stuff, I think there’s a sort of pathological fear of promiscuity or being labeled as promiscuous for a lot of women and femmes. I think that has to do with a lot of things, right? Part of it is myths about biology, that it’ll somehow change your biology if you have a certain number of partners, or if you have sex a certain amount…
MP: Or have abortions a certain amount?
HB: Or have abortions, or use vibrators, people are like, “Oh, if I use a vibrator or if I use a dildo, it’s going to ruin me for sex,” which is absolutely not the case. And then obviously the social factors, like, “Oh, if I am too promiscuous, I’m gonna end up alone,” or “[being promiscuous] reduces my value on the dating market”. Which, my answer to that is, “Do you really wanna be with someone who cares that much about the number of people you slept with? Is that really the kind of human being you want to build a partnership with?” No.
MP: What does living a more integrated lifestyle mean?
HB: If I asked you, “Maya, what are three words that describe you as a person,” you could give me personality traits, like “I think I’m hard-working, I think I’m kind,” or whatever. But for a lot of people, if you ask them, “Give me three things about what you’re like sexually,” they won’t be able to answer the question—not because they don’t know themselves, but because they haven’t practiced having that vocabulary: “I’m a person with a really high libido; I’m a person who has a very responsive sexual desire; I consider myself kinky; I consider myself vanilla.” So I think the first step to having a more integrated life is doing more integrated introspection. Think about what kind of person you are sexually, what your needs and desires and boundaries are.
Or go to your local sex shop. If you can find a sex shop that’s locally owned and more boutique-y, as opposed to the big box stores, the employees there are more likely to know the kind of health and safety stuff that’s important…
MP: You don’t wanna buy a vibrator that explodes.
HB: Right, you don’t wanna buy a vibrator that explodes. You don’t want a vibrator made out of material that’s not body-safe. You don’t want a lube that’s known to cause irritation.
MP: Or like, an incorrect lube-vibrator combo.
HB: Yes! So all of these things are really important to know, and being more comfortable approaching issues of sex and sexuality the same way that you approach the other issues in life is the big takeaway.
In general, a lot of the negative health outcomes—especially around sex—that people struggle with come from the fact that they were never taught or given space to have open conversations about sex and sexuality. They internalized a lot of messages about how things should or shouldn’t be that weren’t coming from a trusted educator or health resource or someone who was actually giving them facts. They were coming from misconceptions or myths about how sex and sexuality are “supposed” to be.
MP: Are there any things you wish Black women specifically knew?
HB: As a strictly health thing, Black women should know that the HPV vaccine is not super effective for Black women. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get it; you should still get it. But you should know that the HPV vaccine doesn’t protect against the strains of HPV that are found to cause cancer in Black women disproportionately. It still protects against other strains of HPV, which are important to protect from. Just a PSA, ‘cause not many people know.
On the more social/cultural/emotional side of things, [there’s] the idea that because you’re a Black woman and you’re interpreted and consumed as Black woman, there are particular sexual expectations that you might feel you need to live up to. A lot of times that means you’re expected to be hypersexual, but your sexual pleasure isn’t taken into account. Making any kind of demands for your own sexual pleasure is important, even if it’s something as simple as, “I want to feel like my partner’s invested in my pleasure. I want to feel like my partner is invested in my safety and comfort.” Being treated as unreasonable for wanting those things, and for not being the perfect video-vixen sex toy is just wrong.
It’s always really depressing [that] in relationships where women are sexually unsatisfied, the couple will still report high relationship satisfaction, but a when a man is unsatisfied it’s really really low, and that’s dumb. I feel like women in general should have a lower negativity tolerance for things in their lives. If you are a little bit unhappy or uncomfortable, it’s okay to say something about it and get to happy and comfortable. You don’t have to swallow a certain amount of discomfort and displeasure to maintain the “sanctity” of a relationship or the longevity of a relationship. It’s not worth it, sis.
To learn more about Haylin and her work, check out her website here.
Next week, tune in to hear how Haylin uses witchcraft to help fuel her own confidence and self acceptance.