September 25, 2019
Dr. Jess on the Challenges & Benefits of Being a Sexologist, and the State of Sex Education
In 2017, I was profiled by the Sexual Health Magazine for their cover story. As exciting as it is to be featured on the cover of this magazine, I think my interview has some really good takeaways. So I am posting this here for future reference. Feel free to check out the interview in this digital copy of July 2017’s Sexual Health Magazine, or read it below. 🙂
1.When did you know you wanted to be a sexpert? What inspired you?
I didn’t aspire to be a “sexpert” — I fell into it by accident. My passion is education and eleven years ago, I was teaching at a high school whose students were deemed “at-risk”. I saw the costs of a sex education system that was failing them. Every week students came to me looking for help with abusive relationships, STIs, unplanned pregnancy, birth control, gender identity and sexual orientation.
I wanted to be a part of the solution, so I went back to school to study sexual health education with a focus on teacher training. My research involved brief interventions (workshops) designed to increase teacher comfort and knowledge with the sexual health topics of greatest interest to Toronto’s youth: healthy relationships, HIV/AIDS and sexual pleasure.
When I graduated, I anticipated working with teachers and school boards full-time, but there were no sex educator-specific positions. I started writing, blogging and volunteering in the field and this helped me to gain exposure to the television and publishing industries. Hosting a show for PlayboyTV and authoring a few books helped the @SexWithDrJess brand to grow and these days I spend most of my time travelling to facilitate workshops on healthy, passionate relationships at conferences and corporate retreats. I still work with students, parents and teachers in public schools and my corporate model (income from the event and digital streams) allows me to do so in a volunteer capacity.
2. What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I get a lot of hate mail, but I also get notes of gratitude from people who have been positively impacted by my work and this is by far the best part of the job.
Sometimes these notes come from afar (e.g. “I listened to your podcast and it made my realize what I need to do in order to forgive my sister after all these years…”) and sometimes they come from people I’ve worked with first-hand. Last month, a 55 year-old woman cried tears of joy as she hugged me in the streets of Prague and thanked me for helping her to learn to orgasm. I really can’t take much of the credit at all, as I only worked with her for a few hours. Ultimately, she and her partner did all the work — I simply facilitated a long-overdue conversation that helped them to better understand each other’s needs. Sometimes my job is so easy. 🙂
3. What is the most challenging part of your job?
I do not have a thick skin. I’m working on it, but I’m pretty sensitive. As a woman with a certain degree of public profile working in a fairly controversial field, I obviously receive a good degree of harassment and hateful messages. I don’t think I’ll ever become desensitized.
4. What is the most common sex question/concern that you get?
The most common question I receive involves some permutation of “Am I okay?” Am I okay if I fantasize about someone other than my partner? Am I okay if I (don’t) squirt? Am I okay if I like the smell of my own vaginal fluids? Am I okay if I don’t like penetration? Am I okay if I don’t really like sex? Is our relationship okay if we fight often?
Almost always, the answer is “Yes. You’re okay. In fact, you rock!” (Obviously there are exceptions if something is causing you significant distress or detracting from your ability to work, maintain relationships and function on a daily basis.)
5. If you could offer a single piece of sex advice, what would it be?
I’m going to offer two pieces of advice:
1. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and talk about these feelings. North American culture tends to value strength as one of the greatest virtues whereas other cultures are more open to embracing vulnerability. It’s normal to feel insecure. It’s natural to feel unworthy. It’s common to feel scared, nervous or unsure when it comes to sex and relationships. Feeling vulnerable is a universal human experience. Once you acknowledge this, you can talk about your vulnerabilities and address them. You can seek support, cultivate understanding and expand your capacity for intimate connection and meaningful growth.
2. Learn to be selfish! If magazine headlines and book sales are any indication, we’ve shifted from a culture of sexual takers to a culture of highly performative givers when it comes to sex. Giving is great (and research shows that in business, givers thrive more than any other group), but when it comes to sex, the performative element of giving can detract from the experience of pleasure.
One way to effectively assuage this performance pressure is to practice receiving pleasure without apology. Give yourself permission to be selfish once in awhile so that you can fully immerse yourself in the pleasure of sex without worrying about your performance. You’ll likely find that the experience becomes more intense, pleasurable and meaningful once you relinquish the pressure to please.
6. What is your favorite sex topic to educate about?
1. How to keep the passion alive in long-term relationships. I’m fascinated by the science of passion and chemical shift that occurs between the phases of passionate and companionate love. My clients seem to love it too! Once you understand why you feel so much passion and desire at the beginning of a relationship (thanks to dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin), you can find hundreds of practical ways to cultivate it in the long term.
2. Personal empowerment and education for youth. This is my passion: I want young people (and all people) to feel better about themselves and have the information they need to make educated decisions when it comes to sex and relationships. They’ll still make mistakes (I know I do!), but knowledge and confidence helps to mitigate the risk.
7. How would you describe the current state of sex ed (in the U.S. & abroad)?
Sexual health education (SHE) needs improvement in the US. At the school-based level, one of the biggest challenges involves inconsistency and fragmentation — though policy is set at the state level, each school district decides how to comply with this policy. Abstinence-only programs, which have been shown to be ineffective, are far too common — as are programs that reflect homophobic, transphobic and sexist content.
In Canada, SHE curriculums are determined at the provincial (state) level and guidelines are set at the federal level. There are variations across the country, but overall the system outperforms the American model. I’d like to see federally-mandated SHE programs in schools that reflect current research with regard to both content and delivery (best practices like the Information-Motivation-Behavioural Skills model). SHE is so important, as it isn’t just about sex — it’s about confidence, relationships, communication, self-identity and of course, overall health.
One of the greatest challenges to adult sexual health education in North America involves getting over our own egos. We have difficulty admitting that we don’t know everything and this puts us at a disadvantage. When I work with groups in Lebanon, Turkey, UAE and Thailand, for example, they admit that they’re not entirely comfortable with the material and acknowledge that they have a lot to learn. Even if they have restricted access to information, their acknowledgment of their own limitations and discomfort creates more room for growth. In this respect, we have a lot to learn from other cultures — it’s not a one-way street.
8. Any exciting new projects in the works?
I’m releasing a video course next month all about sexual skills and confidence: The Sexual Pro Series. I’m really excited to take it to market, as I believe that it has the capacity to help people start some very important conversations about sexual pleasure.
I’m also heading out on a speaking tour of East Asia this month with stops in four countries. After East Asia, I’ll move on to New York, New Orleans, Phoenix, Lisbon, Venice, Bologna, Kiev, Dubrovnik, Kathmandu, Colombo (Sri Lanka) and several cities in India. I never get sick of flying. 🙂