Sunday, March 13, 2011

Values of a Sex Educator vs. Values of Their Job

I currently work in a college health setting.  I am able to meet and interact with other sex educators in the field at conferences, in class, through advocacy events, at workshops and trainings, etc.  Obviously, we come from a myriad of backgrounds and paths to becoming sex educators, and we work in a variety of different environments, structures, organizations, etc.  The methods in which we are able to (and ALLOWED to) provide education to our audiences are all different, the content of that education is potentially regulated, and the resources we are allowed to provide are oftentimes limited.  I will say that I am VERY lucky to be at an institution that really has yet to regulate any of the education I provide.  But in talking with colleagues I know that often is not the case.  Because sexuality is such a value-laden topic, morals and values of one’s organization, employer, audience, co-workers, etc., all have the potential to impact his or her work.  Some sex educators I know are not allowed to discuss abortion.  Some cannot hand out condoms.  Some aren’t allowed to use sex toys when educating… I’m sure you’ve all heard these anecdotes before. 
One notable story of an educator’s “questionable” methods has been in the news recently.  If you’re not familiar, a Northwestern University professor held a optional session for his Human Sexuality class during which a guest speaker was brought to orgasm by her fiance using a sex toy.  Not the most traditional teaching method, and it has not surprisingly caught some backlash.  But the intention was to educate students.  A spokesman for the University has said, "Northwestern University faculty members engage in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial and some of at the leading edge of their respective disciplines... The University supports the efforts of its faculty to further the advancement of knowledge” (“Northwestern Uni defends sex-toy demonstration”, Associated Press, March 3, 2011)
While I haven’t had any live sex demonstrations during my educatioal sessions (yet?), I already mentioned that I have yet to be restricted from doing something that I believe to be educational and beneficial to my students.  That being said, I am nervous that I will not always be in such a lucky situation, and find myself feeling anxious and almost suffocated thinking about, for example, not being able to pass out condoms to my students.  As simple as that may sound, I feel like I would really struggle with it!  While I understand that condoms may not be within a person’s or organization’s or institution’s value systems… what about my values?  As an educator, I feel as though something like that would be directly conflicting with my values.  But I also know that some of us do it… and do it REALLY WELL!  So I want to learn from you!  Do you have any of these conflicted feelings?  Is it easier than I am anticipating to quiet them?  Or not?  Does it make you angry?  Frustrated?  If so, how do you deal with those feelings both personally or within your work?  AM I JUST BEING NAIVE?  Or dramatic? Ahhh!



  1. Colby!

    This is a topic near and dear to my heart.

    Only because I wonder what would happen if those of us who are sex educators stood up.

    Those of us who understand the power of living within a paradigm of open, honest sexuality stood up. And instead of providing curricula, counseling or advocacy that we think will satiate our employers … or the communities in which we work ... finally taught what we know in our hearts (or at least in my heart … I won’t speak for all educators) is what students need.

    Versus what employers are comfortable hearing.

    Versus what adults are comfortable hearing.

    Versus what legislators are comfortable hearing and discussing.

    Just standing up and telling all those folks that honestly, we appreciate their perspective, but we don’t tell them how to do their jobs and they should shut up and let us do ours. (Well … I suppose there are sexuality professionals that DO attempt to tell those folks how to do their jobs … but I feel it is not as systemic as in the reverse).

    I wonder what would happen if we didn’t walk into employment situations ready to let them tell us what to do even though they aren’t the ones who have spent the energy and time analyzing, at detail, how to accomplish sexuality education effectively.

    And don’t get me wrong. Livelihood is incredibly important. And like you, I’ve been able to teach without the same restrictions as many.

    But what if … instead of cowering in fear … educators, clinicians, advocates … whomever. What if we just taught what we fucking know people want to know. I feel like we spend a great deal of time engaged with people’s curiosity, lines of questioning, and dysfunction.

    We know what some people (I will totally admit that it is not all people … of course), need to learn. We know what some people need to hear to begin to heal or move past their pasts or to reclaim their sexuality.

    And yet I feel as though many sexuality professionals who believe strongly in the values which I’ve just outlined don’t stand up because of the security of paycheck.

    I wonder what would happen if we did….

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  3. It sounds like this guy went about it in the right ways. He invited the University president to come, he tried to make it 'intellectually valuable', made it an option to come, and the students were all older than 18.

    I am really curious to see what his rationale was for the demonstration, like how he integrated that into a discussion or lesson about female orgasms. If I watched one video of people having sexual intercourse, I wouldn't necessarily learn how to have good sex. So I wonder if he was making commentary as the fiance was penetrating the woman or just allowing people to watch. Its like a cooking show, if a person just stands up and cook, I probably wouldn't get too much out of it, but when they're talking and explaining what they're doing as they're cooking, I could probably take a lot more from the demonstration.

    Its also interesting that this guy has been working at the school for 18 years and this is the first time hes done it. What made him want to do it now

  4. Colby,

    You are very lucky that you have the opportunity to work at a college that allows you academic freedom to do as you please (so far), however, that may change if they get sued! i am very careful about what i do and say, particularly around individuals under the age of 18, because i feel that i need to protect myself, and maybe even have some kind of liability insurance. We live in a very conservative and sex negative country, where people loooove to sue, and they will take any chance they have to do it. For example, today i went to do a presentation at public school for my practicum about healthy relationships, and after the presentation i spoke with the principal and told him that im actually a sexuality educator and he said that he would love for me to come there again in the future to do sex education, either for the students or the faculty (as an independent contractor). I made sure to tell him that before i do anything at all i need to know what the schools policy is regarding discussions on sexuality and i need it in writing with his signature, and i will also probably write up a contract that protects me from being sued by the school or anyone else. I may be paranoid, but i realize that the combination of conservatism and the love of suing is a lethal combination for sex educators. i truly believe that if any sex educator thinks they are protected by academic freedom or the fact that we may know what students need, etc. i urge you to think again! PROTECT YOURSELF! I think that we can still do very effective work within a bubble of self protection.

  5. Colby:
    An interesting dilemma! I have never seen a live performance of orgasm...

    I am employed by a high school in a district where there is written proscribed curriculum. It is my professional responsibility to teach according to the guidelines of this curriculum. While I do not always agree with it as I mentioned in my blog: I am not allowed to teach about birth control or bring in speakers from Planned Parenthood. Statistically, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest research states that while the rates of teenage sexual intercourse have decreased, still nearly half (46%) of all high school students report ever having had sexual intercourse. So that means that about half of my students will engage in sexual intercourse and I am not allowed to teach birth control. What do they expect?

    My values would be to teach it anyway, but I am a public employee, and as such, should word get around as it has a way of doing, I could be fired. On the flip side, I also teach culinary. Culinary is a very loosely structured class. In the beginning, for about five to ten minutes, the students must listen to and watch demonstrations particular to the recipe for the day. Then they spend the rest of the time in coed kitchen groups of four, with two kitchens on either side of the room. That means there is interaction on some level with about eight students at a time. During conversations, stuff comes up like the recent episode of Glee where Gwyneth Paltrow was front and center with a cucumber and a condom. It is within these interstitial moments of conversations with my students that I am able to intersperse my values regarding birth control and what not. Here students are talking with a “cooking” teacher in a nonacademic setting. Here the kids are listening to conversations, digesting what they hear, and hopefully making good decisions. It is a small realm of influence but I am hoping it has positive reverberating effects.

    What I would like to do eventually, is to hold weekend retreats for parents of any aged child. The parent(s) would attend with their child(ren). These retreats would present information on raising a sexually healthy child as well as other services of importance to new parents such as nutrition. Some seminars would be for parents only, others for children only depending on age, and others for both parent and child. Within this realm, there would be no one standing in judgement of what values were presented. Rather there would be ongoing conversations and the freedom to create an arena of positive sexuality. (In conceiving this idea, I acknowledge my position of socioeconomic privilege.)

    Kaiser Family Foundation. (2011). Sexual health of adolescents and young adults in the United States. Retrieved from:

  6. Hey Colby!
    Your post really has me thinking…although most professions involve having to deal with conflicting values and expectations at some point or another, it does appear that sexuality educators experience this more often than not. Colby, that is absolutely amazing that you have had educational freedom at your current position! I honestly am a bit surprised; I am constantly noticing just how regulated sex education is when I discuss with others the sexual education (if any) that they had while growing up or in school. While reading deeper into the story concerning the professor at Northwestern, I found this really frustrating article concerning one doctor’s thoughts about sexual education:

    The article is attacking the field of human sexuality (more specifically SIECUS, Advocates for Youth, and Planned Parenthood) for ignoring science in curricula and endorsing high-risk behaviors. This jumped out and reminded me of the Northwestern professor’s teaching approach:

    “This afternoon, I can only give you examples of omission because the sins of commission—the detailed instructions, the language, the images—my sense of decency prevents me from sharing with you.”

    Clearly, Dr. Miriam Grossman, the article’s author, would be clearly against the demonstration of orgasm at Northwestern University. She states that sexual education is animated by a dream, and sexual educators all have a specific, dangerous, fairytale-driven agenda of how we want the world to change (2010). Ouch. Is there nothing but constant adversity to sexual education? It seems this way sometimes!

    ***On a side note, I really did appreciate how Dr. Grossman emphasizes the importance of parents being active and knowledgeable about their children and the sexual education they receive.***

  7. Colby,

    Thanks for posting on this topic- I know it's something I struggle with. I am lucky enough to work for an agency who's values very much line up with mine in most cases. They encourage a positive approach to sexuality and I appreciate it so much!

    The problem I face is many sites that ask me to come in a present do not share my values. They want me to scare people into using condoms or not even having sex. Ugh. The way I deal with this is to be direct about what I can and cannot do. I can deliver factual information, I can encourage participants to consider risks but I cannot be sex negative or talk down to participants. I will not come in and try to scare youth with pictures of herpes, end of story. Most sites respect this, especially if explained as a core piece of the work you do, and will hopefully still see the value in you coming in to present. So may advice, state your case and come what may!

  8. I have been thinking a lot about this lately and I find myself wondering about what I would do if the values of my work place are not aligned with mine. Currently, I am doing my practicum at GALAEI and have had a great experience, but I have cleared absolutely everything with my supervisor before I conduct my workshops. I have learned to navigate around those things that are not allowed. In my understanding an excellent educator is not always one that rebels or gets frustrated with the things they cannot do (although there are situations in which these are necessary and as humans frustration is pretty normal) but one that is creative and Works within the boundaries. As an educator we need to be aware that some places will conflict with our believes and values but those place still need some level of sexuality education and thus we need to work around what is available and use creative ways of delivering those same messages we believe in in a manner that is consistent with the values of our work place. It is a difficult thing, I know it is, but it is not impossible. We have done some of this already, sexuality workshops we call them health workshops sometimes because we are not allowed to use the Word sexuality. This does not mean we are comfortable with the situation but we are still providing the people with sexuality related information. The reality of it all is that some places will limit us but this is something we have to deal with in most work places and as creative and dynamic sexuality educators we get it done.

    I found this article and I rellay liked it so I pass it to all of you:

    Posted By: Karla Diaz

  9. Colby,
    This is a topic that all sexuality educator face. It is one that even at the college level we are still dealing with. I am helping to teach an introductory class on Human Sexuality at a state University and there are still topics that need to be talked about carefully. It was brought to my attention by the Professor that I am teaching with that she and the class has been looked at hard recently because of new deans. People in the department have previously fully supported this class. There has been little to no guidelines for the class material. With the new people moving into positions of authority in the department there are now problems where there were not any before. The bottom line on material and topics of sexuality information in a classroom setting is that they can change there is no guarantee that the policies will stay the same or that even people who have previously supported you will continue to do so.
    Our topic of interest study and education is one of great controversy and I personally do not see an end to the controversy anytime soon. Personally I try to take the topics that I am allowed to present on and do them to the best of my ability and try not to rock too many boats so that I can continue to give the students what I have been taught they need. I am confident that I am more thorough than another teacher could be that would be brought in to take my place. I am also fresh in my career and I would like to keep the jobs that I have. This may change for me as I get older and more experienced in my field but for right now I take what I can get and do the best that I can.
    Lindsay Crider

  10. Hi Colby,

    I’ve been thinking about your question for a little bit before responding. My first reaction to your post was, “I could never work at a job where I do not agree with their basic principles/values/methods of sex education.” I feel like I would not want to be stifled and prevented from teaching sex education in a way I feel confident works. I certainly could not teach things I do not agree with, use scare tactics, or provide misinformation. I feel strongly about those things.

    But then I thought some more and remembered a documentary I watched in Dr. Stayton’s Religion and Sexuality class. The film showed a pastor who was teaching sex education and speaking openly about issues of relationship violence in a radical way in which many people in her religion do not necessarily agree with or feel comfortable about. She said she is working from the inside-out to make change. Your question reminded me of this pastor. Sometimes I think we would do well to “infiltrate” organizations we don’t agree with so we can become trusted allies and make change from within the organizations. Rationally I know there aren’t many of us who want to get involved with organizations who do not agree with us or devote the time it would take to create change within, but maybe even if we start with organizations that are forward thinking and just need a little help getting from where they are to where we want them to be we could make a difference. I think we really need to look more at this concept of manipulation and change from within!

    Of course, in any case, I agree with what other people have said, we need to be careful so as not to get fired or sued. And yet, at the same time, no revolution or major changes can happen without some brave souls who stand up and are willing to risk some things in order to inspire change. Something to think about!