Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Being "Out" as a Sexuality Educator

Sexuality educators have to be sexuality educators no matter where we are or what we're doing; if we hope to be "out" about it. But, judging from the number of conversations that take place among students in this program centered on "Do you tell people outside of the sexological community what you're in school for/what you want to do?", it can be difficult to be "out" sometimes. Which is kind of ironic, considering that helping others to be "out" and "proud" about their gender, or sexual orientation, or sexual wants and needs, is a pretty big focus for many people in this field. Shouldn't we all be out and proud about the work in which we're so excited to take part, that we see as so important to society? It seems like a no-brainer. But it also makes sense that it's more complicated than that, in light of this "Sh*t People Say to Sexologists" YouTube video. It's difficult to talk to people about what you want to do for a living—or about anything, for that matter—if they have no basic understanding of what that thing is, or get caught up in misconceptions about it.

This is one area where my training has started to help me on a personal front. We learn fairly early on in the program that, as educators, it's important to work from our students' existing knowledge base in teaching them new concepts. Through the utilization of this existing knowledge we can scaffold (and here) their learning to provide support as they reform their current understandings of the world. The same goes for our friends, our family, and all of those awesome new acquaintances we're constantly meeting at parties in our spare time (amiright?), since "What do you do?" seems to be one of the most common things to talk about with people you've just met in American society. (Thanks, Levinson.)

One of the most important things I've learned since entering this program is not to say immediately that I'm in school to be a "sexuality educator." That too often leads to the response of, "Oh," before the conversation quickly and awkwardly ends. Instead, I first tell people that I'm learning to be (just) "an educator." Then, if they inquire further, this opens the door to talking about my focus in human sexuality studies. Saying first that I'm training to be an educator gives most people a familiar concept with which to grapple before they're stymied by the S-E-X word. And at that point they often feel confident enough about understanding at least one thing I've said to ask questions and try to understand more.

Sometimes, I get frustrated that I have to start from the basics every time. But what's even more frustrating is the outcome of trying to jump ahead, beyond my audience's conceptual understanding, so that a dialogue—which is what the process of education really is, when we break that concept down to a basic level—can't even happen. So starting with the basic concepts provides a practical jumping-off point for the conversation to take place, even in these non-classroom situations. I also know that, despite it being frustrating sometimes, having to start with the basics in these conversations and the existence of situations seen in the "Sh*t People Say to Sexologists" video are good indicators of the need for sexuality educators to be out in the world. The moment this thing called the "sexuality educator" isn't needed is the moment a conversation won't end in awkward silence, or the moment when an incredulous assertion that our field of study isn't a real thing won't be made simply because the word "sexuality" was used. It will also, hopefully, be the moment when laws like Tennessee's "gateway sexual activity" bill are less of a norm than an exception. (Read the bill.)

So the need to start with the basics in these conversations is also a call to be "out" as sexuality educators and sexologists. Because whether or not I am in "the classroom," I am still in the classroom. And whether or not I am speaking to my primary target audience, they still need that education, for their sake and mine, at least about the very basics of what sexuality education is. Unless people know about what we're doing and can relate to the concepts, there's no way that things will change in our lifetime. And there are very few other people who know how to do that education. While there may certainly be times when it is wiser to stay in the human sexuality educator closet, it is almost always the case that sexuality educators need to be out as sexuality educators no matter where we are or what we are doing. And it just so happens that there are good ways, provided by our education as sexuality educators, to do that.


  1. That's really interesting, applying the scaffolding approach. I have also used "education" as my response when people ask what I'm studying, but very rarely, like when meeting my husband's elderly relatives. Most of the time I say I'm studying sex ed.

    A more challenging situation (for me) comes up when I say I'm studying sex education, and I get a response like, "Oh, that's so important! Can you believe how many teenagers are out there having sex? We really need people like you to help them learn the value of waiting." I'm always torn in those situations whether to seize the controversy or just change the subject. In social settings I really don't like telling people I flat-out disagree with them, but I'm trying to be bolder about treating it as a teachable moment and describing how teenage sexual activity isn't necessarily unhealthy or bad.

  2. Great topic Josh! I struggle with this one a lot more because of where I work, but it comes up in my outside of Planned Parenthood life as well. I have come up with strategy that has worked pretty well so far: for people I barely know, will most likely never see again, and/or just do not feel like engaging in conversation about my job, I say "I'm an educator" or "I'm a teacher" and I leave it at that. Most people can conceptualize that pretty well and especially if I use educator over the word teacher then there's more flexibility there for people thinking of me outside of a school setting.

    For people who I genuinely would like to discuss it with, family members, or potential friends, I go with a version of the scaffolding approach you mentioned because I need time to feel them out before I add the sexuality piece into the mix. Sometimes I find that the best strategy is to explain my job in full so that there isn't as much time for them to decide what "sexuality educators do" before I can give a good description. Since all of us will be working with different populations and about different topics I'm sure this would look different depending on who was speaking but I have my go-to sentence ready of "I'm a sexuality educator, so I teach middle & high school students about the importance of safer sex and healthy relationships. I also work with parents around communicating with their children about sexuality." Then if they want to talk about it more I'll go into detail, but other than that I just try to stay away from the connection to the mechanics of sex and stick more to the aspects of sexuality-especially if this conversation is with someone that I'm not going to have a lot of time to talk about the subject. I feel by doing that I avoid a lot of the questions that were asked in the "Sh*t People Say to Sexologists" video because I am distancing myself from the idea of just sexual intercourse in the way I describe it. I know that in some cases I am probably not advancing the way our field is viewed by trying to talk about the less sexually charged topics when I explain it, but I save that for people who seem genuinely interested in the topic.

  3. Josh - GREAT TOPIC! Having been in the field of education (secondary and higher ed) for the past 12 years in various positions - being "out" about my role as a sexuality educator has been an interesting ride. In the world of higher education - a sexuality educator was not needed at a right-wing, Church of Christ school (Pepperdine University) and I was "let-go" from my Health Educator position due to "budget cuts" in the department. Of course this happened when I spoke up and out about the need for condom availability for our students! Imagine college students having sex and needing "the basics" to stay healthy and responsible!!! Apparently no students at Pepperdine were having sex?!?!

    At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I was a Resident Director and Grad Asst teaching Human Sexuality. I was "out" and celebrated for talking about sexuality at every opportunity possible. I was such a liberating feeling personally and professionally to know that sexuality education and communication was valued, encouraged, and supported by an administration.

    Currently, asa teacher in juvenile hall, my colleagues know what I am studying and my students know that I am studying "education" to be a better educator for them. Even though I am not "out" to my students, I use every possible "teachable moment" to provide sexuality education.

    In my opinion, being "out" does not mean I need the title, it means that I use every possible teachable moment to provide and educate about sexuality. For example, at the hair dresser the other day, she asked about school and told her it was all going well. She actually started asking me questions about her daughter and son. It was an awesome educational moment and happy that she felt comfortable asking me questions.

    I think that as this fields evolves, we, the sexuality educators of the world, will start to leave our small footprints/impressions with all that come across our path for that teachable "out" moment.

  4. My goodness, this struggle! Sigh. My answer to the "what do you do," question really depends on the situation. Someone on SEPTA who happens to have caught me with my head phones off usually gets, "education," or "Doctor's Office." The more time I spend working at Planned Parenthood or attending Widener, the bolder I get. Lately, I'm finding that if someone reacts poorly to my career choice, I likely do not want to continue the conversation anyway. This is not to say that I go around with a sandwich board advertising my career path. I definitely have to be careful, too. I don't want someone who is fiercely anti-choice or anti-sex ed to know where I live/work.

    This, of course, is coming from someone who has yet to admit to her parents that her Master's degree is in Sexuality education! I did come out of the closet for my new job! They do know that I will be teaching Latinas about sexuality related things.

  5. Whether it is real or just some social construct, what we do/study does say something about who we are. When I tell people I am studying human sexuality and I get “that look,” I feel a bit misjudged, but we (as a program) are sex positive people. Saying what I study should not imply anything about me as a sexual person, but in this case… it does. Is that really so bad? I am, in fact, a person that values sexuality. I agree with Josh that being “out” as sex educators is important to our field an important for our society in general.
    When I’m asked about the program, I share my career goals, but I also share some of the other possibilities. I am very open about that fact that many students plan to work as traditional educators while other want to do research at universities or even create workshops about sexual pleasure and kink.
    I don’t want to be unnecessarily provocative, but it would be a misrepresentation to only highlight students that plan to work with teen pregnancy and STI prevention.
    Being “out” (for me, at least) also means embracing sex positivity and the entire field of sexuality education.

  6. I don't talk to a lot of people, actually (woo introversion), and I also don't have a very high tolerance for ignorance so like others have said...I can be choosy about what I say I do. I am not in a lot of environments where people ask me.

    I tend to say education because I don't want to deal with drama but you're right, I do need to step out of that.

    However, with my job and with my own career goals, I can't elaborate much because I don't want to "endanger" my organization. It is easy to say what I am going to school for since it's relevant to their cause, but as far as what I -really- want to do with

    I should at least start thinking about an "elevator" speech for when I am in social situations where I may desire or be expected to share. Thanks for the post.

  7. Well written post Josh. I really enjoyed the Youtube video. I like most of the classmates who have responded have said education when in no mood to explain my degree. Lately I have had to get into the nitty gritty of the program because people always want to know why I have to fly out to Philadelphia for school. Then I tell them it is because the program doesn't exist in other places. Most people I speak with about my chosen field and graduate program is "what kind of job can you get with that". I usually am nice and list off a few examples, but in my head I often think " a hell of lot more interesting job then you will have" That may be mean but oh well. These days I just come out and say sexuality educator when asked because I am proud of this program and I believe that just informing people that individuals specially trained to teach about sexuality may change their minds about who should be teaching about sex. Perhaps then people will desire well trained individuals to educate rather than gym teachers, health teachers, coaches, etc.

  8. Thanks, Josh and everyone who has responded to this post. This is such an important topic. What we call ourselves and how we describe what we do are such critical parts of the ways in which we can change the world with our work. Audre Lorde, one of my great inspirations, once said, "Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world. Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic from the most vital of our lives other than sex." If you are interested in her legacy, check out the Audre Lorde Project for loads of activism in her name.

    I too have an aversion to saying what I'm studying when I feel threatened or misunderstood. But when I feel safe, I've begun to say that I'm studying sexuality to create a better, more sex-positive place for our kids to grow up in. And when I do say my truth, I do feel more powerful.