Hey friends. I’m Emily, and I’m a sex educator. My job—my whole purpose in life, the reason I’m here on Earth—is to teach you to live with confidence and joy inside your body.
Hence the title of this newsletter.
In future newsletters, I’ll talk about exactly what I mean by confidence and joy and how to make them happen in your life. And in fact most of the newsletters will be Q&A – I’ll answer a specific question I’ve been asked, so that everyone can learn the answer. Questions about sexual desire, orgasm, genitals, sexual identity, talking to kids about sex, talking to your partner about sex, how to find a partner, and generally how to be “good at sex,” whatever that may mean to you.
But for my very first Confidence and Joy newsletter, I want to introduce you to one of my teachers and an activity she led that changed my work and my life.
Cindy Lee Alves is, by their own description, a sexologist, educator, coach, podcaster, Cancer, and shimmier. As a self-identified fat queer femme nonbinary person of color and a New Yorker, their work always center system-impacted identities. I—a white lady with a Ph.D. and every reason to feel like I *smug hairflip* know a lot about sex education—have been their student twice, and both times I’ve been changed.
The second time she was my teacher was at a Sexual Attitude Reassessment—also known as a SAR. SARs are a required and vital part of a sex educator’s ongoing training, where students are intensively challenged to examine their reactions, their assumptions, and their attitudes about sexuality, so that we can hear anything at all from a student without imposing our own cultural crap on them.
In this newsletter I want to tell you about an activity we did at this SAR.
Cindy Lee had us write four identifiers we used, each on a separate piece of paper. Think about it now for yourself. What four identities would you consider most important? Parent? Child? Sibling? Spouse? Teacher? LGBTQIA+? Disabled or currently able-bodied? Black? Chickasaw? Chinese? Latinx? Muslim? Atheist? White? Colonizer? Belieber? Delawarean? Emo? Goth? Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, Z? A Brain, a jock, a basket case, a princess, a criminal? (That one’s there for my fellow Gen X’ers.)
I wrote my four identifiers on four little pieces of paper:
And then Cindy Lee told us we had to choose one of those pieces to discard.
At our tables of eight fellow students, we discussed which identifier we discarded and why, and what it felt like.
Suppose you had to discard one of your four big identifiers. Which would you choose? And how would it feel about it?
I discarded “smart.” I didn’t even like that it was something with which I identified so strongly. Losing the label wouldn’t change my intelligence for better or worse, and I only held onto it as a defensive holdover from being a social bottom feeder for so many childhood years. Good riddance.
Then Cindy Lee told us to choose another identifier to discard.
I chose “spouse,” rationalizing that even if I weren’t literally married, I could still have the same relationship. It wasn’t the identity that mattered, it was the love.
And it sounds like no big deal, right? Just crumple up a little piece of paper with a single word written on it. Yet I felt a physical loss as I crumpled up that little scrap of paper, as if I were somehow crumpling up and discarding a part of myself and a part of my partner.
Others at my table felt the same. We had all invented a justification for why we could discard a label without discarding the part of ourselves that it represented.
So we were down to two identifiers—and remember, this was just a little training activity, we were not being asked to change our lives in any way, just to think about our own identities.
But we all knew what was coming, and we all had FEELINGS about it.
Sure enough, Cindy Lee asked up to discard another identifier, leaving us with just one.
I had to choose between “sister” and “sex educator.”
Which one could I literally not live without? Which would leave my existence without meaning or purpose?
My work. I kept “sex educator.”
I discarded “sister,” and I felt like I was discarding my sister—my identical twin sister with whom I wrote a book about how important it is to care for each other, in order to sustain each person’s wellbeing. Sure, I could tell myself that discarding the label wouldn’t discard the relationship itself, but isn’t there something powerful about telling someone, “She’s my sister”? Being twins, we say it often. I hear a stranger call, “Hi Amelia!” from across a street, and I turn and call back, “I’m her sister!”
How dare I discard her in the name of this work I do, this job I’m doing right now?
And what does any of this have to do with sex education and teaching you to live with confidence and joy inside your body?
I held that scrap of paper in my hands, staring at the words “sex educator,” and I realized something that shifted my entire world:
This piece of my identity that feels absolutely central to who I am, this identity that is literally the reason I am alive on Earth in this moment… it didn’t really exist without the other identities. It is my awareness of myself as a sister and a spouse and even, heaven help me, my sense of my own curious and expansive intelligence, that make up this central identity. My identity as a sex educator is made of my brain, my husband, and my sister. When all those parts of me come together, that is how I become a force for good.
The same could be true for you… or not. Maybe your most essential identity is “parent” and you don’t need the identity of “spouse” or “chef” or “Christian” or “musician” in order for your identity as a parent to stay a force for good.
But I believe the same is true for your sexuality.
Individual human sexuality is like a plant—a carrot or a cabbage or a strawberry or something else that we can enjoy straight from the earth. It’s natural, it’s nourishing, it’s and, when it’s well-cultivated, it’s a pleasure.
But when we combine that single plant with something else, it transforms that natural, nourishing pleasure into something more than any of the ingredients separately. Blackberries: yum. Cream: yum. Black berries and whipped cream: heaven.
An individual’s sexuality is natural, nourishing, and a potential source of great pleasure. But when it’s combined with another person’s sexuality, or multiple others’ sexualities (whether all at once or one at a time), it creates something new and potentially heavenly.
This the first thing I want you to know and never forget about your sexuality, regardless of who you love or how you feel about sex or what your experience is. On your own, you are a worthy and beautiful participant in the human experience.
And, under the right circumstances, when your sexuality combines with someone else’s… it can transform you both.
Whatever questions you have— about sexual desire, orgasm, genitals, sexual identity, talking about sex, finding a partner, and being “good at sex,” the place to begin… is with you. All the parts of you, the parts you love and the parts you try to hide. From there, we’ll find out what makes your sexuality a force for good.
Hope that helps.
Welcome to the newsletter, and my thanks to Cindy Lee Alves.