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Teaching the teachers: further thoughts by Charlie Glickman

'I see great sexual education, but I also see a lot of mediocre sex education'

Below is an additional portion of the transcript of Capital Xtra’s interview with sex educator Charlie Glickman. Here, he discusses his role as a teacher of teachers — how he can help sex educators better deliver their message.

See his thoughts on sex positivity here.

Capital Xtra: How does one become a sex educator?

Charlie Glickman: There’s a few routes that people usually take to become a sex educator.

Many people become sex educators because of personal experiences, their own exploration, their own research and reading related to a particular healing path. And then they turn around and they want to offer that to other people. That can sometimes be incredibly powerful and effective.

Sometimes, they can know a lot about one thing, but they may not know about the wider range of human sexuality. So that’s one issue that can arise.

Another issue that can arise is that some people just don’t know how to teach. There’s this idea that if you have ‘content knowledge’ then you can teach, and that’s simply not true. You can know everything there is to know about how to fix a car, that doesn’t mean you know how to explain it.

One of the reasons for that is that when we become experts in anything, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out how to go back to the beginning point and explain it to someone who’s approaching it for the first time.

CX: It’s a forest for the trees kind of a problem.

CG: Exactly. Someone who is an expert in something knows so much, it can be hard to bring it back to that greater perspective.

I see a lot of really great sexual education happening, but I also see a lot of really mediocre sex education happening. So one of the things that I do is I teach sex educators the principles and practices of adult education, of the way that learning works. And the way that learning works for adults is different than the way that learning works for children. Or at least, it’s not exactly the same. There are similarities.

And then, how should we apply that to a topic? Just as you would use different techniques for teaching calculus than you would for teaching French, there’s different techniques for teaching about sexuality.

CX: What are the common mistakes that sex educators make?

CG: One of them is not creating enough of a safe space for people to explore something new or interesting. Especially when you’re dealing with sexuality issues, at some of these workshops you may be dealing with people who are facing difficulties in their relationships, so you want to make people in those situations feel comfortable. So far, I’ve been talking specifically about workshops and classes, but what I’m saying also applies to service providers in a one-on-one context too.

The other frequently made mistake that I see is teachers who will copy something that they saw someone else do in a different workshop without really understanding why they might choose to do it. For example, they might choose to do an icebreaker exercise to get people talking, but if they use the wrong one — and by wrong one, I mean one that’s ineffective for that particular topic or that particular audience or for that presenter personally — I mean, there are some presenters who are really bubbly and outgoing, and if you try to copy them and you’re not bubbly and outgoing, it’s going to sound really fake.

The reason that a lot of teachers do that is, I think, because they don’t quite grasp the principles of teaching. So what they’re left with is what they see other people do.

CX: So that’s where you come in.

CG: That’s where I come in, because what I really like to help people learn is, ‘these are the basic principles of teaching, but how you apply them for your voice, your topic and your audience is going to be something different than what somebody else will do.’

CX: Gotcha.

CG: And again, that has nothing to do with sexuality, specifically, that’s just about good teaching.

CX: So that’s about applying the principles of adult education to sex workshops.

CG: And that’s what my PhD is in.

CX: Adult education?

CG: Adult sexual education. What I did my research in was exactly this. How to take the principles of adult education and then apply them to sexuality topics.

CX: So you conducted research, you tried it.

CG: I researched and took classes in how to teach. Then I developed a model of adult education that I then applied to a semester-long course that I taught for seminary students on sexuality for people going out to do pastoral care work. Then I evaluated the effectiveness of the course and the model of teaching that I developed.

CX: So then, are the people you’re talking to people who already share your values around sex and sex positivity?

CG: Many of them do. That’s one of the wonderful things about living in San Francisco. I’ve never done a formal survey, but just from my informal experience, there are more sex educators here than anywhere else.

Really, it’s kind of remarkable. Even within that, there are people with all kinds of different perspectives. Planned Parenthood and non-profit agencies who are doing a very different kind of sex education than the people who come to [San Francisco sex shop] Good Vibrations to teach a workshop, and I’ve done all of that across the board.

CX: So the purpose isn’t, say, to take high school gym teachers and turn them into sex positive teachers.

CG: There’s a difference there. I don’t do a lot of work with youth. My background and training is in working with adults. Once you start working with youth, you get into the political battles over what can and can’t be said. Fortunately, in this country, we’ve just had the end of the abstinence-only model and there’s already been a bill proposed to fund medically-accurate comprehensive sex education. I work with adults because once you turn 18, the government doesn’t care what you tell them about sex.

Having said that, a lot of what I offer can certainly apply to working with teenagers, especially, but they’re facing different developmental challenges and different issues. So I think there’s room for someone to come in and to say, ‘Let’s take what we know about teaching children and apply it to sexuality.’ There’s been a lot of work done already in that field.

But the sex positivity piece is also pretty crucial, because a lot of what that means for a teacher is being able to provide accurate, non-judgmental advice no matter what questions somebody might have. That sometimes means setting a limit, saying ‘That’s not something I feel comfortable talking about,’ or ‘That’s not something I know anything about,’ or ‘You know, I think you’re just trying to yank my chain; let’s get back to the topic at hand.’

CX: What needs to be done?

CG: Sex educators need to model sex positivity. When I’m talking with a client or I’m up in front of a workshop, I need to model my own comfort with sex. Or often, you need to model that “I am managing my own buttons.” Because I get my buttons pushed in workshops. People ask me questions that trigger my shame. The founder of Aikido [Morihei Ueshiba] said that it’s not that he don’t get thrown off balance, it’s that he comes back to balance very quickly. And I think that’s at the core of sex positivity. It would be unrealistic to expect that I could never get triggered. It’s just part of the human experience, so it’s about the process of bringing it back and finding your balance.

CX: So what do you mean by “triggered”?

CG: Say that I’m teaching a workshop on anal sex and one of the people in the workshop makes a comment like, “anal sex is gross and disgusting and only sick people do that.” Now, I might take that really personally. Or I might take that as a judgment about me for being up there talking about it. Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood that day and I get really angry at that person. When I’m talking about triggers, I’m talking about things that feel bigger than my ability to manage. It could be fear, because maybe I think this person is going to attack me. Could be anything.

CX: Around here, the workshops at Venus Envy or Breathless tend to attract people who are at least open-minded enough to attend. So, is there a sense that you’re preaching to the choir?

CG: Yes and no. Sometimes the purpose of the workshop is really just to convey information. Here’s how to give a blowjob. Here’s how to spank somebody. And it’s really just about conveying information, so it really doesn’t matter that you’re talking to people who already share your views.

You may still have in any given workshop someone who has ambivalent views. They may both share your views and also have some conflict about that. I see that a lot with queer outreach, where somebody may be very ambivalent about sex, so sex educators need to hold on to both of those positions.