How I Became a Sex Educator: Lessons from My Mom

Most sex educators I know are constantly being asked why they go into the work they do. Fair enough, I think, since it’s a bit surprising when people learn that someone’s chosen to spend their days talking about a subject that most people find uncomfortable.

I think it’s exactly that discomfort that inspires many sex educators to pursue their field. Sex is a near-universal human experience, yet it’s clouded by cultural shame, embarrassment, and mis-information. The light bulb moments that can occur as the result of actually talking about sex are powerful (and sometimes even healing).

I’ve previously written about how I found my first sex ed gig during my undergrad, but I’ve recently been reflecting on the earlier years of my life that sowed the seeds of a sex ed career.

I’ve noticed that most sex educators fall into two camps: the ones who got terrible sex education from their parents and those who got excellent sex education from their parents. People in the first camp have a lived experience of what it’s like to not have the information you need to understand your body, desires, and curiosities, and they seek to make the world a better place by improving upon the education they received (or didn’t receive). The ones who got good sex ed feel inspired to take the positive modelling they witnessed out into the often sex-negative world.

I’m part of the latter group.

My mom – my primary sex educator – got pretty crap sex ed when she was growing up. Her mom died when she was very young and when she was twelve, her father (a matter-of-fact middle school principal) handled the birds-and-bees talk by giving her a stack of puberty books he acquired from his school nurse and saying, “Here. Read these.”

While this is obviously not best-practice sex education, I’ll give my grandfather some credit – at least he knew it was his responsibility to facilitate some learning on the subject. Even today, fathers are not generally thought of as the go-to parent for menstrual cycle questions, and I can imagine it was even more anomalous in the late fifties.

Fortunately for me, my mom recognized that she wanted to be a different kind of parent. I can’t remember a time when my sex and reproduction questions weren’t answered in an age-appropriate way and I fondly remember the day when I got the big “talk.”

My mom and I would regularly have “Women’s Days,” where we’d go out for lunch without my dad or brothers and she and I would just chat. Logically, my mom made one of these days the sex ed basics day and let me know beforehand that she’d be teaching me about something important. I knew it was a pretty big deal – like a birthday or back-to-school shopping – and I remember looking forward to it.

We sat across from each other in a booth of a Round Table Pizza (the pinnacle of cuisine for a seven-year-old) and she calmly and articulately explained how sperm and ova are released and how the sperm gets there. After her explanation, I just looked at her with a bit of surprise and said, “Really?”

She went on to explain periods, more in-depth puberty changes, and that no, it doesn’t hurt when a penis goes inside a vagina – it actually can feel good for grown-ups. She also told me the story of her dad’s misguided attempt to give her the same information.

While I myself am part of the group that got good sex ed as I described, I’m very aware of how my inspiration for choosing sex ed as a career stems from my mother’s description of her less-than-ideal sex ed experience as a child. Her narrative has shaped mine in a way that’s allowed me to experience the benefits and privileges of good sex ed, while also empathizing with what it’s like to not have that support.

As I enter a stage of life where having my own children is larger in my horizons, I feel especially grateful for the education my mom gave me – not only in sexuality, but also in understanding the experience of others who don’t get their questions answered from a trusted source. Simultaneously holding both of those experiences inspires and reinforces what I do as a sex educator and serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of the work.

About Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs, MPH is a NYC-based sex educator + blogger. She's the founder of Sex Geekdom, a global community for sex educators, researchers, and other folks who love having geeky conversations about sex.