UNCG inspires researcher to become sexuality educator

Posted on July 07, 2023

Alumna Shemeka Thorpe

Sexuality educator and UNCG alumna Shemeka Thorpe has a strong desire to effect change in women’s healthcare.

“Because of cultural stereotypes, Black women are seen as promiscuous and hyper-sexual,” she says. “This affects how they embody their sexuality. They often feel ashamed or embarrassed to address sexual difficulties with their partners and medical providers. They’re afraid they’ll be judged. This impacts their ability to have pleasurable sexual experiences.”

She credits her passion for her work, and the chance to conduct research as an undergraduate, to UNCG. “I’m appreciative,” she says. Her experiences at UNCG led her on a path to her work now in sexuality education.

When UNCG Human Development and Family Studies Professor Esther Leerkes came into class and said she had a research project students could assist with, freshman Thorpe didn’t know what she meant. “As a first-generation college student, I had no idea what research was,” she remembers, “but I thought it sounded cool.” So she signed up.

Soon, she was hooked on the thrill of digging into research questions, uncovering data that could be useful in creating change. She entered college interested in working with children and making a difference in their lives. Testing at UNCG Career & Professional Development led her to Human Development and Family Studies.

After graduation, Thorpe became a program director at the YWCA in Greensboro, working with adolescents in a pregnancy prevention program. There, she began to notice race-based stereotyping in the community in how sexual health is understood and perceived and how related issues are addressed.

Her next step was to earn a master’s in Family and Child Sciences at Florida State University. On the FSU campus, she worked with a group that administered sexual health programs and implemented condom distribution policies in residence halls.

At this point, pursuing a doctorate in community health education seemed a natural choice, and UNCG was the natural place to do it. “I felt seen there,” she says. “It’s where I fell in love with research, and the available funding I received left me with a limited amount of debt. I knew there were resources for doctoral students.”

Today, Thorpe is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion at the University of Kentucky and is still driven toward research. ​​Although she has produced more than 40 publications, she says she doesn’t “publish for tenure,” but to affect change.

She wants Black women to see themselves in her work and become empowered to talk about their sexuality. She also works with medical providers, urging them to ask their patients about sexual issues and provide helpful information.

Story by Mary Daily, for Manning Words, Inc.
Photograph courtesy of Shameka Thorpe

Person writes in notebook at their desk. Camera angle is from above.

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