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I Want To Be a Sex Educator. Er, How do I do That?

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heavyboots asks:

I will be a junior in high school next year, and because I've been lucky to stumble on a lot of really great sex-positive resources, I've learned I have a pretty strong interest in sexuality--as in, studying it/doing something in it as a career. However, getting information about this field is much more difficult than, say, engineering or law. What are jobs within this field, what are areas in college/majors you'd advise, and what are some ways I can get involved now, as a minor? My areas of interest are not really in the medical field--I'm more interested in counseling, giving advice, activism, and education

Also, do you have any advice for telling people about my interest? Right now the only person who knows is my boyfriend, because it's really difficult for me to trust most other people to not equivocate wanting to study sexuality with being obsessed with having sex. Esp my parents, who are politically liberal in every way except in their parenting. They ask me what I want to do with my life really often, and it's kinda stressful to not be able to talk to them.

Sam W replies:

Hello Me-from-the-past, I'm glad to see you discovered a means of asking questions of your future self.

I kid, but believe me when I say that your questions strike a chord with anyone who's found themselves drawn towards sex and sexuality based professions (for the purposes of this articles, I'll use sex ed as shorthand for all of these jobs, but know that I'm including work such as counseling and activism under that heading). Because wanting to spend your days working with and thinking about sex and sexuality is not a desire that comes with a clear path stretching out before it.

This lack of a clear path is both awesome and terrible. On the one hand, it means that people can come into sex education and related fields from all walks of life, and it means that taking a slight detour doesn't mean giving up on the path entirely. On the other hand, it can leave people who are just getting started in the field feeling completely lost. So, while I can't guarantee what your path forward looks like, I can give you some advice on how to get a clearer sense of it.

The first step is to figure out two things: what you're passionate about and what you're good at. When I refer to passion, I mean the causes, the ideas, the issues that get your mind whirring. The ones that even on the most mundane or stressful day you still feel, deep down, that there's nothing else you'd rather work on. Those feelings are your compass. They can point you in the direction that's right for you.

They're also helpful because jobs like activist, or educator, are actually really, really broad categories. So working the particular areas of sexuality that interest you can help you narrow down the goal you want to strive for. What are you really interested in? Pregnancy counseling? Fighting rape culture? Figuring out the answer to that question can help head off the "too many choices" anxiety that you might be feeling, and also help you work out a more concrete answer to the question "what do you want to do."

Working out what you're good at is also going to help you narrow down what you'd like to do. Now, I believe that most people can learn most skills, so even if you find that there's something that you have no clue how to do that's important to the line of work you pursue, all is not lost. Plus, you're young, so you're in the process of learning where your particular talents lie.

But, that being said, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Let those be your guide as well. Are you a good writer? Then maybe you want to look at professions that involve a lot of writing educational or promotional materials. Do you excel at organizing events, or fostering community? Then maybe fundraising and outreach is more your style. Are you adept at debating or working through arguments? Then maybe advocacy related to the politics of sex is something to check out. You get the idea. Looking at career paths that play to your strengths will help you figure out what types of jobs allow you to use the skills you have to help the causes you care about.

Once you have a sense of what you'd like to explore, the next step is to look for some volunteer work in that area. A lot of sex positive or sex ed organizations rely on volunteer labor to make them go, so there should be at least a few options for you to choose from. Do some research and find out if there are any organizations (like Planned Parenthood or similar) in your area that you're interested in working with, and find out what their volunteer process is.

If you don't live in an area that has very many resources on the ground, some organizations (like Scarleteen) are structured so that volunteers can do their work online. You'll also want to consider your own schedule and commitments. If you're someone with a packed schedule, you may need to find a place that has flexible volunteer hours. If you have more free time, places with more structured, regular hours might be more up your alley.

Once you get settled into a position, take advantage of working with folks who have been doing this for longer than you have. Ask them questions about their experiences, ask for advice, ask them about what they'd wish they'd known when they were first starting out. When you're an adult working in a niche field, finding a young person who wants to carry on what you do into the next generation is always heartening. So odds are they'll be more than happy to talk with you. You may not find everything they say helpful, and you may not always agree with them. But you're learning about the dynamics of the field and the experiences you might have while working in it, and that can be invaluable info later on.

Once you graduate high school, if you plan on going to college (which it sounds like you do), find out what the most common majors or areas of study are for the people in your field. In my experience, sex educators and activists come from many backgrounds, including: health education, psychology, sociology, social work, women's studies...the list goes on and on. So this is where that narrowing down you did earlier is going to come in handy. If you've figured out that you'd like to do some kind of counseling? Psychology is probably a good major. Focus on education? Health education might be the place for you. This is where talking to your elders can help you as well, because they might have a sense of which majors tend to lead towards which parts of the sex and sexuality world.

When/if you're in school, keep looking for volunteer positions or internships or (if you're lucky) student jobs related to sex and sex ed. This will help you work out if this is something that you can/would like to keep doing long-term. Plus, the more experience you have, the (hypothetically) better time you'll have looking for full time work.

Which brings me to my last piece of advice on this front. It's not the most cheerful one, but it is true: Be prepared for this to be hard. Sometimes dishearteningly so. Sex is still an incredibly charged subject, and there are many people who think sex should not be taught or discussed in public (and that goes double for any discussion that isn't abstinence-only). There will be people who think what you're doing is immoral. People who think you're corrupting or harming the very populations you're trying to help. Mothers, old ladies, men who are pillars of the community might call you names, or insinuate things about your character in public forums. Some of those people might be in positions of power, and decide to cut funding for your programs, or your clinic, or block your website from schools, or simply spread misinformation about you and what you do. As much as I believe that this mindset will become less common as time goes on, and as much as I wish it were less prevalent now, it's a reality of this field of work that you need to be prepared to deal with.

You need to also be ready to face a job market that is competitive at best and soul-crushingly small and frustrating at worst (I'm speaking from ongoing personal experience here). Job hunting is tough for everyone right now, especially when we're talking about people finding paid work doing the things they actually trained/studied to do. I hope for your sake (and everyone else's) that it is less so by the time you're hunting for work. But even if the overall picture improves, working in sex ed is still competitive, partially due to it still being a contentious thing to fund or promote. So the number of paid positions is low to begin with. Location can also play a role, because the areas known for being hubs of sex-positivity attract people looking for that type of work. Which means many talented people are all vying for the same ten job openings. And, many organizations are strapped for funding and rely primarily on volunteers and interns but can't move dedicated and skilled employees into paying positions even if they want to.

So, while I still encourage you to volunteer or intern with orgs that you'd love to be connected with, don't count on those eventually leading to paid work. The experience can be invaluable, but one cannot pay their rent in experience points. So you might want to consider the possibility that you'll have to work another job to support yourself while you hone your skills.

And beyond that, working in sex and sexuality fields holds the potential to be very, very draining. You're likely to encounter people at their most stressed and vulnerable moments, and even the strongest, most stoic individual is going to have a hell of a time talking to people about rape, or abusive partners, or pregnancy scares every day without feeling some effect from it. I won't say that you don't/can't build up a tolerance for it. But be prepared for it to be wearing from time to time, and consider what kind of self-care and support networks you'll engage in to help you manage the stress that will arise.

You might burn out. You might decide that as much as you love doing this it will never be able to be a full-time career for you because you can't pay your bills and still do it. There is no shame in that. Many talented people stop pursuing work in sex ed for a myriad of reasons. Like I said, it's hard. But some people do it for their whole lives, or at least until a normal age of retirement. Some people view it as their calling, the thing they were put on this earth to do, and they will do it even if they have to work two minimum wage jobs plus freelance work just so that they can moonlight as a sex educator.

You can't know which of those outcomes will be yours. And fixating too much on the "what-ifs" can be paralyzing.

There's nothing for it but to dive in and give it a try.

Now, onto the more immediate worry about how to answer the dreaded "so, what do you want to with your life" question. That always has the potential to become a fraught conversation, but it can feel doubly stressful when what you want to do deals with something that is odd or taboo. So I don't fault you for being nervous about discussing your ambitions. When you tell people you're involved in anything sex ed related, many folks make assumptions about your sexual identity and behavior. Even if you're the kinky mayor of Kinkytown, USA, they will somehow imagine a personal life for you that is more extreme than anything you've ever done.

One thing to keep in mind is that you are the ultimate decider when it comes to revealing information about yourself to other people. And sometimes there will be situations where you don't feel like telling people exactly what you do/want to do. Maybe you're not in the mood to feel judged, or get into an argument, or explain for the upteenth time that, yes, sex ed involves more than putting a condom on a banana. You are the boss of who you tell about your goals.

So, should you find yourself not wanting to go into details, you have a few options. One is to give a broad, general answer. Health education, counseling, and community organization, are all ways of describing what you want to do without bringing sex into the conversation. If you really, really don't want to be in this conversation (as many young people asked about their careers do), you can punt and say "I'm not really sure what I want to do. I'm exploring a few areas, but no concrete plans yet." Then change the topic to something that will get the other person talking about a subject that is not your career plans.

However, it sounds like there are some folks (like your parents) who you would ultimately prefer to be truthful with. I would tell them exactly what you've told me here. That this is something that interests you and that you'd like the chance to pursue. You can go into why it's important to you, or how you envision making the world a better place through it. Get at why it speaks to you as a field. And acknowledge that yes, it was probably not what they were expecting as far as your aspirations in life, but you want to give it a try and it would mean a lot to you if they would support you.

If they have a negative reaction, especially if it's one that tries to shame you or belittles your life choices? Then they have just disqualified themselves from receiving details about your career aspirations. They get the bare minimum, the vague answers that I mentioned above.

But I think that they might actually surprise you. They might ask questions, or ask you to explain a little more, or ask you what you plan to "do" (if they ask that one, again, "I'm still working that out" is an acceptable answer). But their reaction will likely boil down to one of two types: "enthusiastically supportive" or "not thrilled, but you're our kid and we will support your choices." In any case, you will at least no longer feel as though you're hiding an important part of yourself from your family.

And as much as I joke about the exasperating reactions, the majority of people who you tell about your career choice are likely to react very well to it. This is often out of politeness, but it can also be out of genuine interest or agreement. Ultimately, the reasons for the positive or neutral reaction are less important than the reactions themselves, because the reactions are what you have to deal with. They can think you're the biggest tramp in town, but as long as they keep that thought to their own damn selves, consider it not not your problem. If someone is outright rude to you, or takes the conversation down a road you're not comfortable with, excuse yourself from the interaction (you need to use the restroom/get a refill/lend a hand in the kitchen/etc). This can take some practice a first, but it's worth learning how to do.

At the end of the day, you also have to learn to own this part of yourself. That means accepting that some people will think less of you, or think very incorrect things about you. That some people will think you're cool, or that you're doing good work. It means accepting that you won't be able to change everybody's mind, but that doesn't mean that you can't make a difference to people. It means accepting that this work is hard,scary, rewarding, and interesting all at the same time. It means understanding that there's no way to know for certain where this path might take you.

But that you want to try walking it anyway.

And I wish you, with all my heart, good luck on your journey.

Further Reading:

written 11 Aug 2014 . updated 11 Aug 2014

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