What is a professional (S)expert?
The path that led me to my passion of teaching the world about ‘sexual agency’.
I am asked often these days what I do as a profession. It was easy when I was a therapist seeing clients or an instructor at a university. My current business is a bit harder for some to understand so I put together a series of 6 blogs to explain my beliefs about sex and sexuality that drive my business, Be Your Own (S)expert, to help answer these questions. This first blog describes how my path led me to finding my passion of teaching about sex and sexuality and a brief look at what my business entails…
When I was finishing my doctoral program, I was given an assignment to aid in determining the topic for my dissertation. The premise was to pick a topic that set you on fire based on life experiences so you could handle studying it for a year to complete your doctoral requirements. One answer arrived quickly for me. I went straight to my college life. I had the quintessential wonderful college experience at my little liberal arts school, Centre College but I swiftly arrived at one particular corner of my four years in Kentucky: my community of girlfriends. Our friendships were not perfect, but they were real, they were loyal, they were open and they were educative. I learned so much about my dreams, my shortcomings, my desires, my strengths. I learned so about myself.
I was my best self as I grew into a young woman while in the company of these women. I flourished in our conversations. I could ask or say anything. I listened and listened and listened. I wondered and pondered and dreamed and worried. I compared and contrasted their experiences, desires and choices in the best of ways and grew in incredible ways.
As I explored this time in my life over ten years later, I found myself most interested in the portion of those relationships that dealt with our sexuality. We covered the gamut; sexual reputations and rumors, the process of deciding to have sex for the first time, the perils and complications of birth control, and navigating sexual assault. Some of us were in long term relationships, others were single, some were very sexually active, others were not, some exuded sexual confidence, others were unsure and ‘on the down low’…. And we talked about every aspect of it all. We wondered and questioned and cried and laughed. We made fun of each other, we held each other, we quietly judged each other, and we loved each other. We gave each other room to figure out who we were as sexual women, and we forged our own paths as we collectively walked them together.
I was forever changed by these series of conversations and experiences. It wasn’t necessarily the sexual experiences with others that shaped us as much as it was the subsequent digesting, dissecting and decision-making afterwards that had the largest impact on our development. I learned a lot about sexuality, female sexuality, my sexuality, and I learned even more about what my opinions were, how to make a decision based on those opinions, and how to live with the consequences after those decisions. I didn’t perfect this; I learned it and lived it. Mistakes and all. I learned by sharing my experiences, and I learned from listening to others who had different experiences and thoughts.
When I left college and no longer daily had this safe group of women – my sexual collective think tank—I struggled. I felt lost and made loads of mistakes and didn’t really understand what I was missing and how to experience it again.
Until that assignment.
So, I devised a class held within the Women’s Studies department at The College of William and Mary. It took perseverance and not taking ‘no’ for an answer, but I had it approved and taught it. The class focused on reconstructing the concept of female sexuality. I led them in a dissection of every aspect of sexuality we could think of on a macro level then on a micro level. It was an academic class held within a rigorous college so it included papers and research, but the focus was on group discussion and individual reflection. A lot of it. I exposed them to every article and idea I could get my hands on, and we talked about everything. The class took part in deciding our discussion topics as well. I facilitated the students taking ownership in every possible way. This was their safe place to practice, to ask, to support, to risk, to grow.
They wrote to me individually. We created a living journal where they wrote to me weekly, and I responded every week. I also gave some daring assignments, and every week I worried I might be fired over them. There were complaints from outside sources and even more questions. One parent accused me of turning his daughter into a slut. Interestingly enough, her experience in my class actually resulted in her decreasing her sexual behavior significantly. What her father saw was that she was increasing her confidence and self-assurance. She grew her own sexual agency, but sadly her father equated those qualities with being ‘a slut.’ It furthered my resolve to keep in this work and persevere.
I saw women blossom. I saw women grow individually and in community. I saw the power of women supporting each other and sharing. Not agreeing, not being the same, just being present and respecting each other’s paths. I actually saw students wanting more dissension and differences because it helped spur them to question themselves more and firm up opinions as they compared and contrasted. The topic of sexuality was a great common denominator because we all have it. It is a scary and taboo topic, so it inherently pushes boundaries and breaks down barriers.
And I saw the most beautiful thing – it changed them. Sexuality was the original vehicle; but, the skills learned in examining their sexuality translated to all areas of their lives: their relationships, their academic goals, their athletic pursuits, their passions and dreams.
This may sound extreme, and I may not believe it myself if I hadn’t lived it with them, but their very essence, their souls, seemed to change. I’m in touch with many of them today, and overwhelmingly they report the class was a pivotal time in their lives and a seminal moment that they still access in their current lives.
The first class was a very special group of women, and the months we had together were extraordinary. The class was such a hit I went on to teach it several times. Each class was different and taught me more and more about the subject. I cherished each student, each class dynamic. At the time, I was also working as a therapist and therapist supervisor at another university. I found in this environment the theme continued-there was a hunger and need to speak about and explore what sexuality meant for each person. I worked with clients, I spoke to the football team, I organized events surrounding sexuality-positive based, as well as, educative about sexual violence prevention. I talked to groups of 3 and I spoke to audiences1200. And I listened and I listened and I listened to anyone who wanted to talk with me about this important area of his or her life.
Here is some of what I learned from over a decade of research, conversations, therapy, and speaking gigs:
- People didn’t know what I meant by ‘sexuality’. I taught ‘sexuality’ but it was a weird term to use to most people. Did I mean sex ed? Yes but no.
- If they did respond with a stated understanding of the concept of sexuality, they often first thought: ‘Oh, sexuality means if you are gay or not.’ If this wasn’t a pressing issue for them, they assume my work isn’t relevant to them.If they didn’t go to the first assumption, they thought: “Oh! She teaches about sexuality like if I’ve had sex and how much and what kind of sex I’ve had.” It was binary. One or the other but sexuality was rarely seen as holistic or deep in meaning. This needed to change because it was clear this view of sexuality contributed to the problems in our sexual culture.
- I learned that women are hungry to talk about sexuality once asked about it and need a vehicle in which to discuss it within a safe and supportive community. I learned that women want to be asked about their experiences, their fears, their desires but don’t often feel safe to do so they learn how to hide these needs. I saw women are looking for a proven, step by step process to re-educate themselves about sex and sexuality that doesn’t tell them what to do and who they are but rather teaches them to find it on their own terms.
- I learned men are just as interested in discussing sexuality as women but have rarely been taught how to do so appropriately and maturely. They are also rarely given the space for it. I learned men want a place to learn about sexuality that is sophisticated, intelligent and meaningful and that our society is short changing them with stereotypes and lack of meaningful education.
- I learned women are taught and shown that sexuality just happens to them and is typically determined by external forces but this doesn’t serve women and feel empowering to women.
- I learned that men, in general, are taught that they are in control of their sexuality and also in charge of women’s but that instinctively that doesn’t fit for most men.
- Most importantly, I learned that men and women aren’t taught in their early years HOW to make decisions for themselves, particularly in the sexual realm and the consequences for this missing skill set is damaging. It was clear to me that the concept of ‘sexual agency’ was new to most people.
- I saw time and time again that coercion, sexual violence and trauma need to be dealt with head-on. It is systemic matter and a devastating dynamic in our culture altering the lives of survivors and those in the survivors’ lives. There are a lot of good efforts out there to work on prevention and education but funding and interest in prevention isn’t reliable and isn’t coordinated to the level it should be for highest effectiveness.
- I found that body shame, pleasure anxiety, desire and orgasm satisfaction were high on the list of questions and concerns for everyone.
- Undeniably, I witnessed that sex education has really failed our society. It has predominantly been fear-based and dominated by nationally prescribed standards dictating social norms. Sex education, historically, has focused on not having unintended pregnancies and acquiring STDs (now termed STI’s). It was heteronormative and biologic. It started and ended there. Don’t get me wrong, these topics are important but they make up only a small portion of what we should be teaching our young adults. A fully inclusive and meaningful sex education would teach young adults that they have choices and teach them how to make those decisions. It would look at ALL areas of sexuality: biological, emotional, societal, internal, external, the beauty of it, the naturalness of it, the essence of it. It should be holistic, positive, deep and give guidance rather than dominate with scare tactics and one-rule-fits-all prescriptions.
- I recognized that even though we received piss poor education in our youth, it is never too late to heal from our past, to claim our needs and sexual values and to own our sexual future. On our terms. We can re-educate ourselves with the sophistication that can come with age, experience, trials and successes. Sex education isn’t for children and teenagers only. Sexuality education should span the lifespan because if you are breathing, you are a sexual being who has changing needs, desires and values. It is healthy and normal to grow and change, to wonder why this is doing that now or stopped doing this all of a sudden or to want this now and not want that anymore through our life. And I clearly saw we need sexual culture that supports this fluidity as normal and expected and provides safe and meaningful places to explore, examine and develop it throughout our life. Not just in 7th grade health class for a week.
- I quickly concluded that sexual agency was forged within self-examination and reflection but also needed to grow within community. A safe, supportive, reflective and questioning. I knew it was important to support each other’s sexual lives and decisions rather than trying to control each other or judge one another in order to live in sexual agency. We need this individually and our culture needs this shift.
- In my years as a therapist and professor, I saw a correlation between self-confidence and self-esteem and the individual’s view of his or her choices in life. In the realm of sexuality, it wasn’t about sexual activity or experience or lack thereof, it was about their perception of their choices and their place in making decisions. I worked with individuals who had never had sexual intercourse and were miserably unhappy with extremely low self-esteem, and I worked with others who also had never participated in sexual intercourse but were profoundly happy and comfortable with themselves. The difference? Choice and decision-making. Same went for those who had a vast history of sexual behavior. Some were just fine with their number of partners and experiences, and others were ashamed and riddled with guilt. Again, the difference was their view of their choice in their history and their confidence level about having choice in future situations.
- After every lecture, class, discussion, I walked away wanting to leave the discussion with the person(s) believing that sexuality is a great thing, and if approached in a responsible, fun, positive and purposeful way, can be a happy and transformative vehicle in each of our lives. Sexuality doesn’t have to be private, embarrassing or shameful or, conversely, in someone else’s face. A confident, holistic view of our sexuality is a game changer in our lives and subsequently in our culture.
- Sexuality is our essence and effects all areas of our lives. It is complicated and every changing. It is informed by a plethora of things in our lives and it shapes who we are. Daily. Through our lifespan. Yet we don’t know how to talk about it. Intimately. Maturely. In a purposeful way with common language and common goals. I knew I needed to change this. And my passion ignited.
After all these years of research and conversations, I decided I needed to take this class experience outside of the academic arena and translate it for use in the private sector. Thus, this phase of my business.
It is called Be Your Own (S)expert.
By trade, I am a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor and have my PhD in Counseling Education. I have a passion for gender studies. Business wise, I have series of foundational blogs to give you a look into my philosophy and dreams for a better sexual culture that will be coming weekly for five weeks. I have a 6-week e course that is self guided and is based on my class. It is a mixture of videos and worksheets. I have a new e-course focusing on desire launching this fall. I also host regional workshops and retreats and several destination retreats starting in early 2017. I provide one-one-one coaching and run mastermind groups will women meet up with me on line weekly for 6 weeks. I am excited to be able to announce soon my professional speaking gigs this year as well. In between all of this, I am working on my book and accompanying workbook. Finally, I am also a certified facilitator of BodySex workshops and work with Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross to help lessen the effects of pleasure anxiety and body image shame.
I initially focused on female sexuality but after receiving a lot of interest from men and for men, I am working on courses for men too. I am also excited to begin working with the transgender community too.
I’ve been traveling around the world collecting stories, questions and information to give to you. I can’t wait to share this all juicy goodness with you! Comment on my blogs and social media posts, email me questions, let me know what is on your heart and what you need to know. This is my passion and I am here to help you. Join my in the Be Your Own (S)expert movement….xo Dr. Juliana xo