I like to say that my introduction is my party trick. “Hello, my name is Lucy, and I’m a sex educator.”
It gets me a lot of raised eyebrows, a few winks, and definitely more than one nervous giggle. I’ve been a sex educator for almost two years now, and it’s taught me a lot about people, sexuality, and sexism. I could write forever about the subject, but here are some highlights of what I’ve learned.
My commentary is based on my experience in the field, as well as my interactions with people in the reproductive and sexual health world.
1. We have a serious problem with sex in this country.
We have the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, and yet abstinence-sex education remains the norm in many parts of the states. We preach abstinence, and yet masturbation remains a taboo. Even if school districts have a mandate to cover sexual health topics. Many teachers are uncomfortable talking about sex, which comes across very clear to students.
2. It can be really hard to have safer sex.
People will come up with a million excuses to not practice safer sex.
“My partner doesn’t have anything on them, so they’re clean.”
“ I’m a lesbian, I don’t have to worry about this stuff.”
“I’m on the pill, so I’m good.”
“I’ll lose my erection if I use a condom.”
“I can’t find any condoms that fit me.”
“Seriously? For a blowjob?”
“But don’t you trust me? Are you cheating on me?”
The list goes on. Beyond that, deeper social factors persist that are far more difficult to resolve. Women who carry condoms are often perceived as slutty, and yet it is often left up to them to negotiate for condom use in a sexual situation. A man might feel that condoms are uncomfortable or painful, but very rarely does he get to have realistic conversations on how to make condoms feel better. Furthermore, even someone with the best of intentions has to contend with external issues such as pharmacies locking up condoms or refusing to fill a Plan B prescriptions.
3. Misinformation knows no race, gender, education level, or class.
One of the most interesting things I have realized is that ignorance about sexual health is absolutely everywhere. I get some pretty ridiculous questions about sex and reproductive health on a fairly regular basis. They just as frequently come from PhD students as they do from middle schoolers. The problem of inadequately educating about sex is pervasive throughout all strata of society. Often times, the difference lies in access to information and resources.
A teacher at an affluent suburban high school once summed it up very succinctly for me: “we don’t have a teen pregnancy problem. We have an abortion problem.” In communities with greater resources, teen pregnancy and STIs become invisible, because people have the resources and the ability to terminate a pregnancy if they wish. However, this doesn’t negate the fact that the problem exists in the first place.
Assuming that only certain populations need access to such education therefore denies potentially vulnerable individuals the information they need to make healthier choices for themselves. Moreover, it continues to support the assumption that communities with more visible consequences (unplanned pregnancy, HIV/STI rates), are made up of ignorant sluts.
4. People will say some pretty gross things to you because “you’re a sex person.”
This comes in two forms. The first consists of over sharing, mostly from friends and acquaintances, not clients. Oftentimes, people in my life conflate sex educator with gynecologist and sex therapist, of which I am neither. I am more than happy to talk about sex and offer occasional advice to friends who ask nicely. However, this does not mean that I am qualified to diagnose your chlamydia or fix your partner’s performance anxiety. Knowing where and how to set boundaries with the people in my life is something I continue to figure out as I go along.
The second source of grossness is street harassment. My work often involves community outreach, which means distributing condoms to the community.
90% of the time, people either really appreciative or terrified of me, which I have no qualms with. It’s that last 10% that can be difficult. After a while, I get tired of telling people “no, I will not tell you if I have a boyfriend,” “no, I will not do a demonstration on your own body.” As much as my workplaces have done their best to ensure I remained safe and well prepared, such incidents continued to occur.
5. Real sex ed works, but we can do better.
Here’s the thing. We know comprehensive sex ed works. A lot of the evidence behind that comes from Evidence Based Interventions, or EBIs. These curricula have compelling data behind them, but they’re not perfect. While some of their approaches are quite innovative, many contain very sex negative, heteronormative language, which can be alienating to LGBTQ youth. Furthermore, some of the curricula contain messaging along the lines of “getting pregnant will ruin your life;” perhaps not the best approach to take with someone who may be a teen parent or the child of one.
Despite their flaws, which are well-recognized in the field, they are being utilized more and more by organizations competing for grants (look at our programs! They’re evidence based!). We need more research to improve the existing curricula, and to evaluate the effectiveness of more sex positive, LGBTQ inclusive approaches to sex education. It’s not enough to settle for something that works okay for the moment; we need what works for the long haul.