Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Becoming An Alt-Ac Sex Educator, Pt. III

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she blogs for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

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Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

As a regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed, I have written about my professional journey of becoming an #altac sexuality educator. In earlier essays, I have described the impact of sexuality education on my academic career, and, in turn, the impact of my academic training on my sex ed career. In this third essay, I write about the pervasive sex negativity that I have observed in academe. The many interconnections of sexuality with life in and around universities should concern all of us, regardless of orientation, relationship status or gender identity.

Sex negativity refers to a mind-set that sex is inherently dirty, dangerous, risky, pathological or deviant. Certain kinds of sex are seen as normal and thus acceptable within the bounds of heterosexual procreative monogamy. Meanwhile, those types of sexual identities, expressions and acts that fall outside the bounds are considered deviant.

In a sex-negative society like contemporary America, sex is seen as an activity that taints the people who engage in it, resulting in stigma for people like single mothers, sex workers, nonheterosexual folks and people who participate in sexuality subcultures such as swinging, polyamory and kink. Sex negativity has consequences for things that are not strictly related to sexual acts, too; exploring a nonmainstream gender identity is also enough to get one in trouble.

Within education, sex negativity plays out in very specific — and very harmful — ways. Examples abound, like this one: a high school teacher lost her job after a student stole her phone and shared a nude picture of her that was stored on it. When I was writing for MySexProfessor.com, I had a tag just for all the sex-negative crap that kept happening in academe.

Here are some of the major manifestations of sex negativity that I have observed in academe:

  • American academe is a microcosm of the rest of America, which can be sexphobic, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic, and we can see these patterns replicated in university norms.
  • Students are regularly held to different sexual standards than instructors, with student sexuality being framed as a problem only when it is excessive or combative, and with faculty sexuality usually being treated as a problem when it is visible at all (especially for women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups).
  • The most talked about sex topic in most universities is sexual assault, and yet actual policies to prevent and prosecute sexual assault are problematic, in some cases minimal and often thoroughly enmeshed in the assumptions that accompany rape culture (e.g., victim blaming, lacking an understanding of how trauma works and so on).
  • The university allows outright censorship of sex topics, as has happened to Alice Dreger, as well as faculty members not being defended when they criticize some facet of the sex-gender system, as happened to Saida Grundy.

And that is just the highlights list. As a sexuality scholar, and as a human who (gasp!) has had some personal involvement with sexuality over the course of my adult life, I have had to tread carefully.

Our time in academe is social, and that necessitates navigating sexuality. I do not mean getting it on in the classroom or office but rather choosing which facets of one’s identity are put on display, if being closeted is even an option. If one departs from the cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, vanilla norm, then what? For instance, if in the past I have brought a male partner to departmental events, do I have to think twice before bringing a female partner?

Further, the personal and the professional blend in university settings in ways that exceed and contort a scholar’s intentions. When I teach a unit on nonmonogamy in different cultures, am I seen to be advocating for that relationship mode? If I research contemporary sexual subcultures, do I have to think about how it might harm my university’s brand if I am seen doing participant observation at a local fetish night? Surely a scholar who teaches about World War II with interview data from Third Reich leaders is not seen as advocating for Nazism, despite making students read about it and discuss it. But since the way we view sex in America is so pathological, everything about it becomes distorted.

The more time I spend being alt-ac, the less I worry about what anyone thinks of my teaching and research, though I suppose that may be a mixed blessing. If someone wants to take me to task for teaching racy material, well, that is a possibility. As an adjunct, I am extremely vulnerable when it comes to job security. But at the same time, the less that I am wrapped up in the world of full-time academe, the less I feel constrained by these arbitrary norms — by the pressure to be a heteronormative model citizen who looks presentable and does not say things that might offend students or upset the status quo.

One thing that I have learned, and am grateful to have experienced, is that the sex ed community is delightfully accepting, inclusive and sex positive in contrast to academe. I feel safe there to discuss not only whatever sex research I am into at the moment but also anything going on with my own sexuality, gender identification, relationships and so on. That is not because my sex ed colleagues have poor professional or personal boundaries, but rather because we are committed to revolutionizing boundaries that only serve to uphold hierarchies and unjust notions of appropriateness. For all that the university is supposed to be a bastion of progressive thought, free of intolerance and bigotry, I would rather have the vulnerable and more charged conversations with my sex education colleagues than with most of my academic colleagues.

Like most major life transitions, this has been a slow one at times, but ultimately it has also been quite fulfilling. My academic research skills have been a great boon in the sex ed world because, frankly, there is a lot of misinformation out there about sex. My habit of saying, “Citation please?” registers as obnoxious at times, but it helps me do my job better. I suspect that being a sexuality professional in a sexphobic culture will never be easy, but the fit with academe is, thus far, going about as well as I could have hoped.

Sex negativity in academe is, I suspect, especially hard on those of us who are not as sheltered by various facets of privilege. I am a woman who benefits from white privilege, yet as an adjunct I lack the job security of someone who is tenure track or administration. The intersection of identities already impacted more by sex negativity (such as gender and sexuality minorities) with sex negativity in academe makes for a mix of prejudices, silences and constraints. My work as a sexuality educator informs my approach to these topics now, and I would advise, as always, that people try to find the right balance of self-care and activism that lets them keep doing good work in the world.

Easier said than done, I know, but simply having this conversation is a great place to start.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Becoming An Alt-Ac Sex Educator, Pt. II

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she blogs for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

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Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

In Part I of this essay, I described the impact that becoming a sex educator has had on my academic career. The flip side — how I am being received as a sex educator in light of my academic background — is a slightly more complicated topic. Here I will discuss that, along with suggestions for those with scholarly training for breaking into a new field outside of traditional academe.

I have started regularly attending conferences and conventions devoted to sexuality, sex education and sex research. Some highlights include attending a Sexuality Attitude Reassessment (SAR), Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit, and an AASECT Winter Institute on Trauma. I have been interviewed on a podcast, landed some paid blogging work on sites such as Kinkly.com, and have befriended dozens of people doing awesome work in sex ed and related fields. So on the networking and learning fronts, I have accomplished tons — especially as this is something I am pursuing part-time while also doing academe part-time as an adjunct.

Some of my attempts to make it as a sex educator have been less straightforwardly successful, though. I am not the only one to struggle with the transition into alt-ac life; I have read several blog posts that resonated with me, such as ones by Elizabeth Keenan and Katie Rose Guest Pryal and by Lee Skallerup. My sense is that other alt-ac folks encounter similar difficulties with adjusting to different types of workdays, dealing with expectations for what productivity looks like and what “counts” as labor, and so on. I’ll give some examples.

In my decade-plus of presenting regularly at academic conferences (two to five per year, on average), I have only had a few paper proposals rejected. And yet, in the sex ed world, I have not been able to land a single presentation. I am not sure whether I have yet to learn how to navigate the field’s social norms and language properly or if the combined approach to folklore and sexuality, which everyone seems to love when it comes up in informal conversations, just isn’t that exciting to conference organizers. At any rate, I will get that figured out eventually; it is probably just part of the normal learning curve that we all experience in entering a new field.

I suspect that some of my slowness to skyrocket to success in my new career is a result of academic hang-ups. Impostor syndrome does not do anyone any favors, but when transitioning to a new field, it can be a major factor in holding one back (e.g., “I just need to do a little more research before I’m ready to publish/present/teach”).

I realized, too, that thanks to academe, I am used to playing the long game: if I am not making a profit or an impact now, well, that’s OK, I will have years in which to change that. Sure, I could pursue more profitable gigs right now or I could continue to build my skill set and knowledge base and become incredibly bad ass at what I am doing. This approach might work fine in academe, but outside the ivory tower, it means moving at a glacial pace, which can be frustrating and, well, not very lucrative (at first).

Academics also seem to do things at not only a different pace but also according to a different mode of judging worthiness. In my experiences of grad school and beyond, I would research something, present snippets at conference, get feedback and go on to publish my research in peer-reviewed journals. In the sex ed world, it seems as though you need to have made a name for yourself by publishing or teaching on your subject matter before you are accepted to present at conferences. And if that is the way it works, that’s fine, and I will adapt to it. But I am used to demonstrating that I have done the research and am qualified to speak on a topic. It seems like a different kind of engagement to have to rely on one’s reputation to get accepted to a speaking gig.

Finally, I have struggled to move beyond what I call the “show up and be brilliant” model of academe. When you are affiliated with a university, they schedule the classes, reserve the room and handle payment (however measly it might be when you are a grad student or adjunct). You just get to do the work on your end and then show up to teach. I have gotten quite good at navigating this model.

However, outside the ivory tower, everything is a hustle. I have major introvert anxiety issues, too, so that has been hampering me when I think of a great workshop idea. Because after the idea and the planning comes having to book a venue, advertising, selling tickets, having a contingency plan if I have to cancel and so on. Perhaps that is why I have had the most success as a freelance writer. Pitching articles and blog posts to paying venues is much closer to submitting my research to journals than any of the other tasks I have pursued.

Based on these experiences, my suggestions for academics branching out into other fields are as follows:

  • Figure out what counts as legitimacy in that field: certain degrees, certification programs, publishing books and articles, work experience? Calibrate your training to those standards as much as is feasible.
  • Work to identify your hang-ups or comfortable behavior patterns based on academic enculturation. For example, if you struggle with impostor syndrome, work on that.
  • If you are used to your academic network inviting you to speak and publish and suddenly you find yourself outside that network, learn to expand your opportunities in other ways.

Decide what kind of impact you would like to make in your new field. Are you interested in using your academic credentials to transition to expert status and become a go-to for knowledge seekers in the general public, or are you more interested in helping build the field from the inside out? Are you hoping to mentor others in your position? Are you going to contribute to your new field’s knowledge base through research, publishing, presenting, teaching, marketing, brand building or some other keyword I have not thought of because I’m new to all this, too?

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Becoming An Alt-Ac Sex Educator, Pt. I

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column. Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she writes for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

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Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

I wrote a series of pieces titled “I Don’t Know If I Want to Be a Professor Anymore” in the summer of 2014. In the final one, I declared my intention to continue to adjunct on a very part-time basis while expanding the rest of my career into adult sexuality education. (See also part 1, part 2 and part 3.) I feel it’s now time to reflect on how the process has been going and how that intention has impacted my time in academe.

In 2013, I was reluctant to call myself a sex educator, despite the fact that I had been writing for the sex education and research blog MySexProfessor.com for three years, and despite how knowledgeable I was becoming. By 2014, I had decided to claim the title of sex educator, realizing that there are multiple paths to this career. Working one’s way up the ranks of being a Planned Parenthood educator or a peer educator in college or a student of public health is only one path. Some of us go other academic routes or completely eschew the academy. Some of us become sex-toy mavens while working retail, while others enter the field from LGBTQ activism, body work and/or sex work.

So how does this all fit in with maintaining an academic identity? For me, it’s been an eerily good fit, although my progress on the business-building front has also been excruciatingly slow at times.

In terms of academic fit, I am fortunate in that I have some leeway in how I choose to design and teach my courses. In spring 2014, I created a course called Sex Education Across Cultures, cross-listed as an upper-division elective in anthropology and gender, women’s and sexuality studies. We learned about historical, contemporary and cross-cultural approaches to sex education — and I truly mean we. One of the reasons I wanted to teach the class was to improve my grasp of the academic study of sex education. My students seemed to have a good time of it. Like most young people I have encountered, the students were hungry for knowledge not only about sex but also about how information about sex is shaped, transmitted and prohibited.

In a subsequent class on women’s folklore, I brought in sex education topics where relevant, whether discussing how an intersectional approach to age and gender necessitates talking about sexually transmitted infections to the elderly, or how personal narratives about sexual assault can illuminate the power of silencing and shame in structuring people’s experiences of their sexuality.

One of the downsides of being an adjunct is that I am never certain how my actions are being judged, both inside and outside the classroom. So, while I continue to receive outstanding student evaluations, and my classes regularly fill up, I do not have any way of knowing whether I am too out there.

As I am a folklorist first, I believe that any aspect of people performing culture is fair game for the classroom, the monograph and everything in between. Since becoming a gender studies scholar and sex educator, I have decided that gender, sex and sexuality are such important facets of human experience that I would be doing a disservice to my students to exclude them.

Not everyone thinks this way, of course. I have taken far too many classes at the graduate and undergraduate level about culture, history or language where gender was simply excluded, and I am committed to never making that mistake.

I warned at least one of my department chairs that I was shifting my career and my research interests in this direction, in case they googled me or something like that. So far, no one at my college seems to have a problem with this transition, but then, I also haven’t done anything really newsworthy or controversial — other than blog a lot about various sexuality topics from a fairly progressive point of view.

On the research front, I’ve found it beneficial to incorporate insights from the sex ed world into my academic work. For instance, while presenting on the TV show Lost Girl and its intersections with fairy-tale materials, it has been useful to bring in concepts about bisexuality and nonmonogamy to account for how the show transforms folk narrative into pop culture. My academic colleagues do not seem too freaked out by the vocabulary and concepts that creep into in my papers, so that is a good thing.

One persistent theme has been my awareness that sex is a dicey topic in the university: on the one hand, sex sells, but on the other, it is a topic that can disturb people. As Kelly Baker points out in her essay “Silence Won’t Protect You,” “academic freedom doesn’t rest easily with colleges and universities’ attempts to brand their institutions. Brands require consistency, conformity and simplified messages.”

Nothing about sexuality is simple, and given my contingent status, I think it is important to be transparent about how the culturewide attitude of sex negativity impacts those of us in the university. By sex negativity, I mean the belief that sex is inherently dangerous, unhealthy and pathological, types of sex that are seen as nonnormative or deviant especially so. Additionally, the intensification of free speech concerns in contemporary academe makes my position — and those of others like me — especially precarious.

But over all, things seem to be going well on the academic front, or as well as they can be going considering that adjuncting remains an exploitative situation. I will discuss another facet of this career shift in an upcoming article. If you ever wondered what it’s like to network with sex educators, stay tuned!