It started out as a regular dinner party: casual chit chat, Brandi Carlile in the background, cheese plate, and several of our good friends. Most of the people present came from similar cultural backgrounds, were in alignment politically, and were similarly situated in regards to socio-economic status. Several of us had been friends for more than a decade, so there was an ease and fluidity to the group dynamic.
As it always does, the conversation turned to our jobs and I shared my then-recent decision to pursue a career in sexuality education. The first few questions were innocuous enough, asking what the path looked like, what I hoped to do once I had done my training, and why I was interested in doing that. It made perfect sense to me; my love of teaching yoga and helping people with mind/body wellness connects logically to sexuality education. There was a bit of a pause, so I said that in my opinion, all human beings are sexual but that the level and type of discourse in our society needs to shift. I went on to explain the importance of providing opportunities for education, exploration and discussion regarding the issues that face all of us in regards to our sexuality.
“Don’t you think those kinds of conversations are best handled by the family?” one friend asked hesitantly.
My first reaction was to ask her what she meant about “those kinds of conversations.” Did she mean about intercourse? Sexual identity? Gender expression? Consent? I then realized that her level of comfort in regards to sex and sexuality — even in a relaxed social setting with people she knew very well — was very low. Through additional conversation, it was revealed that although she knew that not everyone had access to appropriate and accurate information, she still believed that most of “those” conversations should be private. (I did not push her on the point that if people don’t have access to information and if discussion is stifled the issues that face our society will not change for the better — it was a dinner party, not a debate.)
I was taken aback. It had not dawned on me that someone in my peer group would have internalized the message that sexuality is secretive and would not be appropriate for public conversation. Although I would not consider this necessarily a “cultural conflict,” it certainly was an opportunity for self-reflection. I had incorrectly assumed that just because we were in alignment in so many ways, that it would naturally follow that she would agree that sexuality education was important and appropriate. Assumptions really are dangerous.
In retrospect, I am now able to identify how the differences in our backgrounds played out in our current beliefs. She was raised in a conservative, quiet, household in the south, and I was raised in a liberal and loud family in Cleveland, Ohio. Discussion in my house was almost always welcomed, and the more factual the better. I realize now that this approach (which one could characterize as upfront and fact-based) would have benefited from some nuance and sensitivity. Honoring the values of those with whom I am connecting, recognizing the validity of their cultural lens, and being “gentler” when necessary will better serve my goals as a sexuality educator.