Faculty Spotlight

Assistant Professor of Public Health Kristen Brewer is a Champion of Sex Education

The logo for Ruth's Army: Education, Outreach, Access

“Health equity and social justice are at the center of the Simmons program. This resonates with me, because I believe that you cannot master public health without these two pillars of progress.”

“I grew up in rural Tennessee where sex education does not exist. The general assumption is that you don’t need to know about sex because you will be abstinent until marriage. Once married, you will only have sex to procreate,” says Kristen Brewer, who joined the Simmons faculty in spring 2024 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health.

The lack of knowledge and resources within Brewer’s geographic region propelled her to pursue doctoral studies in health education. Her areas of specialization include community engagement, social activism, and sexual and reproductive health education.

Brewer was drawn to Simmons for its progressive approach to public health, and she looks forward to integrating herself into the city of Boston. “Health equity and social justice are at the center of the Simmons program. This resonates with me, because I believe that you cannot master public health without these two pillars of progress,” she says. Given her expertise in women’s health issues, she looks forward to teaching at a women’s-centered institution.  

Navigating a Challenging System

The Southeast’s backdrop of Christian fundamentalism generates “very traditional, heteronormative, and targeted messaging,” Brewer explains. “Schools [in the Southeast] are not required to teach sexual education until the teen pregnancy rate exceeds 19.5%. Even if they do teach sex ed, the curriculum endorses abstinence — they just tell kids not to do it. But this doesn’t work.”

The effects of this religious culture on teenagers constitute a common theme in Brewer’s work (previously she was an assistant professor at Western Kentucky University and collaborated with the local school system). “The youth in my community grow up with a lot of shame and stigma surrounding sexuality,” says Brewer. “They have many questions about sex, regardless of whether or not they practice abstinence. . . . We are not doing anyone any favors by not talking about sex and not educating them.” 

While growing up and living in Tennessee, Brewer observed high rates of adolescent pregnancy, maternal morbidity, infant mortality, and STIs. “Health inequity tends to affect women more than men, and especially women of color,” she notes.

Beyond religious views, another challenge Brewer confronts is the politicization of healthcare. “The situation is exacerbated in the Southeast, which makes it really hard — or even illegal — to promote sex ed and provide resources related to women’s and sexual health,” Brewer explains. “In my home state of Tennessee, medical professionals who perform abortions are criminalized. . . . If a doctor performs a life-saving surgery for an ectopic pregnancy, they could be charged with a felony. In essence, medical practitioners have to ask themselves how close they have to wait for this person to die before intervening without breaking a law.”

Brewer feels compelled to push back against such archaic and punitive legislation. “I believe that healthcare and education are basic rights that should be afforded to everyone.”  

Sex Ed as Community Engagement

To address her community’s needs, Brewer co-founded the grassroots organization Ruth’s Army Tennessee in 2022. The nonprofit’s mission is “to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive education, outreach, and access [to local residents].” The organization’s name derives inspiration from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a staunch advocate of women’s rights.

Ruth’s Army started serendipitously. When serving on a committee to review local sexual health and reproductive curricula, Brewer worked with teachers, a community panel, parents, and a local OBGYN. “Dr. Tracy Coffey [the gynecologist] and I really hit it off. . . . We decided to start a group in our area to help get people access to key resources. And that was the beginning of Ruth’s Army.”

One of the first things Ruth’s Army accomplished was organizing an informative panel discussion. At this event, experts explained to the community how the Dobbs decision impacted Tennessee residents. Since then, the organization has offered educational sessions that address risky sexual behaviors, safe sex, and contraception. Recently, Ruth’s Army partnered with other organizations to provide complimentary contraceptives and STI and HIV testing. In the future, they hope to offer free pap smears and mammograms as well.  

In 2024, Brewer co-founded The Reach Clinic. Based in Clarksville, TN, this female-owned clinic provides complimentary IUDs and implantations for low-income women. 

Through her community work, Brewer has helped make healthcare more equitable and more accessible. “Where I come from is a maternal health desert,” she says. “There are not enough doctors or practitioners, which means that women just going in for regular check-ups and pap smears are not being seen. This in turn leads to misdiagnoses and worse health outcomes for women, mothers, and infants.”

To destigmatize sexuality further, Brewer hopes to reframe Christianity’s relationship to sex and the body. “We need to have conversations about sex and that it can be acceptable — and even celebrated — in the eyes of the Church. I would like to invite local clergy from different denominations to discuss these issues with the general public.”

Bringing Health Equity to Academia

Brewer has a unique and engaged approach to scholarship. “I try to balance my academics with community work, as I believe that publications should not just showcase our intellectual prowess, but create change,” she says. 

Currently, Brewer is preparing a manuscript for publication. Employing qualitative research methods, she analyzes interviews that she conducted with midwives, doulas, and OBGYNs in Tennessee. Brewer is also pioneering ways to communicate their stories to a larger public. Through the digital medium of Photovoice, in which participants select photos of themselves and create personal narratives by responding to them, Brewer’s subjects communicate how draconian legislation has curtailed their ability to care for women and how it has affected their own mental health. “This multimedia format resonates on a deep emotional level, and offers profound commentary through an autobiographical and imagistic kind of genre,” says Brewer.  

Brewer is excited to share her methodology, knowledge, and experience with Simmons students. In spring 2024, she taught “Introduction to Public Health” to Simmons undergraduates. “I love teaching introductory courses and sharing how wide-ranging our field is,” she says. In summer 2024, Brewer will teach and supervise graduate students in the Health Equity Change program. For this project, Master of Public Health students partner with local organizations to propose, develop, and implement health equity initiatives. 

Moreover, Brewer is currently developing a “Reproductive Justice” course for undergraduates. “Although much of what we cover is disturbing, it is important for students to become aware of these inequities and learn how to reclaim their bodily autonomy through a health equity lens.”

In Brewer’s view, Simmons’ decision to place the Department of Public Health within the School of Sciences and Health Professions (effective July 1, 2024), is forward-thinking. “This will foster a new sense of community and interdisciplinary exchange. Since the field of public health is so inclusive — encompassing aspects of social work, hard sciences, and soft sciences — working collaboratively will better equip us to identify inequities and allocate resources to people who need them.”

For Brewer, mentoring future activists is decidedly rewarding: “I love seeing the light in my students’ eyes when they realize that a comprehensive education should be accessible to all. . . . Teaching is like passing the torch to the next generation of health equity fighters. And this makes me feel less alone in my own battles.”

Outside the academy, Brewer’s friends consider her their “sexpert.” They feel at ease when approaching her with questions about sexuality. “I find it very fulfilling to reassure them that what they are experiencing is normal and healthy,” she says. “By helping people gain more control over their bodies, I can help them feel more empowered.”

Publish Date


Kathryn Dickason