Em Joy, an Educator: From Planned Parenthood to Women Helping Women, ‘Ask for Lexi,’ and More


We sat down recently with Em Joy, the self-proclaimed “super-sexy nerd,” to hear their story. A Cincinnati native, graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) program, and fierce advocate for social justice, Em found a way to bring their passion and talents together to make our city a safer and more equitable place.

Em’s activism started with the MUSE Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir, a feminist group with a passion and mission for social justice. It grew into a lifelong commitment that extends into their professional and personal life.

Today, Em is a prevention specialist for Women Helping Women. They work hard to teach middle and high school kids about sexual assault and healthy relationships in an authentic way. Em tapped into their art background to bring about the “Ask for Lexi” campaign – which you may have seen in bars and restaurants across the city.

Fueled on a lot of coffee and very little sleep, Em works relentlessly to push for positive change in our community.

Women of Cincy is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to giving a voice to people of all beliefs. We encourage our readers to have open minds, make informed decisions, and be engaged in their community.

Interview by Michaela Rawsthorn. Photography by Aurore Fournier.

What drove you into social activism?

Being a young, openly queer youth, you face a lot of backlash, bullying, and harassment. That kind of experience shaped how I see the world, in terms of the injustices that occur, the hatred and violence that is everywhere. It just made me compassionate for other people and other people’s struggles, because all of our struggles are linked.

I didn’t do a lot of activism growing up. I did more theatre and performing arts. My family is big on the performing arts. So, I joined MUSE Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir right out of high school.

MUSE is a social justice, feminist choir, which is really what put me down this path. In that choir, I was using my talents as a musical artist to send a message to the world to talk about issues of power and oppression, discrimination, and the resiliency of people throughout time and history and all over the world.

I like to say that I grew up in that choir. I spent a lot of my life in that choir with women from all different backgrounds and belief systems, racial and ethnic identities. It was just so influential and empowering to me. A lot of my activism, and the work I do in the community, was really founded in that choir and rooted in the strong women I experienced in that community.

Some of the other issues you’ve been involved in have been feminist-type issues, too. Let’s talk a little bit now about what you do now.

I currently work for Women Helping Women, which is a local domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking services agency for survivors. My role within the organization is as a prevention specialist. Even though my degree is in art, I really am an educator by nature. My art degree didn’t really get me very far. But since college, I’ve been with nonprofit organizations doing community outreach and education.

I go into middle schools and high schools all over Hamilton County. I run a five-day program on dating, sexual violence prevention, healthy relationship awareness, and skill-building. We talk about everything from “What makes a relationship healthy versus abusive?” to the root causes of violence.

All the abstinence bullshit that I grew up with was my impetus for learning everything I could about anatomy, physiology, and sexuality.

We talk about sexual assault and consent in a real and authentic way. We talk about how to be a supportive friend or family member to someone who might disclose to you that they are a survivor or that they are currently being abused or violated in some way. We practice bystander interventions: What are some things you can do when you see somebody being harmed in the moment? – whether that’s telling an offensive joke, or it’s somebody actively trying to take advantage of someone intoxicated at a party, or harassment or physical violence on the street – anything in the gamut.

Are kids open to what you have to say? Do you ever get pushback?

I would say most of the time the kids are really into it because it’s the first class or program they’ve had in school that actually relates to real life. One of the things we know, and why we specifically work with young folks, is that young people ages 11 to 24 are in the highest risk category for being victims of violence, specifically sexual assault. These are things they are seeing not only in their own lives, but in their friends’ relationships. It’s stuff they see in their neighborhood – it is very real to them.

I always keep it real with them about what this looks like, and what that might mean for them, and how it might feel if they experience that. I disclose to them that I am a survivor. I don’t go into details, but I start my lessons like, “I am here today because I am survivor from when I was a kid, and I don’t want that to happen to you.”


At pretty much every school I go into, I have students disclose to me that they are also victims of something. It weighs on my heart how many kiddos I’ve had to console and get resources for… It’s tough.

I do get pushback sometimes. Sometimes I go into schools where the gender roles that these kids are being forced to learn and reenact are so strong that I have one or two young men who are actively resistant to talking about this in a real way. They make jokes, they make light of the issue, or they say really demeaning things. Usually, that is a sign to me they are not mature enough to handle the content yet, or that they themselves have experienced some form of abuse.

I went to the state house multiple times to give testimony in front of a panel of old, white men who literally sat there rolling their eyes.

Oftentimes when people have experienced those things, they are more likely to be defensive. They put up a wall to try to save face rather than be vulnerable. When we think about masculinity in our society, being vulnerable isn’t a thing. But I also teach many young men who are so authentic, so willing to be vulnerable in front of their classmates. It warms my heart.

Related to what you do now is your experience as a health educator for Planned Parenthood. First, tell me about your work there.

I worked as a sexual health educator for Planned Parenthood. I got to teach comprehensive sex education, which is so important and so needed in our schools. It was my dream job. As I said, I have always been an educator.

When I was growing up, the school I went to was abstinence-only education. They did not prepare us. They did not teach us. We got shown gross S.T.D. images and the messages like: “Don’t ever have sex unless you are married. And if you have sex, you will die. You will get an S.T.D. and you will die. If you are a woman, you will get an S.T.D. and get pregnant and die.”

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As a queer person, there was never any conversation about my identity. There was never any conversation around, “Well, okay, you can’t get married,” because back in the ’90s marriage equality wasn’t even a thing. So there never was a conversation around, “Well, you can’t get married; we have to make an allowance that you might have sex at some point in your life. But if you do have sex, you will get an S.T.D. and you will die.”

The conversation really was, “Because you are a queer person, you are going to get AIDS and you will die.” Even as a lesbian, whose risk of getting H.I.V. is the lowest risk category of any identity group, I was definitely going to get it.

I mean, I heard that from my doctor. The first time I ever went to a gynecological visit, the doctor was like, “Oh, I see that you are sexually active, and you are not on birth control.”

“Well, yeah, I’m gay.” This look of shock came over her face.

She was like, “Well, you know, gay people are in the highest risk category for getting H.I.V. and AIDS. You should really use protection.” She just didn’t get it – as a medical professional.

That experience and all the abstinence bullshit that I grew up with was my impetus for learning everything I could about anatomy, physiology, and sexuality. When I was in middle school and high school, I did all this research on my own sexuality; then my friends would come to me for advice and information. I’d be sitting there at lunch drawing anatomical pictures of genitalia for my friends, like, “Here: This is what this is.”

That really lead me to the path I am on. Even though I was an art major in college, I also pursued a minor in women, gender, and sexuality studies. I took every human sexuality course that I could. So, working for Planned Parenthood was incredible. I got to talk to young people about their bodies and what happens in their bodies, and what relationships should be like in a comprehensive and authentic way.

It was so great to be that adult that could keep it real with them; to let them know that they shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are or how they feel or what kinds of sex they participate in, but they should be engaging in healthy and safe sexual experiences.

But, then, House Bill 294 hit. Explain what that was, what it was like to be involved in the advocacy against it, and what it was like when you were laid off from Planned Parenthood because of it.

To be very clear, that bill stated that any facility that promotes or provide abortions cannot receive state funding. Abortions aren’t paid for by the state in any way, shape, or form, and haven’t been for decades. Any grant money that comes from the state to Planned Parenthood is that sexual health education funding – which was what my job was paid by. So, when legislators presented this bill, what they were saying was: “We just don’t like Planned Parenthood and we want to eliminate any form of funding that you have.”

I went to the state house multiple times to give testimony in front of a panel of old, white men who literally sat there rolling their eyes. They were on their cellphones, not paying attention, not actually giving a damn that people are coming to them with hard facts and evidence that these programs are important.

But, I stood before them. I was vulnerable. I told my story. I spoke my truth. They still passed the legislation.

It happened so quickly that the agency couldn’t cover the lost funding in time. Pretty much as the bill was being signed by Governor Kasich, I lost my job.

How did you bounce back? How did you not just get disheartened and throw in the towel?

I was so angry. I think it’s valid. You can get angry. You can get so pissed off that it turns into apathy. For me, my anger is rooted in: How do I overcome this challenge and how do I use that as fuel to get through it and make things better?

Luckily, Women Helping Women was looking for a new educator. They were like, “You should apply. We’ve seen you at conferences and things. We want you.” Now, I’m coming up on my three-year anniversary in April.

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What was it like working for Women Helping Women during the #MeToo movement?

Looking back over the past three to five years, I can pinpoint certain moments in our collective history where you can see the pillars of that moment being built.

I take part of it back to Brock Turner. The victim’s statement from that case was so powerful, and it was a testament to the work all the agencies like ours have been doing over the years. The messages she put forth in that statement really reflected the kind of messaging and information that we are giving kids these days around personal freedom and consent and all of those things.

The #MeToo movement was founded by Tarana Burke. It wasn’t founded by celebrities; they just took it and blew it up. I want to give credit to the black women in this movement who have been saying these things and fighting for change, saying their truths for decades, really empowering each other, because the outside world wasn’t listening to them.

All of our struggles are linked.

As a professional working in this field, I think the #MeToo movement has helped. Any type of social movement that brings awareness to the broader culture is going to help. As people who work in this field, we know the statistics. We know that 1 in 2 women will experience some sort of sexual violence in their lifetime. We know that 1 in 5 men will experience some sort of sexual violence in their lifetime. And we know that those numbers are even bigger because those numbers are just what has been reported through national surveys.

[Editor’s note: As Em mentions, these numbers are tricky to pin down. Explore National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Women Helping Women, and Center for Disease Control and Prevention for further discussion on the prevalence of sexual violence in our nation.]

When you have this huge social movement, like #MeToo and #TimesUp, where people come forward and share their stories, you’re starting to see the tip of the iceberg. We’re starting to see how big this issue really is, how extensive it is, and how many lives it affects.

We still have a long way to go, especially around lifting up the voices of men and boys who are survivors; lifting up the voices of queer folks and trans folks who are survivors; lifting up the voices of native peoples and indigenous peoples; lifting up the voices of black folks.

When we look at any type of marginalized community, they have been going through this for years, but nobody is listening. As we engage in these social movements, it is important to center those voices, really lift them up and say: “This happens to everybody.” It’s not just a celebrity who has the means to handle a court case to bring their abuser to justice.

Women Helping Women has struggled with its reputation as a women’s only group. What would you say to men, for example, so they knew sexual violence is not a women-only issue? How can you empower them to come forward as survivors or to be part of the solution?

Our agency name is a barrier for men or male-identified folks, even queer folks who don’t necessarily see themselves identifying as women. They may not see themselves as being accepted in that space.

Women Helping Women is actually very inclusive. We have people on staff of all kinds of identities. We have male advocates on staff. We have a male educator on staff. Queer folks on staff. People of color on staff. We try to hire people that reflect the community and reflect the diversity of the community – which I think is invaluable.

One of the issues with the movement to end sexual violence is that for a long time it has been a “men are perpetrators and women are victims” mentality. Yet, we know men, especially young boys, are sexually assaulted. We know young men and boys face abuse. When it comes to teen relationships, 1 out of every 3 teens will experience intimate partner violence. And that’s not gender divided – that’s 1 in 3 across the board.

This happens to everybody. This can happen to anybody regardless of your gender, regardless of your sexual orientation, your race, your class; this cuts across all identity lines. And when it comes to the people who are perpetuating these crimes, it once again cuts across all lines. There hasn’t been a lot of research into female perpetrators, but my perpetrator was a female. We have these untold stories. We have these experiences that are not being studied; that are not being reported. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

In the work that I do, I try to make everything inclusive. For men and boys who want to see themselves in this work, my goal is to give them the framework to see themselves as part of it. To see themselves as speakers of their own truth. To see the ability to be vulnerable and share what they have seen or experienced. But also, my goal is to give them the skills to combat toxic masculinity or to combat those gender stereotypes so we can liberate everybody.

Can you talk about Women Helping Women’s “Ask for Lexi” campaign? I keep seeing the signs in bathrooms and am really curious.

Yeah, I designed those! My skills came together for that one.

“Ask for Lexi” is part of Women Helping Women’s bar training. It started a couple of years ago through a community outpouring of survivors coming forward because of the #MeToo movement, because of the social media movement to tell your story and speak your truth.  

A friend of mine came forward on social media, along with other survivors, to out a rapist who had worked a local bar. It was really power to the people.

After the public outcry, Women Helping Women was asked to do some training with the staff around sexual assault and sexual harassment. They only gave us about an hour, maybe hour and half. We didn’t have time to dig deep. But it was a starting point.

After that, the agency came to realize that this is widespread. We started hosting focus groups with women in the industry to get a sense of their experiences and to get an idea about how extensive this is. It was like opening a Pandora’s box of stories and experiences of women in the industry who have literally been sexually assaulted in the workplace. Not to mention the countless forms of sexual harassment that they endure, as well. It’s pervasive. It’s so integrated in bar culture.

From those focus groups we developed a really comprehensive bar training program. “Ask for Lexi” is a code word I created based on the “Ask for Angela” campaign that was coming out of the United Kingdom. In fact, I created this poster based on the “Ask for Angela” poster. We put them in every bar that we train. The code word poster is in all of the restrooms. It’s not just in the women’s restroom. It’s in the men’s restroom, as well.

It has been really successful. We’ve had establishments that haven’t been trained use the code word. Or patrons have used that code word with them, and they have gotten help from them.

There is this really great story about that, actually. A year after we instituted these trainings, this woman was walking down the street and she was being followed by these two men. She remembered that code word from a bar we had trained. She ducked into this other bar that had not been trained and used the code word. The bartender knew what it meant; the industry is so small, so he knew what it meant. He understood the secret call for help. He was able to get her away from those guys.

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