Why I Teach Sex Ed: From Scientist to Sexologist; Your Comma Doesn’t Go There

By: Anita P. Hoffer MS, PhD, EdD

The path to my career as a sex educator is clearer in retrospect than it was when I first set out on it! It has been an exciting journey and I don’t regret a single chapter.

I began my professional life as a reproductive biologist and scientific researcher in the world of academic medicine. I taught medical students and young doctors at Harvard Medical School and published many research studies on the male reproductive tract, sperm, fertility and infertility, and experimental male contraceptives. After hitting the wall as an Associate Professor (women in those days seldom got tenure at Harvard Medical School), I did intellectual property work at Massachusetts General Hospital and then was lured into the biopharmaceutical industry by Johnson and Johnson to work on women’s health initiatives and technology acquisition. Several biotech companies later, I started an independent consulting business working with hospitals and corporations to commercialize intellectual property. To make a long story short, I finally burned out on writing and negotiating legal contracts.  I decided my life was too short to be arguing with folks about where the comma should be placed in a sentence!

It was a blessing in disguise.  I took a long hard look at what had brought me the greatest satisfaction in my career and realized that sexuality in one form or another, and teaching about it, as well as Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts volunteerism and teaching safer sex in the junior high school system where my sons were growing up, was the direction I wanted to pursue.

At that point I went back to school and got a second doctorate, this time in sexology and sexuality education. Learning about the behavioral aspects of human sexuality and its diverse forms of expression was very different from the formal academic programs I had pursued in the past! But the skills and discipline that I brought with me from academia served me well in navigating and mining this new environment and I treasured every minute. In a way, much of what I learned was already familiar…..but articulating it was not.  And I was privileged to meet dedicated and inspiring people from all walks of life and training backgrounds – folks I had not encountered previously.

Personally speaking, my “third chapter career” as a sexuality educator and counselor has been the most rewarding one yet. Having always had a slightly rebellious streak (which was well-hidden at Harvard, I might add), I relish the opportunity now to shatter myths and confront taboos about human sexuality. Indeed, I see it as my responsibility, especially when dealing with the subject of sexuality and aging. As an older woman myself, I am able to offer my knowledge, expertise and experience to women and men on all aspects of sexuality throughout the life cycle. And my special passion is for sexual education and counseling of older adults.

We are all sexual creatures from birth to death and we all have sexual needs, concerns and rights. Too often in our society today, simple facts about sexual changes that are important in aging individuals, and perfectly natural, are not easily accessible. Furthermore, and unfortunately, the healthcare providers who take care of older adults may be uncomfortable with raising these topics during healthcare visits or may themselves be unfamiliar with the sexual needs and concerns of seniors who are or want to be sexually active.  As a result, the most rapidly expanding section of the population in our country is often underserved and unsupported.  

Consequently, I became involved, with two dedicated and talented colleagues from the Consortium on Sexuality and Aging at Widener University (Joan Garrity and Wayne Pawlowski) in the development of the SilverSAR™, a multi-media, day-long educational seminar designed to increase appreciation and understanding of on-going sexuality concerns and the life-long need for emotional and physical intimacy among aging adults of all orientations and behaviors, and to enhance the ability of those caring for that older population to respond to those needs and concerns. Over a relatively brief period of time, we have already been privileged to present this workshop at two national conferences (with two more coming up), the response and reviews have been enthusiastic, and we are excited to be moving forward with this project.

So in this, my ‘third chapter’ of professional life,  I feel  inspired to continue to spread the message about the beautiful  diversity and complexity  of human sexuality as a Life Force and to raise awareness and consciousness about  the intellectual and cultural somersaults which our society and the media often engage in to avoid addressing these perfectly human topics.  I feel deeply privileged to be able to do this work.

Editor’s Note:
Want to read more about sexuality and aging? Check out Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter! Want to submit YOUR story on why YOU teach sex ed? Send your essay, in 350-750 words, to Bill@SexEdStore.com

2 Responses to “Why I Teach Sex Ed: From Scientist to Sexologist; Your Comma Doesn’t Go There”

  1. James V. Kohl

    Your story makes me rethink my choice to stay in medical laboratory science rather than to explore my interest in teaching human sexuality. It also makes me wonder if, given your background in the biology of reproduction, whether you have seen the recommendations put forth in 2001 in “Exploring the Biological Contributions to Human Health: Does Sex Matter?” (on page 5)

    RECOMMENDATION 1: Promote research on sex at the cellular level. The committee recommends that research be conducted to

    • determine the functions and effects of X-chromosome- and Y-chromosome-linked genes in somatic cells as well as germ-line cells;
    • determine how genetic sex differences influence other levels of biological organization (cell, organ, organ system, organism), including susceptibility to disease; and • develop systems that can identify and distinguish between the effects of genes and the effects of hormones.

    I ask because I’ve seen no indication of this approach either to research or to teaching the biological basis of sex differences in behavior, which are derived from the cell, organ, organ system, organism pathway. Most researchers and teachers seem to be focused on one of these levels of examination rather than their integration. But I’m not sure whether others agree with my assessment of what I perceive is a problem with progress in understanding the biology of behavior.