Jul 082011

This is another piece written by Intern Katie Davis about some of the lessons she has learned in her experience of becoming a sex educator. It follows along with Lessons Learned from A Sex Educator: Part 1, as published last week.

One of the major maxims repeated to me over the course of my trainings to
become a sex educator went something along the lines of “Expect that your students will
have a diversity of opinions on sensitive topics. Be sure not to alienate any of them.”
Now, that’s pretty sound advice: as I’ve already mentioned in my previous post, one
surefire way of alienating students is to ignore the variety of ways in which their thoughts
and experiences differ from one’s own. If I went into a classroom with the expectation
that students shared my perspective of the world, I’d be doing considerable damage to the
safety of the space and to my class’s potential for learning.

But there are times when showing sensitivity to a diversity of opinions isn’t
easy, when the line between mindfulness and moral relativism isn’t clearly drawn.
The sex education courses I teach cover (though not nearly comprehensively enough)
LGBTQ issues/identities. When we reach this segment of the curriculum, invariably
at least one of the students balks. Common negative responses to our LGBTQI unit
(which emphasizes anti-bullying as well as differences between gender identity, sex, and
sexuality) include:

“That’s nasty!”
“I go to church, and my church says that gay people are just plain wrong.”
“I don’t care if someone’s gay, just don’t go around flaunting it.”
“I’d never say something bad to a gay guy if he was just doing his own thing,
but if he comes up and tries to talk to me or something, I’m going to punch him.
Because he probably wanted to hit on me.”

These are moments when I’m forced to pause and consider how to answer
in a way that doesn’t shut down the conversation but also doesn’t give a free pass to
prejudice. The right of LGBTQI folks (myself included!) to live happy, complete,
governmentally-recognized lives free of harassment, fear, and discrimination is not up for
debate in my mind. Yet, it seems that if I ever want to make progress with students who
know only homophobia, I must patiently engage in that debate. This brings me to lesson

#3.  There is such a thing as productive discomfort.

I’ve met some educators who believe that, on supposed “matters of opinion,”
it’s wrong to question one’s students. I’m not of that mind. I think that, as a teacher/
facilitator/mentor, my job is to challenge my students to understand the origins of their
opinions and to constantly re-examine their belief systems through the lens of new
information and experiences. I tend to answer homophobic remarks, for example, with
more questions:

“Why is this kind of sexual activity nasty to you? Do you think the fact that you
find something nasty means that other people shouldn’t be able to enjoy it if they want to?”
“Different religions have all kinds of different opinions on homosexuality,
bisexuality, etc. There are some churches that claim that homosexuality is
wrong, while there are others that have gay and lesbian leaders. If someone who
identified as a member of the LGBTQI community attended your church, how do
you think they would feel? Do you think they’d be welcomed in?”
“What does it mean to flaunt one’s sexuality? Like going to prom with one’s
partner of choice? Like dancing at that prom? Would you say that heterosexual
people flaunt their sexuality? What’s the difference between ‘flaunting’
and ‘expressing’?”
“Do you think that every gay man who talks to other men is actually trying to
make a move? Are you trying to make a move on every girl you speak to?”

I don’t know that any of these answers are the right ones, but they’ve at least
allowed the conversation to continue. But encouraging students to think critically should
never mean silencing them. If I get the feeling that my student isn’t responding well to
my questions, I need to back off and move on to something new. Because:

3. Sometimes making progress means making concessions.

I never want a student to feel attacked, either by myself or by others. I’ve had
male students vocally oppose abortion, only to be swiftly and angrily silenced by their
female peers. In those moments, it is my job to step in, to validate my student’s right to
an opinion. “You’re not alone in feeling that way. In fact, the media tends to send us
tons of messages that support what you were just saying. Why do you think some of your
classmates might disagree with you?”

It’s a difficult and often deeply frustrating process, remaining true to one’s values
while leaving room in the classroom for the expression of others. But, at the end of
the day, when I doubt myself and feel as though nothing I said was effective, I have to
remember that my goal is not to win a debate. In fact, winning the debate, when it means
compromising the safety of the space, isn’t a win at all. Rather:

4. My goal is just to plant the seed of an idea.

And nothing, ideas included, grows without time, nourishment, and an open

Apr 222011

I am often asked how I wound up in this field. To be honest, when I was little, I wanted to be a Marine Biologist (thanks Reading Rainbow), and then an Archaeologist (thanks Indian Jones), and eventually settled on being a psychologist for gifted children. Yep, by the time I was 8 or so, I was sure that was what I wanted to be. In high school, I spent most of my time in the theatre, but wound up being a Peer Health Advocate through Jefferson County.

When I got to college at 16, I had everything all planned out, or so I thought. I was going to double major in Psychology and Theatre, and minor in German, all the better to be said psychologist for gifted kids, while performing in community theatre, and going to graduate school in Germany. That was all find and dandy until I took my first psych class — it involved dissecting human brains…and dissection was a big hard limit for me (I’d made it through HS without ever cutting up anything, and hell if I was about to start then), so I started re-thinking my plan.

When my Acting I class was full, I wound up signing up for Human Sexual Behavior, which was mostly empty. It was the first time I’d heard about the concept of transgender folks, intersex folks, etc. I remember this class pretty clearly, because it started right after I had been sexually assaulted, and it was incredibly influential in helping me work through my feelings around it. I remember talking about kink, and realizing how that *fit* me perfectly, and I remember the Planned Parenthood educator placing a condom over her entire hand, and saying “and if someone comes at you with a penis THIS big? RUN!” and everyone laughing (obviously, this was before I had discovered the concept of fisting). The fact that people could be learning about safer sexuality, and still be enjoying themselves was a new concept to me, and I started questioning the original career path I had chosen.

Then I wound up in a sociology class called The Nature of Sexual Inequality. We talked Title IX, we talked intersexuality, we talked unequal pay, we talked about gay male sexuality vs lesbian female sexuality, etc. It was amazing — I felt completely at home, and I declared my major as sociology that Block. I talked with the theatre department, and realized I was a better fit DOING theatre (both through the dept and the student run Theatre Workshop), rather than majoring in it (there was no minor). I started directing shows that included sexuality as an element (like Beyond Therapy), and I continued to act (I was Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit – talk about gender performance on stage), and costume and tech, and take theatrical classes, but focuses most of my academic side on Sociology with an emphasis on sexuality. I took lots of other sexuality classes too from different departments; Woman and the Body (about body politics), the Biology of Sexuality (the most science-y class I took in all four years), etc. I joined the sexual assault prevention team and hotline, and did presentations about consent, and responded to calls, and put on Take Back the Night.

Once I turned 18 in December of my Sophomore year, I started being the educated-ish perv that everyone came to with questions. I’d been on Scarleteen for years at that point, and now I could drive up to stores in Denver and buy books about sex and sexuality, and sex toys even. I became the go-to girl for women looking to purchase their first vibrator. We’d drive up in hordes to Denver, I’d help them pick out their first toy, and every trip, I made it habit to buy a book. Soon, I had a little mini library of how-to and history of books regarding the spectrum of sexuality. I also was the RA (and friend) with buckets of condoms and lube, and who taught people how to use them, and wound up putting on my first ever sex ed workshop “Sex in the Dark,” where dorm residents could ask anonymous questions and have them answered, my sophomore year and then again my junior year. When I lived in German (the minor with German still happened), I was so impressed at their open look at sexuality, and started researching grad schools centering around sex and sexuality.

Finally, my senior year, I did my thesis (qualitative, 75 pages without transcripts) on sex education in middle school and high school, and how it affect how college aged women viewed their bodies. I applied to both Widener and San Francisco State University, and decided I wanted a graduate degree, and to work for Planned Parenthood doing education. I signed up for the History of Sexuality, but the professor told me I would be bored, and so I ended up in Contested Masculinity instead, enjoying more looks at gender as a facet of sexuality. Widener accepted me, and I was off to PA a few months after graduation.

As I went through grad school, I realized that so much sex education was centered around dysfunction or around youth, and there was little talk about positive sexuality for those over 18. Couple that with the job I got at feminist porn provider HotMoviesForHer, and I started working in adult education more specifically. I was often that black sheep in my program, talking about how there could be ethically made pornography, talking about how maybe anal sex and kink didn’t belong in the sexual dysfunction class, and how it was polite and respectful to ask for people’s pronoun preference. Realizing that these were still issues within the field of sexuality education, I decided that it was my goal to educate lay people (ie, those who didn’t go to grad school for human sexuality) about sexual pleasure, sexual anatomy, gender diversity, sex and disability, safer sex, etc. It might not seem like a big deal to most people, but to those who have never found their G-spot, or who are constantly assumed to be a gender that doesn’t match their identity, or to those whose doctors’ have never mentioned sex in regards to their disabilities, it can mean the world.

And that’s how I ended up where I am. I’m also working on a post for those wanting to become sex educators/sexologists/sex therapist, because I get asked that on a regular basis, so expect that in the near future.