About a year and a half ago, a friend of mine shared a job opening with me for a sex educator at a local non-profit. At first, I totally blew it off. Part-time? Working with youth? It reminded me of the old art education days that I clawed my way out of and happily traded in for retail. …But I couldn’t get the position out of my mind; there were so many more ways that it seduced my soul with its perfection.
When I got an e-mail back asking for ideas on how I would approach inclusive & sex-positive lesson plans, I spent an entire day blissed out & buried in reference books. When I received a phone call asking me to come in for an interview, I started giggling & crying in the car. When one of my interviewers nonchalantly said “fuck” during the interview, I smiled inside & knew that I had found a kindred spirit. And when I got woken up with the job offer a few days later (after thinking that I had totally bombed it), I screamed and reached for a calculator to figure out how I could make the transition work. I had finally made it. I was a professional sex educator.
And a couple of months ago… I quit.
Earlier this year, I would have told anyone who asked that I had found my forever job. I was in a rare & magical place that put sex positivity into practice by respecting the sexual autonomy of youth. There were no restrictions on what questions I could answer or advice I could give. I was finally in a place that felt good & right and, even though there were struggles, my only hope was to turn this into a lifelong full-time gig. We even bought a house because settling down here seemed suddenly inevitable.
Looking back, I realize that I shouldn’t have been so naive. I see the struggles that should have been red flags. Every instance of hope that was demolished and faith that was misplaced stands out in stark contrast. And maybe I’m bitter and angry and heartbroken still… but I simply can’t believe that the work environment or the actions that were taken there are normal. Not for any organization — but especially not one that proudly proclaims social justice.
When I first started working there, a white comedian made a joke with “the N word” at one of our fundraising events. When the harm that this caused was brought to the attention of those who had planned the event, they got defensive & withdrew. They did not ask for help or input from our youth for the next function. Out of fear that emotions were too high, they actually decided to pull the youth back — not inviting them onstage to share their stories like in years past. To make matters worse, someone even decided that youth were not allowed to eat the food that had been catered in. These were the very youth we were there to raise money for, some of which were also volunteering to help that night. This did not go unnoticed.
When we tried to mend the growing rift within our organization by introducing restorative practices and raising awareness to issues of racism & classism, emotions ran high and the yelling started. We watched an executive member of our team literally smack themself in the face — before quitting altogether. We heard people at the head of our marketing department admit that they had never heard of “tokenizing” people of color before. We watched as senior members of staff continuously denied their privilege: be it white privilege, male privilege, financial privilege, or cis privilege. We had a member of staff threatened with suspension for things that were said in what was supposed to be a healing circle. Instead of healing us… it led to our eventual implosion.
Over the next several months, 11 out of 16 staff members quit (including myself).
Towards the end, I was sensitive to every instance of us abandoning our guiding principles. When materials for a financial campaign quietly removed our dedication to “sex positivity” so as not to scare off potential donors. When my “Be nice to sex workers” shirt was laughed at. When the very concept of queer porn having historical value was scoffed at as we absorbed a local LGBTQ+ library. Every moment when I wondered if I would lose my job if this blog was discovered. Because of my position there, sex positivity was a big battleground for me, but it most certainly wasn’t the only war that was being fought.
There was the time when we apparently considered taking money from a company that manufactures missiles. (I’m not sure who was responsible for our decision on that one, but thankfully we decided on a different direction.) Every single time that “social justice” or “intersectionality” was mentioned as purely a buzzword, while members of our administration and board of directors continuously failed to attend anti-racism workshops. When we not only permanently kicked out youth (after stating that we wanted to trade in our old punitive measures for a new model of restorative practices) — but also refused to offer a case manager to help remediate the interpersonal issues at hand. When fellow staff members started favoring solutions that could potentially ruin a youth’s life over a teenage mistake.
It became painfully clear that I could no longer trust the “ethics” of the organization and unfortunately, I didn’t feel strong enough or brave enough to keep fighting.
Of course, the entire ordeal has had me questioning: Is there any organization within sexual health that I could align with ethically? Is running an organization truly dedicated to social justice and harm reduction even possible when dealing with minors, simply because of the legalities involved? I want to hope so (on both accounts), but at this point, my local options are slim-to-none and I feel too broken & defeated to jump back in.
Because as inconsequential as it sounds… there was also the pure fact that as more & more individuals left, I increasingly felt like I was trapped in an environment where I was not wanted or even cared about as a human being. The majority of coworkers who would have seen my signs of depression & been genuinely concerned about my wellbeing were gone, the couple who still did were not in positions to change anything, and I was suddenly under a leader whose solution was to simply say, “You don’t seem happy here. We can try to fix that, or you can leave” with what felt like a heavy emphasis on the latter. Someone who never once asked what was behind my reason for leaving — or even acknowledged my pain as I held back tears & couldn’t form words to the question “how are you?”
My family was gone and I continuously felt invisible. Misunderstood. Silenced. Pushed out. And although “abandoning” the youth made this the hardest decision I have had to make in years, I also knew that they would be unfortunate witnesses to a severe spike in my depression if I were to stay.
It’s been a few months now since I left. My mental health is recovering, but the pain is still raw. Some days, I wake up thinking about my kids (and how I feel completely cut off from them) or I drive past the building and I start sobbing. I was grown in that place. I met the most inspiring individuals in that organization (both youth & coworkers). People who gave me the space & the power to embrace my own queerness. People who taught me what it meant to be “subversive” and to truly fight for what’s right. People who showed me what compassion and love and acceptance was on a level that I didn’t even think was possible. And one particular person who proved to be the very definition of a “soulmate” in my life.
Even knowing what I know now… I can honestly say that I would still go back and live the experience all over again. It was a defining moment, a span of time that made me who I am. And I know that (eventually) I will come out of this stronger and (hopefully) I will be better prepared for a career in the only thing that has ever felt right.