We are running excerpts from How I Got Into Sex…Ed. Get a free copy of the ebook here. Order the print book here.
Brandy Barnett, MS
How I Got Into Sex…Ed
I am a trainer and technical assistance coordinator, and I also teach sex education to adolescents and provide workshops for parents of adolescents on effective communication about sexuality. I work in the state of Georgia with the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential (GCAPP). If someone had asked me 10 years ago if this was the path my career would take, I either would have laughed or had a slight heart attack (nothing too severe, I was too young and fabulous to perish so early).
I suppose my introduction to sex education officially started when I was in middle school. The first real conversations about growing up, love, dating, and sex that I remember having occurred with my mom.
Of course, friends and older relatives were talking, but this talk was different. My mother sat my twin sister and me down on her bed for “the puberty talk.” I was initially freaked out about what to expect during puberty, but then she went on to discuss sex. Now, I had some idea about the topic, but boy, oh boy, she threw us a curve ball! She told us things the pastor never told us, information other parents weren’t telling their kids, and definitely it wasn’t what our friends were saying about sex. This discussion consisted of everything from puberty, to sex, to responsibility, but ultimately culminated with my mother saying, “I won’t be mad if you decide to have sex. I prefer that you wait until you’re married or at least until you’re an adult, but if you decide to have sex before then PLEASE come and talk to me before you do. I won’t pretend it will never happen. Just knowing we can talk through it together will mean the world to me.” Just to know my mother loved me enough to increase my awareness, discuss the realities of getting involved in a sexual relationship, how to be protected, and ultimately to know I had her support spoke volumes! After this conversation, I knew I had a true advocate who would be honest with me for my safety. It was the type of support and advocacy I needed to make the best choices for me and my future, not the choices others were making or trying to pressure me into making. I honestly believe my mother’s transparency is the reason I chose responsibility over doing what I thought everyone else was doing. It kept me from having to experience the consequences of getting involved in unhealthy behaviors and allowed me to turn my attention to focusing on my future goals and enjoying my youth.
My mommy (that is how I address her) did not have all the answers, and she never claimed she did. Although straightforward and outspoken, she still had very strict and clear expectations regarding when to engage in sex. More importantly, she was honest and very transparent about the realities of peer and partner pressure and the likelihood that I would one day want a connection with a partner, and she expressed that teens and young adults are more than capable of making healthy choices if given the tools. She even took my sister and me to the “town clinic” (a town in rural Georgia reminiscent of The Little House on the Prairie, “90s edition”) to discuss birth control options with the physician if ever we wanted it. She wasn’t encouraging sex at all; she made her expectations and desires very clear — she preferred that we delay having sex, but she knew that the clinic was a resource we needed to know about and have access to. This was in no way typical of a small-town, spiritually minded parent! She was extraordinary!
My mother, a single parent, provided love and support regardless of our choices, which made the possibility of being healthy and responsible more realistic to me. Most importantly, her openness helped me realize that parental expectations should be made clear and sex is not something to be covered up by lies or silence, but brought to light in love. These conversations helped me to learn how to value myself as a young woman and to expect to be respected. I also realized over the years that not every young person was as fortunate as me to have such conversations with a loving and trusted adult.
The “Purpose with a Passion”
Ultimately, my professional introduction into sexuality education did not begin until my final year of my Master of Health Promotion program. I had always envisioned myself becoming a professional in sports medicine/athletic training, a collegiate track and field coach, or even owning a chain of fitness centers, or perhaps working in a university health center, but destiny had other plans. I was assigned a presentation for a health promotion course, and decided to focus on STD and HIV/AIDS education and prevention for women of color. My goal was to empower women to take charge of their own sexual health through correct and consistent use of condoms and negotiating condom use or abstinence with a partner. I cannot even remember how well I performed on the presentation, but the process sparked a keen interest in behavioral change in communities of color.
Even after gaining this new experience, I envisioned my career would be working with college-aged students or adults, and at first I vehemently resisted working directly with adolescents. After having worked with pre-teens and teens in camps and as a coach, I was ready for something different. However, I kept being drawn back into work with adolescents, primarily because I saw opportunities to provide information to help them make healthy choices beyond “Don’t drink and drive” and “Just say No” to whatever it is no is supposed to stop. I was aware youth needed more information; information like what my mom and other trusted adults gave me. Young people are impressionable and eager to learn, but are often confused about how to deal with their changing bodies, emotions, and relationships. Yet, no one would dare take them by the hand and give them honest and medically accurate information that could potentially save their lives. Parents did not know what to say except “Don’t bring a baby home”; schools were ignoring the issues, and communities pretended that only a certain type of kid has sex or gets pregnant! I knew the reality: Those who were uninformed were most at risk.
I would like to think I am honoring my mother’s legacy when I teach sex education. I want to convey that youth can enjoy being young, vibrant, and full of potential, but they deserve accurate information and guidance so that they can be responsible as well. I would also like to think that I am helping young people to understand they are more than just a statistic in a database or a product of their environment — they are unique and worthy of every opportunity afforded to them to let their individual light shine. I teach sex education, not because I believe I am brilliant or someone who is particularly spectacular in this field, but because I was once in a young person’s shoes; had my mother not taken ownership of her responsibility as a caring parent and included sexuality in our ongoing conversations, it is frightening to imagine what my life could have been. It does not take an academic scholar, a PhD, or a physician to teach sex education. It takes a willingness to step outside the box, to eschew being comfortable, to get real, and to give adolescents the tools they need to succeed. My mom, with no degree or professional certification in health or sexuality education, taught me more than any professor, college course, research findings, or cohort in the field could have. She taught me empathy, understanding, and the impact of good information.
Even today my mom will say she is proud of what I am doing. She is pleased to know that someone is trying to help young people think through their choices and take ownership of their actions. Though I have thanked her for her support over the years on numerous occasions, I doubt she understands just how influential she has been and how that has created a trickle-down effect. She educated me, I educate others, and maybe those I reach will continue imparting knowledge down the line. Thanks, Mommy!
“How I Got Into Sex…Ed is a treasure! If you’ve ever wondered if this path was right for you or what it feels like to be a sex educator or how to get the right kinds of education, training, or opportunities to work as a sexuality education professional, this book is for you!”
Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH
Director, The Center for Sexual Health Promotion