It feels like forever ago (though it can’t have been that long) but, once upon a time, I volunteer blogged for the Center for Sex Education and, as thanks, they allowed me to come to the National Sex Ed Conference in Atlantic City. This conference was a revelation for me.
While there, I crossed paths with Tanya M. Bass, but I was so new to that space that I think I spent most of my time at the conference just hiding in corners and gawking and feeling just a little bit out of place because I didn’t consider myself a sex educator, or someone who was working in sex education. I was just a journalist.
Fast forward to 2021 and I attended a virtual networking and skillshare event run by Tanya and Bill Taverner through their Sex Ed Lecture Series. Watching Tanya in action, skillfully moderating a virtual event with around 75 attendees, blew me away. I was like, Where has this woman been all my life?
I’m so grateful she agreed to chat with me for our Sex Educator Spotlight. Read on for the lowdown on her path through the world of sex ed.
Why don’t you talk to me about your journey to becoming a sexuality educator?
So, my Bachelor’s is in public health education. In my first health ed class, my colleague and friend was a disease intervention specialist. He called himself the STD Police. And I was like, Fascinating. I want to do that. Like, you get to talk to people about sex and disease. I was intrigued and I dove right into public health. And I had aspirations that this was going to be my job, not really knowing what that job was.
I landed at the American Social Health Association (now the American Sexual Health Association) because it’s right here in Durham, North Carolina. The Centers for Disease Control paid ASHA to manage an STD hotline and an HIV / AIDS hotline and I was on the STD hotline. And that kind of pushed me into this work.
A lot of my work centered around prevention, but I wanted to do more policy, ’cause there were a lot of health disparities. I went from the state health department to the local health department and I was working on my first Master’s and I met an individual at Duke University and we had a North Carolina age training center and I love training and doing that kind of work. So I got that job part-time and I was able to grab another 50% from somewhere else within pastoral services.
And so I was doing prevention and education training, but pastoral services was about care and support. And so there were groups of people, individuals living with HIV and AIDS, who wanted to be peer support for other people. And so I ended up writing that curriculum and, in doing so, talking about disclosure and understanding that we’re sexual beings. That’s when the light bulb came on. And I was like, first of all, I haven’t been doing the greatest job on prevention because I wasn’t looking at the wholeness of sexual behavior. This gave me the opportunity to dive deeper into sensuality, understanding intimacy, understanding ourselves beyond just penetrative acts. The rest is kind of history.
When did you first started running your conference, the North Carolina Sexual Health Conference?
I like a challenge. I like new things. And I’ve always been on a lot of soft funding and I’m kind of like, If the money’s going to run out, I think I might need to change jobs or I want to grow and do something more. I went to the National Sex Ed Conference for the first time in 2010 or 2011. I’d gone to a lot of the big national conferences, but that was my first sexual health or sexuality education conference. And I was thinking, Where’s the HIV prevention folks? Why aren’t they at this conference? And where are the adolescent pregnancy folks?
So I started my conference in 2016 and, I promise you, it sounds weird. I have never been pregnant. I have never given birth. I don’t know. And I know some people might think I shouldn’t even say this, but I literally felt like I became impregnated with the vision to do this in North Carolina.
Then I went to James Wadley’s conference. He works with the Association of Black Sexologists and Clinicians. It was one of the best conferences I ever went to. The first time I went, James had 150 people. And I was like, Shoot, if I can get 75, I’m kicking it. Right? We ended up with 170 and I was like, Yes! And then, at the end of that conference, they were like, Next year! And I was like, Right on! And then I got an outer body experience, like, Did you just say, I’ll see you’ll next year?
So what is it that you’re working on now that you’re maybe most proud of or most excited about?
I hate to say it, but my dissertation. I’m doing an assessment of North Carolina community-based educators to assess their comfort and capability with teaching certain topics in sex ed. I am finding out — because I love a good professional development opportunity — that individuals who have had any type of professional development in their life around sex ed are more calm, comfortable, and capable. And the higher rates are among people who had it within the last two years.
What is it that feels so essential about this work?
I was trying to figure out, even in 2021, Who am I? Who do I want to be? And who do I want to serve? I really do like working and training and supporting my peers in professional development. And I think that’s essential because I only knew what I knew, and the more I learned from other disciplines, the more I grew, and I feel like it made me a better educator. It’s essential for me in this space and in this moment to be a resource for other sexuality educators who might not have gone to Widener, for example.
Who have been some of your sex ed superheroes over the years and who are some of your superheroes now?
So I’ve always, always, always loved Dr. Joycelyn Elders. I just learned more about Dr. June Butts and I definitely appreciate her and her work. And I really do like Dr. Satcher, too. So, like, because I’m in public health, I was drawn to both Dr. Elders and Dr. Satcher. And I was like, Who can be more bomb than Dr. Satcher?
Now, like, current day, I’ve met so many people, I fan out. I love James Wadley. Shamyra Howard. Melissa [Pintor Carnagey] at Sex Positive Families. Afrosexology. Of course Bill [Taverner]. Konnie McCaffree.
Gail Wyatt. A lot of people don’t know her. She’s a medical doctor. But I remember one year, for National Black Women and Girls, HIV / AIDS Awareness Day, she came to Durham and it was, like, I was in church. I was on fire.
I think that was another moment of revelation of what I wanted to do.