Deep in the depths of time, when I was but a lowly intern at Nerve (R.I.P.), I came to know Twanna A. Hines. And by “know,” I mean that I read the hell out of her work, as she had just started to write for Nerve’s Blog-a-Log column.
In the years since, we’ve circled around each other, both of us writing for now-defunct publications like New York Press and The Frisky, each of us aware of the other but neither of us ever having the wherewithal to connect IRL.
And Twanna is still doing the work. As an educator. As an advocate. As a writer. So I finally got my shit together and reached out to her. And the resulting conversation was even more delightful than I dared to dream.
Could you tell me about your journey into the sex education space?
Both of my parents are educators, and so I grew up with this understanding that education matters. [Also], I grew up evangelical Christian. And so I was of the belief that I wouldn’t have sex for the first time until I got married. I was saving myself, as we say.
And so I didn’t have sex for the first time until I was in my 20s, and it struck me how little I knew about my own sexual health. When was I likely to get pregnant if I had sex? Was it during my period? Before? After? Like, how does that actually work? And we talk about hormones, but what are they actually? It just struck me that I knew so little about my own body.
And so that was really the beginning of it. I started researching on it, publishing on it, writing about it, and that was really the entry into it.
I’ve now worked as a paid full-time sex educator for almost 15 years. I worked at Planned Parenthood, heading up all of their teen pregnancy prevention initiatives for one of their affiliates there, which won their national award for Special Efforts Serving Teens. I published about sex for the Guardian… for NBC news… for Newsweek… for Al-Jazeera… Just a bunch of different places. And so I’ve been doing this for a while and, to my knowledge, I am America’s first Black syndicated sex columnist.
What are you working on now that either you’re most excited about or that you’re most proud of?
I am most excited about the book. I’ve been working on a book for ages and I am moving that project forward. So I’m excited about that.
I’m most proud that I’ve been able to do this. I grew up in a small town in rural Illinois and being a writer or a creative person wasn’t even isn’t something I thought was possible… and that you could be paid to write articles about sex no less. And I just feel so grateful when I think about the fact that I get paid to teach other people how to keep children safe, how to keep themselves safe, how to have healthier, sexier, hotter relationships in a way that’s affirming.
What is it about this work that feels so essential to you?
I’m pretty public about the fact that I’m an adult survivor of child abuse. So, I have a very, very hardwired and empathetic desire to make sure that people know how to have healthy relationships, especially with little kids. Because when you’re an adult, you can choose who you do and don’t want in your life… where you will live and where you won’t… who you will live with and who you won’t… When you’re an adult, you get to make all those kinds of choices. When you’re a child, you can’t.
And so I want to make sure — for parents and guardians in particular, who are interested in being healthy with the kids in their lives, who are interested in doing a fantastic job at helping children transition from adolescence to adulthood — I want to make sure they have the tools to make that even easier.
What’s the number one question you get from parents, or maybe the number one fear you observe in parents who are grappling with how to have these conversations with their kids?
You know, every question I’ve ever been asked can be boiled down to: Is there something wrong with me? And I think that carries over for the parents too. It’s this idea that if they’re interested in talking to their children about sex, they’re going to do it the wrong way. But there’s no one right way to do anything, right? I think parents get really freaked out that there’s a script… there’s a manual… there’s one right way to do it. And they want to make sure they don’t veer off of it. You know?
What do you think is the most difficult thing about doing this work?
The thing that comes to mind is making a living off of it. Right? I think sex is one of those areas where it’s hard to make a living off of it as an intellectual pursuit. If you tell someone, ‘I think I want to be food writer,’ we can think of what those career trajectories might be. There’s a sense of knowledge of what that looks like and what those on-ramps to that career might be. But if you rewind that and make that conversation about sex instead, then it’s like, what does that mean? How did you get your expertise?
Nobody assumes you must eat a lot of food if you want to write about food. But if you say you want to specialize in sex, the mind goes to all kinds of wonderful places.
And so I always ask [people interested in that career trajectory], ‘Why do you want to be a sex educator?’ Because that could mean you’re actually interested in becoming an OB/GYN. That could mean you’re actually interested in becoming a social worker who works in communities that are hardest hit by inequalities, including sexual and reproductive access to education, or who have experienced the negative impacts of intimate partner violence, domestic violence, sexual violence… Things like that. So, I mean, there are a million different ways in which you can go in.
Also, making sure there’s some quality assurance. And this goes back to the idea of education. Just because you tell someone something doesn’t mean you are educating them. So if we have abstinence-only programs, that doesn’t mean that we’re actually educating people.
I give the example of nutrition. If you were to tell someone, ‘I’m teaching a nutrition class,’ and you’re like, ‘Okay, why that topic? What in particular?’ and you’re like, ‘I’m just going to have the whole class be about, like, Twinkies are bad,’ you haven’t really educated people on nutrition. And so I think we need to have that same bar of expectations when it comes to educating people about sex.
You came onto the scene before every single publication had a sex columnist. And now it’s everywhere. But who were your sex ed superheroes then? And who would you consider your superheroes now?
I still have so much respect for Sam Apple and Rufus Griscom, two people who gave me my first paid writing gigs that opened the world for me. They’re both white men. But they represent, just, making sure you give new people, new voices, a chance.
And also people who believe in community. One of my BFFs, Rachel Kramer Bussel, is a writer and has been writing forever. She was at Penthouse. She was a senior editor there. She’s been in this space forever. She’s published, I’m sure, more than a hundred different anthologies. She is amazing as a writer, as a human being. She is just a compassionate friend. And we have regular calls where we also just talk about our businesses.
Abiola Abrams was another one of those early people. She was one of the first people early in my career to make me think that the writing of the piece is just one part of many parts. Like, the research of it, the interviews, the transcribing, the promoting once it’s published. She was just really good at the craft of being a writer.
[and then Twanna proceeds to turn the tables on me]
What strikes you about how the space has changed? When you think about the last, like, 15, 20 years of sex writing, what are some of the things that stick out for you?
What’s interesting to me is that, even though we’ve been doing this for what feels like forever, I still feel like I came to sex positivity and healthy sexuality and feminism so late. I mean, I was in my early twenties. But I look at teens now and I see the type of work they’re doing with sex ed advocacy and I’m just amazed. I’m just amazed by how aware they are and how active they are and how creative and innovative they are. And that’s so cool to me.
Yes. I love the Gen Z folks. And you’re right. When it comes to sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, all of these things, there’s so much more space and understanding and just a better world for them. We’re all having a better understanding of all of these things just because of the shit that Gen Z won’t put up with.
And that’s another thing about the superheroes, right? The Gen Zs of the world are out there doing the work to actually stay in the fight and make sure that it’s not just about the education. It’s also about the policies we need and all of these things. And I like how active they are. I was nowhere near this self-aware, self-secure, confident. [I didn’t have this] sense of self.
They blow me away. They blow me away. I was never… I don’t remember being anything like that.
So as much as I love the old guard who’s been here and is still doing the work and plugging away, I do love the new faces.