Work It: Jobs in Sex-ed

Ottawa XPress – Shotgun – January 6, 2005

Growing up in the 1980s, the extent of my sexual education involved a book my mom had lying around called Our Bodies, Ourselves, and serious investigation into why dudes got retarded over Daisy Duke.

The book didn’t help.

Its content-depicting mammas with full, hanging breasts the size of my 12-year-old head-was terrifying. Those ladies only inspired me to sexualize my own friends by playing a game called “boyfriend,” all under the guise of heterosexual “learning.” As puberty dragged me on its rough journey, I was mapless until turning 20.

Since then, I’ve always thought that the people and places employed to teach us a thing or two about sex, and who do it exceptionally well, deserve a hand.

Jobs in this business of educating people about sex seem to fall in to two categories. The first are people, such as poet Oni the Haitian Sensation, businesses like Venus Envy and non-profit organizations like Planned Parenthood, who actively impart their message by visiting schools, offering instructive workshops or becoming an expert resource on all aspects of human sexuality. The other path is that of academia, where scholars research the lofty side of things in their analyses of the cultural, historical, scientific or political forces behind a sexual episode in a novel, or sexual trends in society.

In the May 17, 2004 issue of Maclean’s magazine that featured Canadian sex granny Sue Johanson, Ottawa’s own Oni grabbed some spotlight in a two-page article that detailed why she became a sex educator in schools: “There’s too much time spent in boardrooms, figuring out what we think kids need to know,” she told Maclean’s. Oni wanted to take her poems into schools after reading in the newspaper that sex education wasn’t mandatory across Canada and that the information wasn’t always sinking in.

To make things sink in for youth, organizations like the Kids Help Phone line (1-800-668-6868) use straight talk, like Oni does, in their ads: “Call if your boyfriend broke your heart. Call if your boyfriend broke your jaw.”

At Planned Parenthood, groups beyond youth can find the information they need about sex and relationships. For example, the DisAbled Women’s Network of Ontario (DAWN) distributes a brochure through Planned Parenthood to expose myths about disabled women and sexuality.

Outside of a general interest in helping people make informed choices for themselves, sexual educators often have an interest in the topic for personal reasons too. For example, growing up in “woeful sexual ignorance,” was the motivation for Alfred Kinsey to research and publish Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).

While my own Starfucking Tales of Sexless One-night Stands, a book documenting travels through the sexual landscape of Ottawa, may teach a few people a few things, the motivation is equally selfish. Consider it field research for a 1999 grad paper on masturbation, sexual frustration and artistic failure in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Once called pornography and banned, this book is now a fixture in the academic world’s exploration of sex and sexuality. In the words of Sean Walsh, who directed its film adaptation, Bloom, Ulysses is “heralded as the most important literary work of the 20th century, [but] very few people have actually read it.”

Like Kinsey’s director, Bill Condon, Walsh deserves praise for making another of the world’s most influential stories involving sexuality accessible to the masses. Not everyone might thank him for it.

When the Museum of Nature premiered Bloom last summer, a few scurried off during the scene where Leopold Bloom is commanded to drink urine. But the detail isn’t gratuitous.

Walsh defended to Shotgun the sex in Joyce’s work: “Sex is a fundamental element of what we are. Joyce wanted to display and reveal the utter truth of our sexual make-up and fantasies. It didn’t matter to Joyce whether this was appealing or not to the reader-what was important was that it was real.”

Walsh is not alone in his contribution on Joyce-locally for example an entire course is devoted to Ulysses at Carleton University and the university has been active in working across disciplines toward the development of sexuality studies curricula.

According to Sapphic Traffic columnist Suki Lee in her article, “Queer studies: The rise of gay and lesbian academe” (Capital Xtra! September 9, 2004): “Increasingly, Canadian universities are offering … lesbian and gay studies. Also called sexuality, gender diversity or queer studies.” In March 2004, Carleton held a Symposium on Sexuality Studies to gauge interest in a potential program.

However, heterosexual sex took a back seat to queer issues, which made up 90 per cent of the symposium’s focus. Professor Jodie Medd explained to Shotgun: “The critical analysis of how power works usually/often first comes from those who have been most ‘oppressed’ or ‘regulated’ by that power; certainly much of ‘queer theory’ considers how heterosexuality works.” In effect then, the surge of interest in queer studies will in the end benefit the hetero world.

The range of talents in fields that teach or touch upon sex is as impressive as the understanding they further and the ignorance they dispel. And both approaches – the outreach efforts and the intellectual exploration – are necessary if people are going to become in the know about the know-how and workings of sex.

– Sylvie Hill