Author’s note: Interview has been edited for length.
For a lot of people, sex education begins and ends in a high school health class. But for sex educators like Gwendolyn Rosen, high school is only the jumping off point for a lifetime of gender and sexuality exploration. Rosen recently graduated from Wesleyan University and is now beginning a career as a sex educator. I sat down with her to learn more about what that means.
How did you become interested in sex education?
Gwendolyn Rosen: At Wesleyan, I majored in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. And I was so fascinated that that was a thing you could learn about—not just for one class, but that that could be my major. I had a pivotal moment in my intro sociology class, where we were talking about different things that you can study in society. I asked why we were studying gender because I didn’t understand what there was to study. And obviously I felt extremely differently after taking the class my freshman fall [semester].
And, so for me that was a huge moment: I’m a well-educated young adult and I truly had no idea that gender and sexuality existed on a spectrum. It became very important to me that people should be talking about that. I don’t think you should have to wait for your liberal arts education to understand how complex gender and sexuality is and to start having those conversations. So I want to bring that into more areas of the world.
Once you made these discoveries, how did you get started pursuing sex education more?
GR: So then, I saw Oh Megan, who comes to Wesleyan every year. And she just totally blew me away. Megan Andelloux is incredible and she was putting everything that I was reading and talking about in class into this real-life perspective of not only talking about sex but the fact that she was talking about sex and creating spaces where it’s okay to ask questions, and making it a point in itself that yes, sex education is important, it’s something that needs to happen, it doesn’t stop after high school health class.
Her having the career that she does just validated all of my interests. Because I was embarrassed about it for a long time, thinking it was such a weird thing that I’m interested in. And then she just totally validated that for me. And then I learned about the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, which she founded, and I was like, “I’ve got to get there.”
Tell me about your experience working at the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health as an intern.
GR: The Center is a non-profit organization that works to reduce sexual shame, challenge misinformation, and advance the field of sexuality. Their name is extremely important in describing what they do. Part of their mission is not only to make sex education accessible, but to have the focus of sex education be as much about pleasure as it is about physical health. So for me, the experience of working there was amazing.
Also for me, the practice of saying that I worked there was so important in getting past that previous embarrassment that I think a lot of sex educators have to work through for a long time– to not be embarrassed, to say [what your job is] that with pride. But then every time I explain it, they were like, oh that’s so cool, that makes sense, I want to go there, I need that. You get such a positive response once people take the time to figure it out.
Tell me a little about the work that the Center does.
GR: It’s a place where you can have resources available to you if you want to explore some things on your own, or where the educators who work there are available to answer questions. And it’s a safe space and you don’t have to feel embarrassed or ashamed. We have all these resources and tools and the knowledge behind them.
While working there, I talked to some really awesome people who were visitors. It was so amazing to so often have someone say, “Wow, I never told anybody that before.” And to be the recipient of that so often is really incredible. And then, it was not only learning from the visitors, but learning from each other.
Tell me about some other work that you’ve done.
GR: I’m also the social media strategist for the Woodhull Freedom Foundation. They have a summit every year where educators, and lawyers, and social workers, and all these people whose careers connect to sexuality in some kind of way, they all come together for four days of workshops.
This past summer, the Center came to Woodhull, so I was there with both of these organizations that I had been working with for the summer. And seeing that larger community of sex education was amazing.
So you’ve been able to get involved in sex education in a variety of different ways.
GR: I think for me, without social media, my experience would have been totally different. Before I came to the Center, a huge way I was getting my information was through the Center’s website. And now, my day job is not in sex education, but I still feel connected to it because of social media, I still write, and I read other people’s writing.
I don’t see my sex educator friends all the time any more, but there’s still a way to maintain the relationships. And I think [social media] is just changing the game. We can find information so much more easily. And for me right now, I feel like I can keep being a sex educator in a way. I’m not yet certified and I’m not at the point where I’m going to run my own workshops, but I can still blog, and I’m getting ready to start a podcast. Things like that are helping to continue the conversation.
What are your next steps?
GR: I’d like to get a Masters in social work that has a specialty in sexuality. I’d love a Masters degree that’ll help me continue to be a sex educator. I loved working at the Center. A lot of people think sex ed is just your high school class, and it’s not. And changing the minds of people who thought they knew everything because they knew about condoms and seeing them go through another cycle of sexual awakenings is really cool.
I’m also really into storytelling. This podcast that I’m starting is going to be storytelling of coming of age sexual experiences, and that to me is how I’ve learned the most, is hearing other people tell about their experiences. And I think that just continues to drive the point home that there’s no right, there’s no wrong, there’s not one way to do things. Everyone’s going to have that different experience and that’s a cool and beautiful thing. So, I’d love to find a way to keep doing that in the long run.
Where do you see sex education going? Where would you like to see it go?
GR: I see it being more widespread and I think that’s because of the beautiful Internet. My hope is that more people are finding people like Laci Green and Reid Milalko online, and reading Woodhull’s blog and the Center’s blog, and finding those resources that are making them realize that they’re not the only person having this thought and it’s okay and they can ask questions.
I hope [these resources] will make them feel a little braver to go find those connections in person. I don’t think it can only exist online but I hope the online community is the springboard for more real-life, honest experiences with sexuality.
Cover image courtesy of Gwendolyn Rosen.