Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Being taken seriously as a Sexuality Educator

           I’m sure anyone in the process of becoming a Sexuality Education is familiar with these responses:  “What can you do with that?”  “People actually study that?” Or, my personal favorite, a simple smirk that seems to imply the smirker knows our sexual preferences and that we would like to engage in those practices with them and as soon as possible.  But it is not just the general public that seems confounded by our fascination with and passion for teaching sexuality.  Fellow teachers or health professionals are guilty of finding our subject matter distasteful or inappropriate.
Though I’ve only just begun, I can already see that teaching Human Sexuality is an unusual experience.  The subject matter can be anything from taboo to terrifying, loving to loathsome.  Because of the intense emotions people hold around sexuality, the responses we receive are not always positive.  While some people may find what we do wonderful and necessary, many do not.  Many people will insist we are breaking moral codes by encouraging promiscuity.  Many people will not believe what we say.  Many people will not take us seriously. 
Even as students, while we are working away to become the best educators we can be, we encounter these hurdles.
So, how do students of human sexuality carve out a space for themselves in our evermore sex-negative society?  Everyone has a different strategy.  Our professors have chosen the academic route (a route which, I must admit, is constantly tugging at my lapels).  This route aims to legitimize sexuality as a field of study and offers the distinction of degrees to prove one’s knowledge.  Others choose to make their way by community education.  This can take the form of a job in a school or creating a business focusing on sexuality education for the greater community or adult education.  This serves to push the system outward from the inside in the hope of creating more space for sex positivity.  And yet others work with sex toys or in kink communities, helping those just getting started or encouraging those who have already begun.  Clearly this answers the question of what one might do with such a degree (the simple answer:  anything you damn well please!).
            Unfortunately, each of these routes will still encounter disbelief or disregard.  One of the most effective methods for jumping over or sidling around these hurdles has to be humor.  Humor is proven to be an effective education tool, engaging students and lightening the mood in the tense situations that often occur around sexuality (Tauber & Mester, 2007).  The thousand page sex manual/opus, The Guide to Getting It On, successfully uses humor to encourage and set at ease those who might otherwise be unwilling to consider some of the sex practices introduced in the book.  Megan Andelloux, a well-known sexuality educator working from the Providence area, often uses humor in her successful presentations.  A professor at our very own Widener University (you know who you are!) is known for their over-the-top humor to engage and interact with students.
            I have yet to master the great art of humor, perhaps because I have yet to master even the basics of the art of education.  My concern, however, is that even with the proper use of humor, some might see that as a way to mask discomfort or simply use it as further proof that sexuality is not a ‘real’ field of study.  I suspect it is something I will employ regardless of the risk of devaluation or disreverence.
            So, how can I (or you) be taken seriously as a Sexuality Educator?  I don’t have an answer.  But, I do know that continuing to study, practice and expand our field will encourage our society to rework its values.  As our field grows it will become more and more difficult to pigeonhole us into one measly framework.

Tauber, R. T., & Mester, C. S. (2007). Acting lessons for teachers: using performance skills in the classroom. (2nd ed.). London, England: Praeger Publishers

Joannides, P. G. (2009). The guide to getting it on. (6th ed.). Goofy Foot Press.


  1. I definitely agree that humor is one of the answers to help people take sex education seriously. In my practicum so far at Planned Parenthood of Delaware, I have noticed some of my co-presenters "giving permission to laugh." For example, we showed a film that involved blobs humping. Before we played the video, my copresenter warned everyone and told them it was okay to laugh. By admitting that sexuality can be funny or awkward, we allow people to relieve their discomfort with the material. I think that a lot of people don't take sexuality education or research seriously because it makes them uncomfortable. Their insecurities about giggling or laughing at the subject matter make them resistant to the field entirely. But if we give them the space to laugh, the space to be a little silly or uncomfortable, it allows them to move into more serious work later on. The kids laughed through the movie but afterwards participated in a lively debate and asked some truly great questions because they felt more at ease. The same can be true of even our toughest critics.

    Also, I think a lot of the feeling of not being taken seriously comes from within, at least for me. I find that I worry so much about being taken seriously that I become nervous and thgen seem less credible. I think in some ways it can be a self-fulfilling prophesy: If we think we won't be taken seriously, the hesitation or nervousness or our own awkward giggling, makes us not taken seriously. We have to put aside our own fears and do the best darn job we can and those who can be reached, will.

  2. I am finding to be taken seriously isn't easy in the workforce. I feel like I spend countless hours making sure my cover letters say "hey I do great sexuality education but also can do the same thing health promoters can do (i.e. needs assessments and program evaluations)", but sometimes I feel like it is a waste of time. I also find myself wondering, when will I get a break? My significant other says i'll get a job once I have my masters, which is soon enough nonetheless, but I can't help wonder what human resources for other positions that I have applied which are not solely sexuality related think when they see my resume? Ideas that cross my mind are pervert, not enough experience, overly qualified etc. I want to catch a break!

    On the other hand, I completely agree with the humour as it is necessary. I even found myself using "you know who's" humour techniques in a university undergraduate lecture on immunity and HIV/AIDS just to get arise out of people. While I am not proud that I had to swear (the word bitch was used when talking about how divorce can lower immunity), they laughed and I felt like the normal professor for that class was teaching these students in a rigid, boring lecture style that can only be described as the way most professors teach.

    As for telling others what we do, yes that stare of "does she do these things", feels like we are not taken seriously, but I've learned to just go with the usual humour that goes with the territory. For example, my significant other told his volleyball team that I was studying sexuality, and they have given me the name sexpert. Then when they had met me at my significant other's foster mom's funeral on Monday, they were like "so this is the sexpert". I found it completely inappropriate at first, but then I thought to myself, what if I was an engineer? Would I want to be ashamed of that if someone brought that up at a funeral when they had first met me? The answer is I probably would not be ashamed. I guess my answer to your blog is just to go with it and someday I think we will catch our breaks, be fantastic and well respected individuals in the field!

  3. I am finding my use of humor to be both a blessing and a curse. In my time teaching so far, I have found that my natural energy and wit have been great for getting people to feel comfortable with me. Of course, when I am new to a topic or doing a workshop for the first time, I actually practice my jokes. It may seem lame to rehearse the funny parts of a workshop but I have found that it helps. It's like rehearsing for a play or speech, after a while, it just comes naturally.

    On the other hand, I find that my love for this subject (which comes across in my smiles and high energy when I talk about it) actually turns some people off. I get the impression that because they think I find the subject of sexuality fun (which I do), that therefore it is not legitimate. If I wanted to be bored, I would have picked a different profession.

    At this point, I have stopped caring as much if people take me seriously. Because when it comes down to it, its not an issue of humor, our use of it, or even if we are good at using humor in education, its about the other person. I will not apologize for my passion. I take myself seriously, and I believe that is the most important thing.

  4. As with any field of study, it is difficult to figure out "where do I fit" but I think it's even more so in sexuality education. I too have often received the question, "what can you do with that?" In my experience, I have found that having information and educating others in the process has validated my experience and decision to become a sexuality educator. I often begin the conversation with the other person highly skeptical of my career choice; however, upon further discussion, I often prove the point there is a need for good sexuality education. Additionally, as Rebecca said, when I talk about it, I become very passionate. By having these types of conversations with others, I am able to educate one more person about the field. The field of sexuality is constantly changing and evolving. As novice educators, we are beginning to find our place within the field. I also find that being new in any field/job, being taken seriously does not occur initially. When I first began to teach, there was a time period where I had to prove my capabilities and accept training/guidance from those who have been in the field longer. I feel like my role as a new sexuality educator is to prove myself through good education and gaining experience within the field, as well as accepting advice and help from those who have more experience than I do.

  5. In my experiences as being an upcoming sex educator, I too have run into some of the stereotypical views that suggest our profession is not a serious field of study. I have been questioned as to the validity of the study of sex and if I am just some type of freak or something. What I usually do is explain the field of sexuality is far broader than intercourse and that I probably know more theoretical principles, developmental theories, and biological processes than they have seen in all their lives.
    Aside from that, while actually teaching various curriculums, I too use humor when I find it necessary. This is sometimes a way to make the youth feel comfortable or even explain a subject that may be sensitive to them. I am reminded not to use it too often as not to make the subject matter seem unimportant.
    The problem arises when trying to balance the two. When we are constantly attempting to validate our credentials, and still wanting to have enjoyment educating others about the joys and pleasures of sex. Society's rigidity when it comes to views about openly talking about and sharing information about sexuality makes the enthusiastic sex educator question themselves at times, even when we know we should not.

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  6. It sounds like a lot of us run into the problem of people taking us seriously about wanting to teach about sexuality. My husband still enjoys when I tell people I am going to school for human sexuality. I also get the common response "what do you plan to do with that?". The different reactions I get can give me a clue about someone's own comfort with sexuality. I often use humor when people are uncomfortable with sex, but you have to make sure it is appropriate and the right time. Depending on the subject matter, you might not want to make jokes. If I were to go into a classroom to discuss child molestation or rape, I could not see how humor would fit into those topics at all.

    When I talk with my middle school students about sexting I make them aware it's ok to uncomfortable or laugh because it can be a difficult subject to talk about with your teacher. I think honesty is also an important part of teaching sexuality. If you don't know an answer or how to respond it might be better to just be straight forward instead of trying to laugh it off.

    Being prepared with how to deal with humor is also important. Since I teach middle school I often have to deal with inappropriate comments on a daily basis. I suggest don't just yell at the student making the jokes, but pull them aside and ask them about why they are responding with humor when discussing sexuality. When you take the time to figure out the reasoning behind a students behavior it can create a connection between you and that student and you can understand him or her better.

    Using humor is an excellent way to engage students as long as it fits the subject. Also remind students that their own humor needs to be appropriate.

  7. Like so many things in life, striking a “balance” between the serious and silly is fundamental to effective teaching. Every classroom needs some comic relief sometimes. I am thinking back to my college genetics class, counting fruit flies and breathing in formaldehyde, … that class sorely needed some comic relief. At any rate, humor can be a very effective medium for learning. Patrick Herbert’s quote in Tauber and Mester (2007) is apropos to this: “Humor helps to convert "Ha Ha" into "Aha!" (p. 67). This is no less true in the Human Sexuality classroom and maybe more so because of the controversy around sexuality in our culture. The very first class of my Human Sexuality unit in 7th Grade Health, we do an exercise that has the students laughing so hard that, by the end of the class, they’re already talking with greater ease about sexuality.

    With parents, as well, carefully placed humor goes a long way when talking about sexuality education. Releasing some of the tension in a room of parents and/or administrators with laughter can make way for better dialogue in a presentation or conversation about sexuality education for their children.

    While humor is fun and can be used skillfully, serious and informed presenting of information to support the objectives of the lesson, Parent’s Meeting, School Board meeting, etc. is critical. I feel like I walk on eggshells sometimes, just waiting for the irate sexuality education opponent to rear his or her head. As sexuality educators, we need to be professional in our use of humor, our delivery of accurate information, and our respect for the wide spectrum of beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in sexuality, even when those beliefs are diametrically opposed to ours.

    So often I refer to SIECUS’ Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education and the values they list as inherent in the guidelines (p. 20). Many of them are values that can be used when looking for common ground with people who struggle to value sexuality educators and sexuality education. If we can identify common ground, then we might be able to help critics and skeptics to take what we do and who we are seriously.

  8. It's interesting for me to hear everyone here running into the same situations. Norah, reading your post I found myself affirming many of the situations you outlined. Talking with someone the other day I pointed out that whenever I tell someone about my chosen profession I always get a reaction. Understandably so I realize that not many people are aware that sexology is even a field of study. So much so that most of the time when I say "I'm studying sexology," people think I am saying "psychology". I always find the most marked responses from men. I feel as though because I am a woman with an interest in sexuality there is an automatic belief that I am a sex-crazed manic with a one track mind. While some people can't get past the initial shock, for the most part they always seem to be very interested -- which I think is excellent. I definitely get the question "so what are you going to do with that." By now I have perfected my little speech because I have had to recite it so many times and by the time I am done it seems that I still have their attention. For the most part in my life I have had incredibly positive responses towards my field of study.

    One of the more difficult questions that I get that I still really can't answer well is "how did you get into that." I think people are often trying to probe my personal sexual life with that question, and I never really have a good answer other than "it just sort of happened." You don't ask a physicist how they got into physics, do you?

    I agree that the use of humor is an important part of navigating our field. The truth of the matter is that though sex seems to be all around us, the majority of people are very timid to talk about it. I think that humor is a way of breaking down some of those barriers, otherwise it would be too overwhelming for some. While I believe that humor is very much needed there is a fine line between being funny and educating and taking it too far. I think too much humor can delegitimize someone. If everything is a joke what part of the lesson should be taken seriously, what part can?

  9. I love a good laugh and consider myself to have a good sense of humor. Looking around my office you'll see it's littered with comic strips and cut outs of things that have made me chuckle. For me it helps to relieve the stress and anxiety that can build up from the day and to give me a small distraction, if only temporarily. Like some of my classmates before me have responded it can be an effective tool in your educator's toolbox for a variety of things such as easing tensions or assisting in the shift of the mood of the class. It's also good to keep in mind to relay this message to your students that life, including sex, does not always go as planned and some of our mishaps are quite humorous. Sex is not clean, pristine, and perfect and to teach it as such would be a mistake. I believe humor is appropriate for sexuality education as it is a part of our sexuality. A prime example of that would be the clip we watched from Felicity where the tree catches on fire. As for the part about being taken seriously as sex educator I have no definitive answer and judge my responses based on the person I am talking to at the time (and what kind of mood I am in).

  10. Norah, your blog post and many of the comments mirror my own experiences that I've had so far as a budding sexuality educator and professional. I've often got the, "what are you going to do with THAT?" response, and I've found myself starting to tire of having to explain it so much. Moreover, I really started to become very frustrated with all of the negative responses that I've received after telling people what I do. I feel like because sexuality can be an awkward and difficult subject for others, these individuals use humor almost as a defense mechanism to protect their comfort zones. For example, I can't count how many times I've told people about my career and they've said "oh wow, so you like watch a lot of porn?" or some other snickering response. I used to be bothered by these reactions, but just as you said in your post "Humor is proven to be an effective education tool, engaging students and lightening the mood in the tense situations that often occur around sexuality". So, I let people I meet have their initial snicker, and then I tell them about ALL of the other awesome and important aspects of what we do as educators and the great impact our education can have on so many populations. I'm not an overly funny person in front of a class either, but when it comes down to talking with and teaching people who don't have our expertise, I've started to realize that it's okay to let other's laugh if it helps them find their own comfort levels.

    I too hope that I can one day master the art of bringing humor in to the classroom. I think that by ignoring the fact that humor may be necessary to the creation of a comfortable learning environment, I will not be a successful educator. It is easy as professionals to become offended or annoyed when people don't seem to take us seriously, but I think those instances can also be great teachable moments.

  11. Being taken seriously is definitely a struggle. There seem to be many predetermined ideas (even in a professional setting) that people developed when I tell them I am a sexuality educator. I have learned to immediately follow it up with how broad the field is and the other things I am qualified to do. For some reason, when you say sexuality educator all people hear is SEX, and most of the time it completely freaks them out (which I still don’t totally understand). As sexuality educators we constantly have to legitimize our profession in order for people to actually listen to us and take us seriously. It seems almost contradictory to utilize humor to get people to take us seriously, but time and time again it works! It’s almost as if the humor is the hook and then we follow it up with the important stuff to complete the catch. Being in a field such as ours, I believe it is incredibly important to utilize whatever we must in order to be the best educators possible and teach people the sheer importance of this topic.

  12. Reading the posts makes me aware that my experience is different than most of you. I have been working at a domestic violence organization for seven years, and every time I tell my co-workers and colleagues that I am studying Human Sexuality, their reaction is no more than support and praise. Apparently, it does make sense for them that, as a community educator doing domestic violence work, I am also studying Human Sexuality.
    On the other hand, I have also received a very positive response from family and friends; however, that could be deceiving because my mother worked as a sexologist most of her life and prepared the road for me.
    What I am trying to say is… there is hope! There are niches of work in which being a sexuality educator – or studying human sexuality- makes you a better professional. Also, we should take pride on being the pioneers that are making an easier, less bumpy, road for the next generation of sexologist.
    About humor, I think it could be such an amazing tool when teaching; but, as some of you mentioned, we need to be careful to be sure it is appropriate for the audience, the setting, and the content. Also, I think it has to be “honest” humor; I remember trying to use another teacher’s joke once, and it did not work at all!
    Reflecting on my experience as community educator, I realize that integrating humor in my trainings has been part of a process in which I became more comfortable with the topic, and more knowledgeable of the possible participants’ reactions

  13. Norah,

    I see that many sex educators receive some negative reactions when disclosing their area of study, but I have virtually had nothing but positive reactions. The most common response I've gotten from people I know is, "I should have known that's what you'd go to school for!", which I take as a light-hearted compliment. From people I don't know as well, I usually get many questions, but always out of curiosity and interest; not skepticism or criticism.
    The only reactions that I get that could be construed as "not so great" would be when (men) say something like, "Wow, I bet you're really great in bed!", or, "Your boyfriend sure is lucky!". Maybe I'm naive, but those comments don't offend me. Maybe they are just uncomfortable and not sure what else to say. If I met a math teacher, I would probably assume they enjoy solving math problems and that they are very skilled at it, too.
    As for humor, I love to incorporate humor into my teaching. It can't really be scripted humor, however, it usually seems to work best when it just happens given a certain situation. I think its a good idea to let your students laugh a bit, get it out of their system and move on. And lets face it, sex can be very funny sometimes!