When people ask what I do, I say “I’m a sexual health educator”. While I do a lot of things related to sexual, gender and social justice, “sexual health educator” just seems to fit both my professional and personal lives best.
So what is success as a sexual health educator? The best sexual health educators cultivate a space where people feel free to explore and ask questions. Quality sexual health education sets students up with the curiosity and confidence to continue to explore their own sexuality, and ask questions throughout their lifespan. Good sexual education is non-judgemental, confidential, and challenging. It’s a bit raunchy, and very ‘real’. Sexual health educators who are creating change are talking about stigma, social constructs, oppression and sexuality to people of all age and genders.
And, if we’re successful as sexual health educators, we’re also standing in solidarity with sex workers.
That last one is where many people press the brakes. I can talk endlessly about ending fear based education, working towards trans* inclusion, and the importance of pleasure without much trouble. But sex workers. How do sex workers relate to our work as a sexual health educators?
I sometimes wonder why I consider sex worker solidarity to be a part of my job. Maybe it’s just a bit of mission-creep that I should reign in?
In those moments of doubt, I always return to Sabrina Morgan’s article on sex work’s intersection with sexual health education.
“When we’re too scared to defend sex work, because it’s not our battle, because there’s a legal gray area we’re scared to touch, we’re saying it’s okay to let the sex workers – our front-line sex educators – take the bullets as long as we get to play the game. And we get to play the game only as long as we play it safe.
Playing it safe means being afraid to show what it is that we’re teaching. Playing it safe means we can’t make our material too erotic or explicit or we’ll lose our billing. Playing it safe means knowing our client needs to see a sex worker but being afraid to make the referral because of what it might mean for us professionally.”Sabrina Morgan, Why Does Linked In Hate Sex Education
Pornography as education
I’ve already discussed how I’ve learned a tremendous amount from porn performers and directors (who may or may not identify as sex workers), as an activist. Porn performers and directors have some of the most powerful and important things to say about fatphobia, ableism, racism, transphobia, and the intersection of oppression with sex, sexuality and gender.
The anti-porn activists of the world are always going on about how porn is so awful because people are learning from it. And while it’s important to note that mainstream porn can be problematic (although not always, porn is not monolithic, more on that sometime in the future), most people can differentiate between reality and representation, and most can understand that it’s not always a great idea to imitate what you see in porn. But we should also consider why we think it’s so detrimental to occasionally take cues from performers who are dedicated to providing authentic representations of sexual behaviours. What is so wrong with looking to porn performers or to sex workers, especially those within feminist and queer porn, as educators and sources of expertise?
My favourite quote from the feminist porn book is:
“Good pornography, like good sex education, is useful as a therapeutic tool not because it sets out to convince my clients and students that they want to do everything- or anything- they see, but because it helps to build somatic and visual vocabularies from which to make empowered choices” Keiko Lane, Imag(in)ing Possibilities, from the Feminist Porn Book
My entire copy of the Feminist Porn Book is highlighted, starred, and annotated with my chicken-scratch, but when I’m feeling doubtful I come back to this quote again and again. It’s my touchstone as a educator.
There have been many times where I can’t quite figure out the physics of *that one thing*, and I’ve looked to porn as a visual cue, both as a person who has sex and as an educator. I’ve had many a “hm. So that’s how that works”moment from watching pornography (the good, and the bad).
These are lessons that I take into classrooms. My talk on g-spots? Based on Tristan Taormino’s pornographic work. My talk on safer sex? Fundamentally informed by the ways I’ve seen gloves, dental damns, and condoms used in porn. My ability to talk with folks with limited mobility due to dis/ability, age, etc. about ways that they can have sex comfortably? Porn, porn, porn.
When I wanted to learn about g-spot stimulation and ejaculation, the only expertise I could draw on that weren’t mansplaining doctors were porn stars. I include this information in my standard education because I’ve heard one too many stories about young girls embarrassed about their own experiences of squirting. Now, I’m not pointing students towards porn, (in part because it’s technically illegal for people under 18 to view porn, and because the school system is not ready to have frank and non-judgemental discussions about porn consumption), but my expertise as an educator is based in the “somatic and visual vocabularies” that porn has given me.
Porn is part of the toolkit I draw on as a sexual health educator, it’s my visual lexicon. It would be nothing short of cowardly for me to not stand in solidarity with it’s workers as part of my own work.
Sex Work, Oppression and Rights
Good sexual health educators understand the ways in which transphobia, racism, ableism, fatphobia and colonialism play out in the classroom and they take steps to unlearn oppression and to ensure that classrooms are places where they status-quo is questioned, challenged and deconstructed.
When I teach in schools, I set aside a chunk of time to collect anonymous questions. I’ll pass around a box and encourage the students to put on as many questions as possible about anything related to sex, sexuality and gender. Often, I get questions related to sexual double standards. For example:
“Why is it that when girls have sex they are called sluts, and when men have sex they are basically congratulated”
When I go about answering these questions I try to root them in analyses of sexism, racism and colonialism (tailored to a middle school audience). Within this, I constantly draw on the arguments made by sex workers about the ways in which oppression impacts their work because their work is so clearly affected by the ways in which our communities think about sex and sexuality. Sex workers are knowledge creators. They navigate discourses based in moral views of sex, to protect and defend their own safety and security constantly (see: the Bedford case, Bill C-36).
Listening to sex workers has given me an understanding of the ways in which patriarchy denies sexual autonomy to women and trans* people. The stories I have had the opportunity to hear have allowed me to give meaning to the questions that the students I teach have. Sex work is the place where my understanding of oppression, pleasure, justice and health meet.
We have to acknowledge our privilege as sexual health educators. We are ‘playing the game’, as Morgan explains, but our jobs depend heavily on discourses created and advanced by those working within the sex industry. Therefore, sexual health educators have an obligation, and a duty, to speak out for sex worker rights.
It’s not mission-creep. It’s an acknowledgement that our work is a continuation of theirs, that their fight is ours, and that in the struggle for sexual and gender justice we are stronger together.