5 Things Being a Sex Educator Taught Me About My Own Sexuality

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I have been working as a sexual health educator for almost three years. I came into this work on accident. Upon graduating, I found myself unemployed, confused, and using up my savings from my last year of college. When my aunt told me the healthcare organization she worked for was hiring, I was desperate. Although my plan was to work in media or entertainment post-graduation, I just wanted a job. When I was hired to work in the organization’s community education and outreach department, I was incredibly happy.

Even though I was hired to educate others about sexuality and sexual health, my job has taught me so much about myself and my own perspectives about sex. More than I ever thought it would.

As a sex educator, I have worked primarily with Black and Latino youth in South Los Angeles, a region with high rates of unplanned pregnancy and STD transmission. Young African-American women between the ages of 12 to 24 are most affected by these issues. For example, they have the highest chlamydia rates of any population in all of Los Angeles County.

I connected to the young people I work with immediately… because I was one of them. At 19, I began a coercive sexual relationship with an older man. We were together for a year and a half. During that time, he sexually assaulted me twice, lied constantly, and used his age and experience to manipulate me. Even after I moved to New York to finish my undergraduate degree at NYU, he continued to have an impact on my life. During my first week in New York, I found out he had given me chlamydia. I was embarrassed, hurt, and scared.

When I told him he had infected me, he tried to deny it—despite him being the first and only man I have ever had sex with. The icing on the cake came a few months later, when I found out he was engaged to another woman and they were expecting their first child.

Even though it has been years since this relationship, I still find myself trying to move on from it. Working as a sexual health educator has given me some of the tools necessary to grow and learn from my experience. I now have insight and knowledge that can protect other young people from making the same mistakes.

These are some of the things I wish someone had told me:

  1. Having sex with your partner will not keep them around. Yes, I started having sex because I wanted to. No one made that decision for me. But I did have romanticized notions of what having sex would mean. I thought having sex with my ex-partner would make him feel closer to me. It did not. He continued to lie to me and he continued to manipulate and hurt me. I now encourage the young people to only have sex when they feel 100% ready, meaning they are able to trust and openly communicate with their partners, as well as having access to protection and reproductive health services. (None of which I had at the time.)
  2. Mutual pleasure is just as important in sexual relationships as mutual respect and safety. When I did start having sex, I failed to understand that my own pleasure was just as important as his. Because he was the man, I felt the need to please and satisfy him. When I could not, I felt bad about myself, my body, and who I was as a woman. The thought never occurred to me to care just as much about my own sense of pleasure… or the fact that he blatantly did not care about my pleasure. Sex education tends to avoid discussing pleasure with young people, especially girls and women. But conversations around what does and should feel good in our bodies matter as much as talking about communication, respect, and safety. How are young women supposed to know if their sexual relationship is healthy if we do not remind them that “healthy” should also feel enjoyable?
  3. Having sex can change things about ourselves we thought we knew for certain. I have always been “the smart girl”. I knew where to purchase condoms and where the closest Planned Parenthood clinics were to my house. I had informational resources for days: books, pamphlets, and websites. I never doubted that I would be prepared when the time came for me get down with someone. But in the face of this relationship, I forgot or ignored most of what I knew. It would have been nice to have someone to talk to, instead of just literature to read. It would have been nice to have someone remind me to trust myself, to take care of myself instead of trusting and trying to take care of someone who ultimately discarded me. I am still working on forgiving myself. As much he betrayed me, I feel as though I betrayed myself even more.
  4. If you said “no,” it is rape. I still remember the night he raped me. Afterward, I felt sick to my stomach. I was confused and angry, but I did not yet have the language to name what he had done. I knew it was wrong, but because I loved him and had consensual sex with him multiple times before, I thought it could not be the “R” word. Like many, I had a very narrow understanding of what rape was. It wasn’t until after various discussions with friends who had also been sexually assaulted, as well as working in the sexual health field, that I was finally able to confidently name what he did. He raped me. I said no. He refused to listen to me. He ignored my wishes. He disrespected me. He raped me.
  5. I am the sole owner of my body and my sexuality. This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn, but it is also the one I most vehemently teach to my youth. For a long time, I thought my ex-partner had robbed me of my sexuality, as well as the right to feel confident and secure in my body. I felt that it was something I had wrongfully given away and he never returned it once our relationship ended. At 24, I am just now coming to understand that my sexuality is my own. It has not dwindled because of my past. It has not ceased to exist because I no longer have sex. Right now, it looks and feels different than it did prior to that relationship. But I am still a woman. I am still a sexual being. My body still belongs to me. I now appreciate how complex and fluid sexuality is. I accept it as a life-long process, constantly evolving with us and existing within multiple facets of our lives. Most importantly, I realize no one has a right to claim another person’s sexuality or body—not parents or families, partners, peers, or the culture or society to which we belong.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, performer, and storyteller from Southern California. She has performed in Southern California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. For more information, visit her website at michelledenisejackson.com.

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