Continuing our Sex Educator Spotlight series, I present to you: Kim Cook, RN, CHES. Kim and I connected through my Thunder Thighs email newsletter, of all things. She responded to one of my emails and shared a bit about the work she did with Teen World Confidential, a site she founded that supports parents and other caring adults in communicating with their children about sex and relationships. She also shared a few other names and organizations with me because of course she did. That’s what Kim does. She’s a connector.
More recently, Kim launched the Sex Education Alliance (SEA) with the help of fellow educators Melissa Pintor Carnagey and Amy Lang. SEA is a community of independent sex educators and non-profits helping each other succeed in their missions.
Here’s our conversation about her growing interest in the sex ed space, the reason parents need sex ed support, and what led her to create a community for sex educators.
Could you talk to me a little bit about your journey to becoming an educator in this space?
Right out of high school, I decided I was going to be a labor and delivery nurse. But first, I worked for Planned Parenthood as a birth control volunteer.
A lot of different patients came through and some of these clients were really young and it was a great thing that they were there getting birth control. Now that I’m older and I understand a little bit more about how the world works, I wonder why were they there at such a young age. But that wasn’t my job. I was just a kid volunteer.
Then I did get a job as a labor and delivery nurse and I had a young woman who was about 18 giving birth to her fourth child. By the time I left a year and a half later, she was back. Having another baby. And she was the most delightful young woman, and I remember thinking: Why is it that some individuals know about birth control and others don’t have access to it? What’s happening here?
I got pregnant, had three kids of my own, lived my life, raised my kids. I went back to work as an elementary school nurse and loved it. It was the best job I ever had. But as my kids started going off to college, I’m like, hey, I think it’s my turn to go back to college, because I only had an associate’s degree.
I went to a local university here, which was really nice. I entered their health education program. I was 45 when I started back at school and I lived in this soccer mom atmosphere where I didn’t really think about much else other than raising my kids, getting through the day. And then I started going into the sex education realm, which had always been of interest to me. And so, I graduated in health education and ended up getting my certified health education specialist certification, as well.
And then I was in the classrooms.
Once, I showed an old movie to a 7th grade class and the movie used the term “homosexuals.” And I said, “Kids, I don’t want to hear giggling. I don’t want to hear anything. This is normal. Some people identify as LGBTQ.”
The next day, an email comes. It said, “I don’t understand why Mrs. Cook said it’s okay for everyone to be gay.”
And I’m like, Okay, here’s the problem. The parents.
So I decided it was time for me to address what was really going on here. It’s not the kids. The kids want information. They’re desperate for information. And they’re listening to music, watching movies, watching TV, and they’re getting some information and talking to their peers and it’s not accurate, good information. I’m like, Oh my gosh, you parents, you have got to get your shit together.
So, I started Teen World Confidential. I started the website. I blogged continually. I wrote a book. From there, I’ve done a couple of keynotes. And while I was doing this, because parents need so much help, I started National Sex Education Day. It’s just a day where, on February 2, we encourage parents to just for 10 minutes open up a dialogue with their kids. It can be about anything — consent, respect, whatever — depending on your kid’s age.
Eventually, it occurred to me that there are not a lot of organizations out there focused on the adults. Though, as the years have gone on, there have been more and more organizations that have popped up and they are doing a rocking good job. I mean, they are just amazing. So, I thought, well, that’s good, but we’re all still working in silos. We’re all kind of doing the same thing with a different slant, and we’re kind of reinventing the wheel sometimes. And as a member of a lot of other professional organizations, nursing, teaching, whatever… we don’t have one for people who are specifically sex educators for families and kids.
So I reached out to a couple of other rock stars in our field: Melissa Pintor Carnagey of Sex Positive Families and Amy Lang of Birds & Bees & Kids. And I’m good friends with Kristin Fairholm over at EyesOpenIowa. So, I’ve been able to curate a lot of ideas and so here we are: the Sex Education Alliance. The intention is to be a professional organization that is a community of like-minded comprehensive sex educators, pro-choice, open-minded, who come together and share ideas. And then, eventually, I’d really like to grow it so we can start lobbying and changing laws and getting comprehensive sex ed in the schools.
You’ve had your hand in so many areas now. So, when it comes to teaching adolescents versus teaching parents, which one has been more challenging and why?
Parents. You know why? Because kids, they want to know. They want to learn. They’re so excited. They ask smart questions. There’s some giggling but not as much as you would think.
But getting parents to show up for seminars is difficult. They’ll buy books, they’ll go to the website, they’ll ask me questions privately, which I find interesting. But I think the problem that we’re having is the openness… the awkwardness. We were brought up so that you don’t talk about it.
I think it’s really hard for parents to take that first step. Some parents are awesome. They just rock it. And then others are… it’s that awkwardness, that shame factor. And so we always tell parents to look back at their own history and ask themselves what might be triggering them. What might be something that is uncomfortable for them to talk about? And own it. It’s okay. You don’t have to be the one to talk to your child about that piece. You can have your partner or a friend or somebody else talk about it. Get a book. It’s okay.
I think religion plays a big piece in this. It adds to the shame factor, which I think is really too bad. Because we’re eliminating that piece of love and respect and consent. Instead of saying, “You can’t have sex before marriage,” the conversation needs to be, “Hey, when you’re ready, this needs to be a relationship of love, consent, and respect.” Or whatever your value system happens to be.
Going back to the kids, when you’re limited by an abstinence-only curriculum, how do you negotiate that? How do you give students the information they’re asking for, information that is accurate, when there are all these constraints around what you can teach?
What’s really sad is that there are a lot of health teachers who have not been trained specifically for sex ed. And many health teachers are perfectly fine not talking comprehensive sex ed. They’re not interested. They don’t want to know, they don’t want to talk, they don’t want to be inclusive when it comes to LGBTQ individuals. So, a lot of teachers are very comfortable not teaching any of that.
But for someone like me, my feeling is that, in high school, they’re old enough. When I was still in the classroom, I tried to keep it within limits. I talked about abortion just generally. We didn’t get into it. And I never got into values at all. That was for the family to deal with. I just made sure they had the biology and the science behind it. And that’s kind of how you get around it because the facts are the facts.
Why does this work feel so essential to you?
I’m not a certified sex educator. I’m a health educator. But I chose sex as my thing because, well, that’s the foundation of everything. Your relationships… how you feel about yourself. To me, it all comes back down to your sexuality.
And if we can’t get kids to have a healthy view of their sexuality, their whole being, what are we doing to our children?