When I first started surfing the web for resources to include on Guerrilla Sex Ed, Sex Positive Families was one of the most visible ones out there. And several months later, when I became a founding member of the Sex Education Alliance (SEA), I had the opportunity to meet the brilliant educator behind it. Since then, Melissa (she/they) has helped me out as an expert source on menstruation. I’ve also mentioned her book — Sex Positive Talks to Have with Kids — in multiple Book Riot posts. Melissa is just one of those people you naturally turn to when you need a warm, open, and capable sexuality educator to give you the lowdown.
I’m so thrilled Melissa made time for me so I could feature her here.
Tell me about your journey to becoming a sexuality educator.
I am a licensed social worker and that is, professionally, the gateway that got me working in the field of sexual health. While studying in my social work program in one of my courses, a population was drawn out of a hat and the population I got was HIV/AIDS, and so we had to research what the different services were related to this population and the different challenges, research, all that stuff…
Once I got into this project, I learned how disproportionately impacted the Black community is when it comes to HIV and the inequity and how ridiculous that is. And that really was a connecting point for me. I had to interview someone in the field, so I went to a local AIDS service organization here in Austin, Texas, which at the time was called AIDS Services of Austin, and I interviewed a director there. And at one point in the interview, that person said to me, which was problematic, but they said to me, “You know, we need people like you.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And what she was saying was that they need Black folks working in the field. And at the time, I was less aware of so many things that I’m much more aware of now. But at the time, I was just like, “Wow, I could be potentially of positive service in this.”
As soon as the internship came around, I wanted to work in an AIDS services organization. That was in 2007 that I did my internship and that turned into employment. And with that, I was able to ultimately work for AIDS Services of Austin.
I absolutely loved working in that realm and that field. You learn so much about the stigmas and the marginalization and everything as it relates to folks living with HIV. I did that work at the nonprofit level and then I transitioned into state government in the state of Texas and I thought I was going to go and do macro-level social work in this field and really take this on-the-ground experience I’d had and transition it to some really good macro work. [But] I was meant for something different and bigger. My creativity didn’t have a life in those cubicle walls.
It was like being a box. I couldn’t be in the box so, in 2017, I took a brave leap. I left that environment. Within two weeks, I was at a happy hour with a colleague and I said that I’d really love to help parents be able to talk about sex. And that was influenced by the fact that, as a parent, I’ve been able to create more open conversations than I experienced growing up. And I know that is a challenge for many parents. And I said, “I wonder if there’s a job for that.” The next day, I started researching. I found that there were lots of people doing this work. Many more than we’ll ever know. So, I was like, “Oh my gosh. This could be a job.” And that’s what started Sex Positive Families [in June 2017].
[And] it’s cute and fun to try and build a business, but I needed to start making money. And so I was also doing delivery work, comparable to Uber Eats. We have a thing called Favor here in Texas. I could have just taken any other old non-profit or government job, but I knew that would just put me right back into that limiting place and it would take away this burst of creativity that I was feeling.
Still, at one point, I went onto Indeed and I typed in “sex educator” and a job popped up that was here in Austin with an organization called Engender Health. They’re out of DC. They do global reproductive health and stuff, and they had an office here in Austin that was teaching a sex ed program to local middle and high school-aged students. Their program was unique. Their curriculum was unique in that it was a co-facilitation model where it had an adult health educator and a peer educator who’s experienced young parenthood. So, I applied for the health educator position and I was really excited about it because I was a young parent. I was pregnant when I was 17. And so it was just like, Oh my gosh. Please pick me.
So, I ended up working in sex ed for another organization and I took that kind of job because I felt that it would be helpful for me to teach sex ed in a classroom with young people and get that particular experience. I was so honored to have been able to do that while building Sex Positive Families. I was able to write and implement curricula. I taught hundreds of middle and high school students. I co-facilitated, I trained, I helped develop trainings for facilitators and educators and then I delivered training for youth- and family-serving professionals. So, a lot has happened these last four years and it’s just been amazing and I’m just so grateful to get to do it.
There’s a lot of bravery we exercise in doing this kind of work and in doing it independently, because I’m not waiting for some board or some boss or some entity to tell me what to do next or how to do it. I get to write my own rules. It just keeps reiterating and reinforcing for me that I have to be who I am. I have to be my authentic self.
What is it about this work that feels so essential to you?
Sexuality is with us our entire lives and so this, I believe, is more important than things like all the levels of math. Being able to understand and embrace who you are, in all of your fullness, in how you show up in the world. We deserve the opportunity to be able to navigate relationships with others in ways that feel good and safe to us. We do a huge disservice to young people by not focusing on these areas of learning and education and developing these things. I think that this work is some of the most important work. It very much aligns with helping people live full, satisfying lives. Safer lives.
What projects are you working on now that you’re particularly excited about? Anything new that you’re throwing into the mix?
We are creating the self-paced, online course version of our virtual puberty workshop, Growing Into You. It was an in-person puberty workshop I was doing before the pandemic and then as soon as the pandemic happened and people were at home, I figured out how to transition that into a virtual interactive experience for families. We have done almost 50 sessions since March 2020, and so that’s been thousands of young people and their caring adults, from all around the world. The only thing that’s limiting is the time zone differences. Because of those limits, I decided I had to build this into an online course so people could take it at their own pace.
As amazing as it is to be able to create your own business, what would you say is the toughest aspect of the work that you do?
Doing [this work] independently calls for a lot. But you just can’t help but do the work… create… show up in these spaces… even if you have the highest anxiety and you’re scared shitless. Because you can’t help it. It’s what you’re here to do.
So, I believe that, sometimes, the hard part of that is believing the calling… trusting that, yeah, you are the right person to do this work. Because we need so many different people doing this kind of work. Because no one person or organization or company is going to reach everyone and not everyone is going to resonate with that one person or that one organization.
The other hard part is just the levels of resistance, the levels of censorship, the stigma, the taboo, and all those things that can make it hard and not always friendly for our work — and us as agents of the work — to be received.
But there are a lot of people who want this kind of education and they are working hard to heal, to unlearn, to learn new things, and to try every day. So again, just feeling grateful and honored to be one of the many people out there that are helping to facilitate that kind of healing and growth and learning.
Who would you say are some of your own sex ed superheroes?
Ericka Hart, hands down, is at the top of the list. I absolutely value how they show up in the world and how they’re always challenging the norms and the narratives and the constructs and institutions and they’re always just learning.
Dr. Tracie Q. Gilbert is another educator, absolutely, and Goody Howard who just won the Ultimate Sex Educator award from Lover. And also the Intimacy Firm from Brittany Broaddus. Dr. Donna Oriowo. Dr. Jess of Sex with Dr. Jess. Oh my gosh, Heather Corrina.
There are just lots of people I think are incredible in this field and they inspire me constantly and they remind me constantly of why this work that we do is so critical, is so important, and that we need to all be doing it at the unique angles we bring. And the unique levels of passion, or the unique resources we have.