Joining the Sex Education Alliance has suddenly put me on a first-name basis with many of the sex educators I had previously only known through their websites or their Instagram feeds. Which is why I felt comfortable reaching out to this month’s spotlight: Julia Feldman of Giving the Talk.
I discovered Julia through her Instagram feed, which is a delightful mix of vibrant graphics, no-nonsense TikTok videos, and quick tips on everything from consent to communication skills to boundary-setting. In short: the Insta account I wish I could be. Many thanks to Julia for sharing with me the things that drive her to do the work she does.
Tell me about your journey to becoming a sexuality educator.
Oh, it was a circuitous route. A lot of my interest in health education stems from navigating chronic illness as a teenager and finding a complete lack of any resources for teaching young people how to talk about their bodies, or how to have a sense of ownership over our bodies, let alone care for ourselves. I felt like I really needed that information, and it just wasn’t out there. So that was my underlying motivation.
Ultimately, I found myself teaching. I come from a long line of teachers, so it’s kind of in my blood. And for me, teaching was how I felt I could have an impact on the world. I felt like I had a responsibility to engage in the world in a way that helped people.
My undergrad degree was in sociology and international development. And I had this idea that I was going to save the world. By the end of my degree, I learned that, actually, international development is highly exploitative and oppressive and colonial and, like, you don’t want to do that.
So I joined Teach for America. It got me in the classroom right away, which was really helpful for me because I couldn’t afford to enroll in an extensive teacher training program. So I started teaching high school English, which was not a logical assignment for me at all. And my first couple of years teaching high school, I had seven students get pregnant. And, you know, I’m trying to teach them about metaphors and similes and paragraph structure, and they are all getting pregnant, and they’re dropping out of school. And for me, there was just this huge disconnect between this educational system that was purporting to be providing life skills and essential foundational education and the fact that these young people really didn’t understand how their bodies worked, or how to establish healthy relationships.
For me, the pivotal moment was when I was teaching Fahrenheit 451. The main character’s wife overdoses on sleeping pills and we had this discussion that emerged in class where the captain of the football team asked, If she gets her stomach pumped and she’s pregnant, won’t it suck the baby out? And I was explaining that a fetus grows in a uterus, not a stomach, and all these girls — including ones who were pregnant — insisted that the baby grows in the tummy. And these were high school seniors. And it was fascinating to realize they had no idea what was going on with their bodies. And and it was having a dramatically negative impact on them.
And so, I tried to find ways to weave health themes into my class. On World AIDS Day, I taught poetry by people who were impacted by HIV. And I was put on professional suspension because I was teaching sex ed without a credential. So, I got a credential. I got my health sciences credential. And I tried to find anywhere I could teach. The district I was in had completely eliminated sex ed. And so, I went to another district. It was just a really long, involved path of trying to find places where what I wanted to teach was welcome. And, ultimately, couldn’t find it.
And so, I ended up working for Oakland Unified School District, under their grant funded by the CDC, their DASH grant, and I wrote an entirely new curriculum for the district. And that was a really exciting experience, to be able to do focus groups of teenagers and have them explain to me what they wanted to know. And then I had to find a way to meet in the center of, like, what the state required and what young people actually craved and needed. I tried to find a way to bridge the two.
Ultimately, I realized it was a game I probably wasn’t gonna win because, especially in the state of California, there are no trained sex ed teachers. We have a really great law [the Healthy Youth Act]. It’s really progressive. It includes a lot of great stuff. But there is no mandated training time for teachers who are supposed to provide it.
And so I kind of went rogue and formed my own business.
What is it you consider most essential about the work you do?
I think we’re social beings and relationships are just a huge component of how we live our lives and how we engage with the world. And there’s this really bizarre notion that these kinds of social body skills are things we should innately know. And I think that’s a horrible disservice. We deserve instruction about how to care for ourselves, and what healthy relationships look like, and how to develop skills to foster them.
In the absence of that, a lot of us have really crummy relationships, and really poor relationships with our bodies, and privately deal with a lot of health struggles that we’re never really comfortable admitting to. And I think that has a huge negative impact on people’s lives. So, I think the more we can empower people to understand what’s going on and ask for help and seek out information that’s going to help them live the life they want to live, the better off we’re all going to be.
Which aspect of your work is most exciting for you or do you feel most proud of?
Working with parents is a really rewarding part of my work. Because I think a lot of parents have had really crummy experiences, have gotten really shitty education, and are feeling really lost. They want to do something different, and they want to do something better. And they don’t know how to do that. They want to do better by their kids. But what does that even look like?
And I think that a lot of people already possess these skills. They just don’t realize they do. So, a lot of it is just empowering them to realize they already have the skills and knowledge they need. They just need to get comfortable talking about it. I love working with parents and helping them identify their own values and figure out how they want to communicate those to their kids and how they can develop an environment in their house where that’s normal and comfortable.
And then, with young people, my favorite part is just empowering them to ask questions. Getting them to realize their experiences are actually common. And that the weirdest thing is that we don’t talk about it. Because the more we can take it out of the darkness and shed light on it, the more we’re all going to be better equipped to care for ourselves and each other. So, for young people, it’s just kind of, like, What are your questions? Ask me your questions. I will actually answer them for you. And having your curiosity validated is just so empowering. Because then you can go forth and continue to find information and ask questions, but to have that experience where the validity of your curiosity is reflected back at you… I think that’s just a really powerful experience.
What is the hardest part of doing this work?
I think the hardest part is trying to figure out that balance where I can do all the different types of offerings that bring me joy: being able to write, being able to teach, being able to coach and write curricula and do all of that in a way that makes my life not feel completely insane. It’s a hard thing to balance. But I like variety. I think it’s fun. And I feel like I learn and I can provide more for the people I work with when I’m able to be involved in these different types of things. I’m a better teacher to young people when I know what their parents are thinking and vice versa, you know?
Who are some of your sex ed superheroes?
Melissa Pintor Carnagey of Sex Positive Families. She’s awesome. She’s doing great work. She’s a given.
In terms of organizations, I love AMAZE. I feel like they’ve really been able to find a way to make content accessible and not intimidating. I love that parents can see videos about masturbation for kids and realize there’s a way you can talk about it that isn’t weird or gross, and it’s totally healthy and age-appropriate.
Christopher Pepper with San Diego Unified is just a great leader and he’s really great at connecting with lots of different organizations and people working within the system.
I love Dr. Jen Gunter because I think she’s doing such a great job of making real scientific knowledge accessible.
Emily Nagoski. Come As You Are is a book I recommend constantly.