An Expert Speaks Openly and Honestly About Sex

James M. Loy, Miami University

Listen to the Audio Podcasts


Read the Q&A

Sexuality is a complex and controversial subject. But for all the attention it commands, it is surprising to learn how little we actually understand it. Sex is not something many people are comfortable discussing. That, however, is precisely where Richelle Frabotta excels.

As one of the few educators in the United States certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators Counselors and Therapists, Frabotta teaches openly and honestly from a sex-positive perspective about what are often very challenging issues. 

She is also the coordinator of Miami University’s new Sexuality Education Studies Center, which will provide a wide range of service-oriented and scholarly-based programs for the campus and the community. 

An extended version of this conversation originally appeared on the Reframe podcast.

What does it mean to be a sexuality educator?

Frabotta: That's a great question. And after 25 years of being in this field, I'm still amazed. You would say, “Richelle, your leg looks broken. You should go see a doctor.” You would say, “Your sink is backed up. Why don't you call a plumber?” But sexuality educators are not usually the first thought in our culture. 

Everybody thinks they’re a “sexpert” to some degree, because sexuality is so culturized and ingrained in our media, and advertising, and in our values, and in everything we do. All of that naturally feels as if we understand human sexuality. And, in fact, people call me kind of as a last resort, or to fix something. So when people get stuck. When people want to explore. When people want to advance their knowledge. That's when I step in. 

What are the most common issues that you address?

Frabotta: Consistently, since 1999, undergraduate students want me to talk about relationships [and] to talk about effective communication skills.

What I want to talk about is the endocrine system. What I want to talk about is when you say you don't want to get pregnant, or you don't think you'll ever have a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Where was the gap? Because now you're pregnant and now you have an STI. So I find our agendas tend to be a little different. But I'm certainly comfortable talking about things that are foremost and present on twenty-year-old undergraduate’s minds. 

Are these pressing issues in the lives of college students, mostly? Or are they more common? 

Frabotta: It's universal. Whether it's something as popular culture or movie-based as how do I get the sex that I want to have? Or, how do I just tell somebody that I don't want to do these things? So, it’s a lot of consent and refusal skills. But that's usually the secondary conversation. The primary conversation tends to be, “Why won't this person just do ‘this’ or do ‘that.’” 

Meanwhile, I still don't know why our very smart, overachieving 20-year-olds don't know when pregnancy can occur. So that's bothering me, and I will forever teach the endocrine cycle.

Are these things that schools don’t teach today? Has the way most schools approach sex-ed changed in recent years? 

Frabotta: It's changed drastically. In the 90s, it was just “abstinence only.” Then, in 2000, with the George Bush presidency, the language changed to “abstinence-only until marriage.” And in the 90s, when we were only supposed to talk about abstinence, that wasn't what students were asking me, by the way. That wasn't what teachers wanted me to teach.

I've taught counties north of Dayton all the way to Campbell, Kenton, and Boone in Northern Kentucky. Because I was “that” teacher that got invited to other people's classrooms, fourth grade through 12th grade. And those weren't the lesson plans that teachers wanted me to teach. But in the 2000s -- I think it was 2005 to be exact -- it became mandated, especially in the state of Ohio, where ONLY abstinence could be taught in schools. Which again, the irony. That's not what young people, and folks who worked with young people, wanted them to know. So it's changed a lot.

Why is it important for people to get a proper sexuality education? 

Frabotta: It’s important because we're human. And sexuality is the subject matter that deals with being human. If I were to break down the word sexuality into one word. I'd call it “identity.” And I don't mean identity in the sexual “who you fall in love with” or “who you want to have sex with” way. Although that's part of it. But that's the point. That's a part of a much bigger picture. 

Having said that, I think [there are] cultural implications. Currently, we're hearing a lot about #MeToo. So consent has really forefronted itself. The idea of body ownership has forefronted itself. Those seem to be pretty hot topics. And I think teaching about sexuality -- and I support a comprehensive approach. I'm talking about K-12 -- I think what we'll find if that were to be instituted, very specifically, I would say less sexual violence. I believe sexual violence will decrease. And I think the challenges that come with saying “yes” to penis vagina-intercourse that people don't want to deal with in the moment, such as unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, such as chlamydia, HIV, herpes, etc. I think those things will decrease as well.

In addition to the classes you teach at Miami, you are also the coordinator for the new Sexuality Education Studies Center (SESC). What was behind the creation of this new center? 

Frabotta: Philosophically, it came about based on this last bit of conversation we were having. There is a huge gap. It's not acceptable for our super smart, overachieving, well-resourced students to not understand that an egg has to come out of the ovary in order for a baby to be made. And then, to not understand exactly when that egg is supposed to come out of the ovary, and the processes that allow that to happen. That's just basic body function. It's unacceptable. 

So even though I give you a very specific example. It's an obvious gap in our culture. So, here at this institution, we can start to have formal conversations via the center. Not that we haven't been having conversations. But we now have a location. 

What are some of the projects and partnerships that the center has been involved with?

First, it's important to say the Sexuality Education Study Center isn't operating in a vacuum. We ascribe to the College of Education, Health and Society ideology. This is my academic community. I have done a lot of guest lecturing and I’m doing a lot of work on intersectionality. So a lot of work on talking about sexual identity and orientation and gender.

On campus, I've also had conversations with Student Health and Wellness about what the center can do to buttress that programming. And off campus, because in my 25 years as a sexuality educator in southwest Ohio I have lots of partnerships and, in particular, a couple of niches. I really appreciate folks with disabilities journeys and challenges. And I will just say, typical folks don't get sex-ed. Guess what atypical folks don't get? At all. Period. So, I've done a lot of work in the developmental disabilities community, which also includes the Cincinnati Center for Autism.

When you do this kind of work, especially when you talk about working with those with disabilities, do you ever get pushback from people who are not okay with the ideas that you promote?

Frabotta: In short, the answer is yes. It's probably why I speak in paragraphs. But what it really takes is the individual that I'm having a conversation with to be open to an explanation. When somebody comes in already deciding that their sixteen-year-old girl has to be a virgin until she's married, and hasn't consulted the sixteen-year-old girl, we've got a problem. Okay. You can have your opinion. 

What I do is student-centered, research-informed, medically accurate, developmentally relevant, age-appropriate education on very many, many, many topics. And I will never tell a parent that they don't know what's best for their kid. That's not a conversation I can have. But if you want to partner with me, as somebody who is an expert sexuality educator, so that you can parent your child perhaps a little more effectively, because if what you're doing isn't working, then why not try another way? Then let's have that conversation. 

So how can people get involved?  Do students have to take your class? Can other organizations email or call? Can they just walk into your office and say, “What can I do? How can I help?”

Frabotta: The answer is yes, yes, and yes. I'm approachable. I'm easy to spot in a crowd. It's just a matter of accessing me and finding time to talk about what it is that you or your group wants. Then I can let you know if we can do it and how we can do it. I'm really open to partnerships.

And I would love for people to take my FSW365 course. It started with 25 students, and now I can go up to 188. I like a large lecture classroom. So come on. If you want to audit it, or take it pass/fail, great. I support the students’ goals. 

But I guarantee you can't be in that classroom and not leave without having reflected on your personal values, learning new information, and at least knowing where to go to find more information. I know those goals get achieved in 15 weeks. Actually, we probably do it in three. And that speaks not to me, or to our facility. But to the lack of education out there around sexuality.