To me, sexuality educators are superheroes. The work they do is so essential. I find it so important, in fact, that I’ve sometimes thought of becoming a certified sexuality educator myself. I’m better in writing, though, and the thought of getting up in front of a classroom full of students is terrifying.
Still, the journalism I do around sex ed advocacy doesn’t feel like enough lately. Which is why I created this website and, by extension, this blog. Because, while I may not be able to lead a class myself, I can still do my darndest to uplift the amazing work of the educators who are killing it out there.
I’m kicking off my Sex Educator Spotlight series with Nadine Thornhill, Ed.D., an Ontario-based sex educator who specializes in child and adolescent sexuality. I stumbled upon her work on Instagram, where I learned about her Every Body Curious web series and her workshops with parents, caregivers, teachers, and sexuality professionals.
Speaking of which, Nadine has a workshop coming up soon. Called Real Sex Ed Skills for Real Parents, it’s an eight-week sex-positive, queer-inclusive, and anti-oppressive course for parents and caregivers during which you’ll receive resources, communication strategies, and guidance specifically tailored to your needs. Enrollment is limited to 12 participants. Sign up here to receive your application here.
Without further ado, here’s our conversation about the importance of sex education at home, edited for clarity and length:
Tell me about your journey to becoming a sexuality educator.
I grew up working in theatre as a performer and my intention was to continue that as an adult. [Then] I applied for a day job at one of those feminist-leaning, sex-positive boutique sex shops. The manager ran workshops in the evenings. And because I was a performer, she sort of just assumed that I might be good at facilitating workshops.
I started doing that and I discovered that it was a lot of fun, but it was also really healing for me personally. As I was doing the research and the learning that I needed to do to be able to facilitate the workshops, I started learning things that really helped me contextualize and understand my own sexuality.
And it was compelling to see how transformative it could be [for participants], even in the short time I would have with them. Even just giving them space and permission to talk openly about sex and sexuality, to ask questions or say, hey, this is something that I’m going through. And to be the person that in their eyes was the expert, saying, yeah, it’s okay. It’s okay that you feel this way. It’s okay that you have this question. It’s okay that you’re struggling with this. There were times when I could physically see the weight come off of somebody or the anxiety leave someone’s body. And that was really, really exciting to me.
From there, I moved to Planned Parenthood and they had a program that was sort of a perfect fit. It felt like the universe saying: this is what you need to do. They had a theatre program for youth where they would spend the summer basically going to sex ed theatre camp and they would create their own production that was based on the sex ed components of the health and physical education curriculum in Ontario, which is the province where I live. And then they would tour to different schools and present this production and it would be, usually, an introduction to or wrap-up for their sex ed units. So, I got to run that program, and that was incredible.
It was really then that I was like, okay, this is what I’m doing now.
[Also, h]aving a child of my own made me think about the importance of sex education in a very different way. And being able to deliver sex education to youth made me aware of how much information around sexuality is really fundamental and basic that a lot of people don’t get.
You shouldn’t have to work for a Planned Parenthood… you shouldn’t have to be a sex educator to learn really basic things about your body, or really basic things about consent or communication. I was like, no wonder so many people as adults are walking around feeling repressed or frustrated. Because nobody has been given the language. Nobody’s being given this really fundamental information.
And that gets passed on generationally because we don’t know how to talk about it and we don’t know how to talk about it with our kids. We don’t have modeling for our kids. So, I was like, okay, I want to change this. Because what I would see, especially when I would talk to teachers or even parents, was this real desire to be able to take on that component of their kid’s learning, but they wouldn’t know where to start. And I was like, okay I can probably help with that. And so, I decided to go back to school, and I got my doctorate. I graduated a week before my 40th birthday.
What are you working on now that you’re either the most excited about or maybe the most proud of?
I’m going to be running a course for parents and caregivers. It’s going to be a multi-week course with a combination of live group coaching, one-on-one coaching, and video modules. It’s to help parents and caregivers work through any fears or anxieties or nervousness they have because I know that, even for me as a parent, that’s something that can really impede on diving in and just having the talk.
So we’re going to talk about how to work through those emotional blocks around teaching kids about sexuality but then also looking holistically at: What does that mean? What is sex education in a family? What is sex education as a parent or caregiver as opposed to being a teacher in a classroom?
There’s an amazing opportunity when you are somebody’s parent and you have that connection and that bond and that love and are with them from day to day. Because it’s not like you have three classes of sex ed to teach them everything. You have years, even if you’re starting later, even if you’re like, well, my kid is 13, 14, 15… you still have years with them.
And you mean a lot to them. So it’s not only an opportunity to have conversations. There are opportunities to teach them through your own behavior. There are opportunities to teach them in the media that you consume. There are so many opportunities that we don’t necessarily see as opportunities for sex ed.
I really want to immerse parents in that so that they walk away with a really solid foundation and then the tools to build on that foundation as their kids and teens grow up, so they always know. Even if they’re having that day where they’re like, I can’t seem to say anything right. Or, you know, that question or that topic comes up where they’re like, ugh, I’m in my feelings about it.
You can totally be in your feelings about it. But you can still do what needs to be done. You can still say what needs to be said. You can still teach them.
And being in your feelings is actually part of it. Because we all get in our feelings around sexuality. It would be weird if we didn’t.
Digging into that work a little bit more, what is it that you find most essential about teaching parents to teach their kids? Why is it so crucial that parents have a hand in this?
If you look at research around how kids and teens learn and want to learn, what comes up, again and again, is that, regardless of whether or not you are actively teaching your kids about sexuality, there are lessons that get passed along.
Everything we do and say has some sort of influence and impact on our kids. I will sometimes talk to adults who will say, oh, well, my kid is too young to really learn about sex or sexuality, so I’m not going to say anything. And I’m like, you not saying something about it is still teaching them something about it.
I think the thing a lot of us don’t always consciously realize is that our kids still live in the same world we live in. And they’re existing in the same space, and in the same time, and so they’re seeing and experiencing a lot of the same things we’re seeing and experiencing. But what’s missing is that they may not have the language to talk about it or ask questions in a way that indicates that they’re picking up on things.
One of the clearest examples I can give is when parents are like, I don’t want to say the word “vulva” or “penis” to my kid because in my head that word is very sexualized and that isn’t appropriate.
I’m like, your child knows they have a body, though. Like, those are parts of their body that are attached to them that they can see and feel. And because they go to the bathroom, they interact with them on a daily basis because they have baths and everything. When you are willing to name every single part of their body except one, that teaches them something.
We can really help usher in a generation of kids who grow up having less shame, less embarrassment, who feel more capable and equipped to have difficult conversations around what their needs and boundaries are sexually.
What’s the number one question you get from parents… or perhaps even the number one fear that you observe in parents who are really grappling with how to have these conversations with their kids?
I would say the number one question I get is some version of: Is my kid okay? Is my kid normal? Am I doing this right?
But then, more specifically, a question I always get at least once in almost every workshop, regardless of the topic, is: How do I know if I’m saying too much? That’s a real fear that parents have. I think underlying that fear is this pervasive fear of sex and sexuality being inherently dangerous and harmful and, of course, people don’t want to harm their kids.
And so, the common fear is that they’re going to say too much or they’re going to use the wrong words and irrevocably traumatize their child. And what I will often tell people is that, if you look at the research… if you look at kid’s behaviors, especially when they move into their adolescence and their young adulthood, if they haven’t been given enough information, they’re more likely to engage in harmful behaviors.
What you need to watch out for is sexualizing your child. And that’s something people generally do deliberately. That’s not a thing somebody does when they’re like, oh, my kid asked me about periods and maybe I just gave them too detailed of an explanation.
What would you say is the toughest aspect of this work is for you?
I think maybe the toughest aspect of this work is that I never feel like I know enough. The deeper I go into the work, the more I realize that even a scientific approach still has roots in patriarchy and white supremacy and heteronormativity. I’m like, whoa, there are so many different ways to look at this.
Right now, I’m doing a deep dive into biological sex and, the deeper I dive into it, the more I’m like, oh, wow, even our framework for understanding biological sex is not concrete. And that’s hard because, sometimes, folks just want answers. And I’m like, well, it depends. It’s all so complex and fascinating and there are so many layers to it and that’s hard sometimes.
Also, sometimes, I’m the only person a client or somebody knows to go to, and if I don’t have the answer, that weighs on me. I’m not an encyclopedia of human sexuality and that’s not a thing I could ever be. But sometimes I want to be.
So, sometimes I’ll just default to: If you’re not hurting anybody and it’s not compromising your well-being, it’s probably fine.
That’s probably the underlying message I want to get to those people: I just want you to be okay and I want you to feel good. And I don’t want you to harm other people. And at the end of day, other than that, however you experience, don’t experience, express, or don’t express your sexuality is probably okay.
Some of Nadine’s Sex Ed Superheroes
- Melissa Carnagey, the founder of Sex Positive Families
- Heather Corinna, the founder of Scarleteen
- Julie S. Lalonde of Yellow Manteau
- Eva Bloom, host of What’s My Body Doing
- Cameron Glover, host of Sex Ed In Color
- Dr. Jess O’Reilly