Recently, at the end of a workshop I had given to a group of university students, I was standing with a small group of organizers and participants when an international student from Asia came up to me and asked me, “How does a tampon work?”
The group that was around me were all from Western countries and I could tell that they found her question really surprising. While internally I felt a bit surprised that someone who was in her late twenties was asking me a question that’s in the content of a fifth grade sex ed class, I responded in a way that communicated that this was a completely typical question.
I asked a woman in the group if she happened to have a tampon in her bag. She found one, and I took a little plastic cup, put water in it, and did the demonstration that I’ve done in a puberty education class. After the participant left, a couple of the organizers commented on how I had handled her question with a warm but emotionally-neutral facial expression and a matter-of-fact explanation.
Being able to respond in that warm but emotionally-neutral manner to questions and comments about sex is a key characteristic of a good sex educator. We all have our judgments, but it’s important that we be able to keep our facial affect in check so that it doesn’t communicate any judgment to the questioner.
I define the “sex educator face” as the emotionally neutral expression that communicates to people that they are safe to ask a question or make a comment. Overenthusiasm can be just as counterproductive as making a face that communicates disgust, so expressing that warm-but-balanced middle ground is key.
Everyone’s “face” is going to be different – my neutral face is still pretty upbeat. If I were to make an expressionless neutral face, it would be clear that I wasn’t being authentic. Conversely, a sex educator friend of mine has what she describes as a “grumpy-looking” neutral expression, so she makes a concerted effort to make her sex educator face appear more upbeat. Having congruence between what you value expressing and what your body language is communicating is key.
Typically, people think that sex educators deal with a lot of really unusual and “out-there”, questions about extreme fetishes and the like. I do get those occasionally, but sometimes it’s the more basic questions – like the one about the tampon – that test the sex educator face.
As I’ve learned from my experience, having a well-practiced sex educator face has value in non-sex education settings as well. The last time I was visiting the US, two people whom I met, after hearing that I live in Australia, asked me “Do you speak the language there?” Despite my internal shock that more than one person didn’t know that Australia is an English-speaking country, I just took it as an opportunity to educate, and responded with a friendly, “Actually, they speak English there.”
I think it’s important for sex educators to remember to monitor their judgment response outside the sex ed space. I was recently having a conversation with another sex educator about relationships, and when I expressed a personal preference (which had nothing to do with sex), she responded in a way that I perceived to be quite judgmental. I felt not accepted and quite uncomfortable with her response – less in the words she used but much more so in her facial expression. I thought she probably wouldn’t have responded that way had I expressed, say, an interest in rope bondage. As a seasoned sex educator, she would’ve responded with the neutrality she learned as part of her training.
I’m certain I’ve been guilty of this as well. I’m well aware of the judgments that I have and the processes that I’ve undergone to evaluate those judgments and keep them in check. Sex educators and non-sex educators alike often re-evaluate those judgments through various exposures and experiences.
While I do believe people are able to shift their perspective over time, judgments are an inevitable part of being human. It goes along with how we evaluate our environments for safety or for differentiating the people we want in our inner circle versus those who we would prefer to be acquaintances or strangers. However, I do believe that we have a great deal more choice than we might realize about the verbal and nonverbal ways we communicate our judgments to others.
Unless people are doing harm with their personal preferences, sexual or otherwise, I value creating a space in which they feel free to express preferences or ask questions without feeling judged. Helping people feel more acceptance and less shame is a significant part of who I want to be in the world, and cultivating my sex educator face helps me do this.
Sex educator or not, if you’re interested in learning to express less judgment, there are a number of things you can do.
- One huge step is just being more mindful about your own body language, tone of voice, and words you use when other people express preferences or ask questions, whether they be about food, music, or sex.
- Observe the way you feel when someone else, through either body language or words, makes you feel not accepted for asking a question or expressing a preference.
- If you want a more official way of re-evaluating your judgment around sex, many people who work in the sexuality field find it useful to participate in a sexual attitude reassessment (SAR) training.
Much of reacting non-judgmentally comes with practice, too. The next time someone starts telling you about how much they love Real Housewives (or other pop culture references whose appeal you find baffling), use it as an opportunity to ask questions and be curious about why they’re interested in that, rather than groaning and rolling your eyes. You might learn something, too.