7 Sex Educators Who Are Totally Rocking It

Sex education isn’t something people generally think of as a fun activity. More often than not, it’s depicted as awkward, boring, and uninformative (at best). In fact, when we polled our readers about sex ed, nearly a third of them reported that theirs was “terrible,” and 75% said that they didn’t feel well prepared to have sex after going through sex ed. But it doesn’t always have to be such a cringe-worthy experience. There are some sex educators out there who are figuring out ways to make sex ed not only interesting, but also inclusive, sex-positive, and effective.

To prove it, we reached out to seven incredible sex educators across the country who are moving beyond the age-old condom-on-a-banana demonstration and shaking up the way we teach sexuality in America. From using pizza to teach pleasure and consent to taking sex ed to the back of limousines to addressing kink head-on, each of these educators has something important to share about how we can be more inclusive, relatable, and fun in our execution of sex education. Pay attention: These are examples of sex ed done right.

Click through to see what these educators from around the country want you to know about sex ed and the super cool ways they’re going about it.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we're learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we're helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it's done to how to make sure it's consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.

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Illustrated by Aimee Sy. Photo: Courtesy of Al Vernacchio.
Al Vernacchio
Sex educator, author, and speaker in Wynnewood, PA
Claim to fame: creating the “pizza model” of consensual, pleasurable sex

In one of your well-known TED talks, you describe the ways in which, as a society, we somehow end up talking about baseball when we talk about sex. What are some of these baseball-related metaphors, and how are they harmful?

“In the baseball model, first base is usually kissing, second base is often thought of as feeling somebody up, third base in some cases is oral sex, and then a home run is vaginal intercourse or anal intercourse. This sets out a very controlled and scripted way to think about sex. It’s competitive, because you’ve got two opposing teams — somebody’s offense and somebody’s defense. It’s very regimented, in terms of you have to do things in a certain order, and it’s very focused on winning and losing. And while there might be an implied idea of fair play, we know from baseball that ‘win at all costs’ becomes much more of a dominant message than ‘play fair.’

“And that model is sexist, because it assumes that the woman in a heterosexual encounter is the field upon which the game is played, and the guy is the player. It’s heterosexist, in that it defines sex in a very heteronormative way, and gay and lesbian folks and queer folks can’t easily fit the model. It’s goal-directed, in that it says it’s only ‘real’ sex if you get all the way around the baseball diamond and if you score a run.

“Interestingly, ‘scoring a run’ seems to be more important for the boy than for the girl in a heterosexual baseball context. The fact that vaginal intercourse is a ‘homerun,’ and we know that a huge percentage of women don’t have orgasms from vaginal intercourse shows, again, the sexism and the way it’s tilted towards a male-dominated system. For all of those reasons, it’s really problematic.”

The alternative metaphor you suggest is pizza. How does that that set us up for healthier, safer sex?

“Rather than in baseball, where you get told when there’s a game on the schedule, with pizza it really starts with an internal sense of am I hungry? and what would feed my hunger at this point? Right away, there’s agency and choice. We can say, I am hungry, and I’m going to pursue that hunger. Or we could say, I’m hungry, but it’s not a great time for me to eat. Or, I’m hungry, but I’m going to have something other than this right now.

“There’s no right or wrong way to do pizza. There are just a lot of preferences. I may like pineapples and you may like anchovies, and they’re not right or wrong, they’re just different. So there’s a lot of individuality. Also, with pizza, if you’re gonna have pizza with somebody else, one of the first things you do is talk about it; you may even negotiate. That’s really healthy, and that’s really absent in the baseball model. In baseball, you don’t need to talk about it. Everybody knows what you’re doing. You just show up and take your position and play the game, right?

“Then, the outcome of pizza is not a competition. At some point you feel satisfied and you’ve had enough. You can decide you’ve had enough, you want more, and over-indulging tends to make you feel not so great.

“It’s a model that is much more inclusive, much more based on individual agency, decision, and choice, and that is not competitive and it’s about shared satisfaction and pleasure. If our sexual encounters were more like that, we would be a healthier, happier society.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
Why is language important in teaching healthy sexual behavior?

“Sex is all about communication, and healthy sexuality is all about communication. So, if we don’t have the language, and if we don’t have a fluency with being able to talk about our bodies and our relationships and our actions, then it’s very hard to achieve healthy sexuality. I think we’ve all had experiences where we’ve felt unable or unwilling or unsafe to say the things we really wanted to say, or ask the questions we wanted to ask. So, part of my goal is to create the opportunity for conversation and to help people learn how to create that opportunity in other situations in their lives.

“In my class, I talk about learning to be ‘multi-lingual’ when it comes to sexuality, because there are different ‘languages’: We talk to our sweethearts differently than we talk to our doctors. We talk to our parents maybe differently than we talk to our children. Being fluent in many ways, in many languages of sexuality, is what I think is the key.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy. Photo: Courtesy of Taryn Crosby.
Taryn Crosby
Sex educator and social worker in Brooklyn, NY
Claim to fame: bringing her pleasure-focused sex ed workshops to limos and bachelorette parties

What’s different about the way you teach sex ed?

“I like to be really conversational. I’ve become more comfortable with the ‘expert’ label, but I feel like I’ve had the time to read and study and have experienced more, and so that’s why I have more knowledge. But people own their experiences and know what feels good to them. Sure, I have more information and knowledge about topics specifically, but I need to know information from you to see what’s gonna work.

“I’ve been at bachelorette parties; I’ve been in the back of limos. I did one recently at a nude play-party that a group of friends is trying to start. People have ideas about what it’s going to be like — that it’s going to be more of an entertainment or demonstration kind of thing — but it’s really a conversation.”

What’s the most difficult question you’ve been asked during a workshop?

“The trickiest is when women say they’ve never had an orgasm before. I can talk about tricks or methods or toys, but there are so many things that contribute to women having orgasms. A lot of it has to do with the way that we feel about ourselves, our knowledge of our bodies, our expectations around what an orgasm looks like — and that’s a lot to break down in one educational session.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
How can we be talking to young people about difficult or taboo subjects in a more comfortable, accessible way?

“One of the important things is that it’s not just one conversation. In movies, you sit down and have the birds-and-the-bees conversation, or you have the one conversation about condoms. But we know that it’s more effective if it’s an ongoing thing.

“Another is to be consistent with our messages. We’re sending messages, even if they’re not verbal, with the way that we restrict gender behaviors and the expectations we have around gender. All of those things affect our sexual behaviors and how we think of ourselves sexually.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy. Photo: Courtesy of Melanie Davis.
Melanie Davis
Sexuality educator, trainer, and consultant in Bedminster, NJ
Claim to fame: breaking down stigmas about older adults and sexuality

Why is there such a stigma and lack of awareness around older adults’ sexuality?

“It starts with a bigger picture than sexuality. As a culture, we tend to marginalize older adults — they’re not hip, they’re not cool, so somehow there’s this assumption that they’re not interested in the world around them, and that they’re not interested in sex anymore. These assumptions are harmful. Older adults are sexually active, they are sexually interested. Yes, desire changes, but that doesn’t mean that their interest in having relationships and intimacy necessarily disappears.

“Research has shown that older adults report more satisfaction with their sexuality than younger adults. In part, they’ve just gotten beyond the point of being embarrassed by every physical flaw, so they’re more comfortable with themselves; they’re more comfortable with their bodies; they know what works and what turns them on.”

What are some of the major sexual health issues that concern older adults?

“Physically, sexual pain can be a significant problem; often, that’s related to muscles losing tone, or to surgeries and cancers that affect the body. Hormonal changes can create discomfort. Also, as tissues age, they become more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections because they’re more delicate.

“Emotionally, there are issues of partner loss — through separation, divorce, death, cognitive changes, or significant health changes. Couples are navigating new ways of being sexual, or sometimes grieving the loss of the sexuality they once enjoyed.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
How does the curriculum you’re developing for the Our Whole Lives series aim to address these issues?

“To my knowledge, there is only one existing curriculum for older adults. Ours is a 12-workshop program with three optional workshops, so people can assess their group and see what their interests are.

“There’s anatomy and physiology, to talk about changes and body acceptance, a workshop on sexual script, because when you age, those same scripts don’t necessarily work anymore. We have workshops that talk about family issues, issues of long-term care — when you go into long-term care, who’s going to make the decisions for you about how and when you can be sexual?

“[The curriculum also includes] sexual health and safety, from the angle of older adults. We are also talking about gender identity and sexual orientation — a lot of people assume that it’s fixed by the time you’re 60, but people do still explore orientation and gender at an older age.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy. Photo: Courtesy of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.
Maria Barker
Multicultural Programs Manager at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, WI
Claim to fame: developing Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin’s Cuidándonos Creceremos más Sanos/Promotores de Salud program, a Spanish language, in-home curriculum that uses conversations with trained neighborhood “health promoters” about sexual and reproductive health

What is the Promotores de Salud program?

“Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin developed a program called ‘Promoters,’ geared towards Spanish-speaking families. The curriculum is called Cuidándonos Creceremos más Sanos (CCmaS), which we translated into English as ‘Growing Healthier Together’ — it’s not a literal translation, but it gets the gist of what we want to do.

“For the in-home health parties, families get groups of about seven to 10 people in their homes, and then our health promoters, who are community people whom we’ve trained to facilitate our curriculum, go to that individual’s home. We facilitate our curriculum starting with sexuality education, then going into how to use [community] resources to talking to them about being civically engaged. So, not only do you have healthy families, but you have healthy communities.

“To date, we have trained 109 promoters... They all continue to stay active with us in different ways. They come through our training, and we do not mandate that they do anything at all... We provide the training for free — and some come in and say, 'You know, I think I’ll be great at facilitating this to other groups"... Others come in and say, 'I don’t know, I thought I’d be able to do it, but I don’t think I’ll be able to recruit hosts, so I think I just want to keep this information for my family and use it for my family.'

“Other health promoters stay active with us by helping us with big events, or will table at health fairs. We’ve even had some health promoters move back to their country of origin and then continue facilitating the curriculum in their country of origin. We have people that have taken it to Mexico, who have taken it to Peru, who have taken it to Colombia.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
Have you faced any challenges in doing this type of outreach and programming?

“My biggest challenge has been recognizing limits with community-based organizations. We’ve had instances where we have to recognize that a large portion of our audience is undocumented, and therefore might not have insurance. Hospitals may not always want to open their doors to us to go for a tour, because they might fear that all of a sudden they’ll have an increase in undocumented, uninsured people using their service.

“Also, we recognize that transportation is a huge problem in our communities, because our community of people are not always able to get driver’s licenses or have access to insurance for their car.

“Childcare is also a huge issue in our communities in Milwaukee. There are some communities that allow for more childcare than others. These are some of those barriers, and working with the leaders of those institutions [which create the barriers] has not always proven so easy.”

What can we do to bring these much-needed services and education to other communities like the ones that you serve?

“The health-promoter model is a great, great model. But there has to be an organization that will put the right resources to the task. When we are expecting health promoters, who are community people who are generally poor themselves — they’re the working poor or the stay-at-home poor — to come in as volunteers, that is just not correct. If we’re going to value health promoters, we’re going to have to put our money where our mouth is.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy. Photo: Courtesy of Cory Silverberg.
Cory Silverberg
Sexuality educator, author, and speaker in Houston, TX
Claim to fame: writing What Makes A Baby, a radically inclusive children’s book about sex and gender

How did you decide to write a children’s book about sex and gender?

“I was doing a lot of talks with parents, particularly talks with parents of gender-nonconforming and trans youth. We would sit in a room and share ideas and resources, and that was helpful, but everyone wanted a physical thing they could take home and sit with their kid and have in between them. It’s so hard to have these conversations, so we need actual help. Short of having a professional come into your house and talk to you both about it, having a book makes the parents feel better.”

What kind of conversations do you hope the book inspires?

“The overall goal is that there’s a space that’s created where the kid feels safe enough to ask certain questions, and the grown-up feels safe enough to respond.

“Even at a very young age, there’s such a strong sense of these are conversations we’re not supposed to have. We want kids to learn about everything — we want them to learn vocabulary, we want them to learn motor skills, we want them to learn to go to the potty. And when they do those things, we are so happy for them and we celebrate. But then, for some reason, when they explore other things, we don’t want them to learn. We don’t want them to put their hands down their pants, or we don’t want them to ask that question.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
What can we be doing to make sex education more accessible and more inclusive?

“First of all, we need to think about who’s doing it. I’m white, so one of the things I’ve spent a lot of time doing is figuring out how to support the work of my colleagues who aren’t white — Black, Brown, Indigenous people who are doing sex education. And of course, what most of that means is me not working. A big part of my work is actually finding the right people to do the work, and then me saying ‘no’ to jobs. Part of [being more accessible and more inclusive] is recognizing that white people dominate the field, and that has nothing to do with ability or value — it has everything to do with systemic racism.

“I’ve found that approaching [sexuality education] through community, through culture, and through relationships is much more inclusive and much more accessible than starting off with what people think of as ‘the facts of life’ or ‘the birds and the bees.’”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy. Photo: Courtesy of Aida Manduley.
Aida Manduley
Sex educator and activist in Boston, MA
Claim to fame: addressing the intersection of violence and restorative justice with BDSM and kink

How are violence, restorative justice, and BDSM related, and why are their intersections important to the way we understand sexuality and justice?

“People who are not in the BDSM or kink scenes often think that all BDSM and kink are violence and abuse, and people within the BDSM and kink scene are often so defensive and sometimes scared about having to defend their identities and their interests that they hide or don’t talk about the very real abuses that do occur.

“As a culture and as a society, we don’t always have the best tools to address violence. We often don’t have the language to talk about it in a coherent, compassionate, and responsible way. So, for me, all the different communities need to be talking to each other so we can actually transform our society and prevent violence from happening, as well as empowering people to have healthy, happy sex lives that fulfill them.

“Overlaid on all of that are the ideas of restorative and transformative justice, which primarily come out of communities of color and radical communities. Trying to engage people in a dialogue with all those pieces allows for a better understanding of the nuances of anti-violence and violence prevention that doesn’t just fall back on ‘all kink is abuse,’ or ‘all kink is good.’”

In your opinion, what are the major flaws in the way we teach sexuality education?

“We universalize a lot. A lot about sex is not actually universal, and so when LGBT students or students of color or poor students get education that doesn’t reflect them, a.) they can feel a lot of shame and discomfort and a lot of fear, and b.) sometimes they won’t end up listening to the things that they’re being told because they feel like they don’t apply.

“Right from the get-go, because there are narratives of who is sexual and what sexual beings are supposed to look like that don’t fit everyone, and don’t even make space for everyone, that leaves a lot of folks behind — leaves them under-resourced, undereducated, and marginalized. At the very core of sex education, we need to make more room for variety, even just acknowledging it.

“Underlying that is the idea that sex ed should be completely values-neutral. I think that values-neutrality is a myth that is really harmful. I believe that sex education should be intersectional and social-justice-oriented if we are to actually live in a country that values all of its citizens.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
You also do work around incorporating digital tools in sex education. How can we use the technology to improve the accessibility of sex ed?

“Technology is here to stay. We need to be able to engage with it, and we need to be able to teach not just our youth, but everyone, to take advantage of what opportunities technology brings.

“One of the things that I love about technology and its impact on sex education is the possibility to connect communities that otherwise would not have found connection because of things like class or geographical distance. For communities that are sexual or gender minorities, there are opportunities to meet and find like-minded people and build dialogue and build community within that.

“Also, especially around sexuality, for some people, the ability to have a degree of anonymity can be helpful, and having education that doesn’t always rely on another human being can be helpful. If we think about it in terms of access — not just financially or through geography or something like that, but also in terms of mental health and in terms of learning disabilities or learning styles — having different ways of getting information and different ways of spreading information, especially around how privately you want to do that or not, is fascinating and really important for the future of sex ed.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy. Photo: Courtesy of Sonalee Rashatwar.
Sonalee Rashatwar
Sex educator, social worker, and activist in Philadelphia, PA
Claim to fame: working as a self-proclaimed fat-positive and anti-oppression sex educator and counselor, and focusing on bringing sex ed to South Asian parents and young adults

How have your identities and experiences influenced the way you approach sexuality education?

“In my work, I see the places where I felt excluded, and I see the places where I want others to feel included. Part of growing up in mostly white communities is not having a lot of South Asian representation in my media. I’ll probably be going into private practice as soon as possible, because I’ve been getting requests from folks — and it’s generally South Asian folks — saying they need a therapist. They come to me with horror stories from white therapists about microaggressions, and a lack of cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity. There’s such a demand for what I offer as a niche service. As a South Asian, as a queer femme, as someone who has experience with trauma — and which woman of color do you know that hasn’t experienced trauma in some way? — the expertise I offer is unique.”
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Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
What does it mean for sex education to be fat-positive and anti-oppression?

“It goes so deep. It’s beyond just ‘multiculturalism,’ in which, for example, you’re looking at, Okay, we want to have a conference and someone of every one of these identities is going to attend the conference. Instead it’s asking, How are we paying our presenters? Do we need their social security number in order to pay our presenters? Who is being marginalized from that process? It’s folks that don’t have social security numbers, the undocumented. It’s understanding the layers of systems and how deep they go.

“It’s radical empathy, because our own experiences affect the way that we generalize everybody else’s experiences. We often say, I went through it, then you must have, too, but that’s not even possible.

“Being fat-positive is also deep, in that it’s not just this surface level, Awesome! Let’s have more plus-size models and let’s have better access to finding clothing sizes up to size 40! Those are necessary things — we do need representation and we do need clothes that fit us — but it’s more than that. Being fat-positive isn’t just, Don’t oppress me because of my body size, it’s also understanding what it means when someone says, Oh, I’m trying to stay away from junk food — it’s understanding subtle microaggressions that inform a larger perspective of oppressiveness.”
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