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Reframe Podcast: Episode 40

Being Open and Honest About Sexuality (Part 1)

Richelle Frabotta giving a lecture about sexuality education

We’ve all heard the phrase: Sex sells. And while that may be true, it also creates controversy. But for all the attention this subject commands, it is surprising how little we actually understand it. Sexuality is not something many people are comfortable speaking about openly. But Richelle Frabotta is not one of them.

As one of the few certified sexuality educators in the country, she teaches openly and frankly from a sex positive perspective about what have traditionally been very challenging issues. She is also at the forefront of the new Sexuality Education Studies Center here at Miami, and today she’s here to talk about the importance of sexuality education, and much more.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

We’ve all heard the phrase: Sex sells. And while that may be true, it also creates controversy. But for all the attention this subject commands, it is surprising how little we actually understand it. Sexuality is not something many people are comfortable speaking about openly. But Richelle Frabotta is not one of them. 

As one of the few certified sexuality educators in the country, she teaches openly and frankly from a sex-positive perspective about what have traditionally been very challenging issues. She is also at the forefront of the new Sexuality Education Studies Center here at Miami, and today she’s here to talk about the importance of sexuality education, and much more.

(MUSIC FADE)

James Loy:

So I think this is an interesting subject. So thanks for being here to talk more about it. So how did you get into this field, and what are your credentials as a sexuality educator?

Richelle Frabotta:

Yeah, it’s one of those stories. I was raised pretty traditional Catholic. Didn’t really understand what was or . . . Honestly, I had never heard the word “uterus” before. So I’m 22 years old. I have a great undergrad degree. I’m in my first job in the mental health field and it became real apparent the mental health field is not where I needed to be. And so I called a buddy from school. She was working at Planned Parenthood and I said, “Whatta ya got? What’s going on?” And she said, you know, they have a job open for a sexuality educator, you should apply. And we laughed and then I applied and then 25 years later, this is what I do. It was an amazing idea. I didn’t know people could have a job doing this and, frankly, back in the 90s you couldn’t. Not in the early 90s. 

So as far as credentials go, I have a bachelor's in communication I have a master's in counseling and I’m working on my PhD here in the educational leadership program right now. And you really don't need any credentials to do this work. However, one of the reasons that I'm so passionate and so grateful that the center exists, is because people ought to have credentials to do this work. 

So I do have certifications from the American Association of Sexuality Educators Counselors and Therapists, whom we call AASECT for short. It's a pretty rigorous certification to achieve. I've had it since the mid-90s. And then they added a supervisory service certification, which I've had since they created it in 2014. I'm one of 18 (at last count) CSES supervisors in the United States.

James Loy:

And what is that you do as a sexuality educator? How does the job work? Why would someone come to you? How do you help them, or what are some of the issues that you would typically deal with? 

Richelle Frabotta:

Sure. And that's a great question and, you know, again, after 25 years of being in this field, I'm still amazed. You know, you would say, “Richelle, your leg looks broken, you should go see a doctor.” You would say, you know, “Richelle, you're talking about how your sink is backed up. why don't you call a plumber?” 

So sexuality educators get called when somebody thinks about it, and we're not usually the first thought in our culture. Everybody thinks they’re sexpert to some degree, because sexuality is so culturized and ingrained in our media, and advertising, and in our values, and, you know, everything we do. Where you go to school. Where you go to church. Where you shop. All of that naturally feels as if we are understanding of human sexuality. And, in fact, people call me kind of as a last resort, or to fix something. 

For example, I do work with folks with developmental disabilities and when we started a program in 1997 here in Butler County, the people whom I worked with were referred because they had a “problem behavior” or a problem like, say, chronic yeast infections. And the case manager was tired of driving this individual to the gynecologist every month and this problem had to be solved. And those are really . . .  I get that.

But honestly, my work is about being human. So when people get stuck, when people want to explore, when people want to advance their knowledge, which they're already pretty sure they know stuff. Then that's when I step in, or get utilized. Most common issues, honestly? Consistently, since 1999, undergraduate students want me to talk about relationships. Want me 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. 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.

James Loy:

Is that what’s pressing in the lives of college students, mostly? Or are these pretty common issue in general? 

Richelle Frabotta:

It's universal. Throughout my 25-year career, those are the things. Communication. How do I get what I want? Whether it's something as . . .  you know, 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 a lot of consent, 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. 

James Loy:

So what is the current state of sexuality education today? I grew up in a small town in Illinois in the 80s, and I got some form of basic sex-ed. And we did learn about if I can recall correctly when pregnancy could occur. So what is the current state of it? Has it changed? Are these things that schools don’t talk about today?

Richelle Frabotta:

Yeah, so, again, that's a huge question. And you're right. If we did talk about, say, schools. It's changed drastically. In the 90s, it was just abstinence-only. And then in 2000, during the George Bush presidency, the language got changed from abstinence-only to abstinence-only until marriage. So in the 90s, when I thought that we were only supposed to be talking about abstinence, because that's what the top-down message was . . . that wasn't what students were asking me, by the way. That wasn't what teachers wanted me to teach, when I was called into the, you know . . .  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 go 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 2000, it became mandated, especially in the state of Ohio -- I think was 2005 to be exact -- 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 (young people) to know about. So it's changed a lot

James Loy:

So why is it important to go beyond what’s currently being done? What are some of the issues that a proper sexuality education can address? Why is it important? 

Richelle Frabotta:

So, they're 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 a part of it. But that's the point. That's a part of a much bigger picture. Identity is: How you dress yourself for a first date, is not necessarily how you will dress yourself to go to church on Sunday. So these are all ways of expressing identity. That's sexuality.

Having said that, I think, cultural implications, you know, currently we're hearing a lot about #metoo. So consent has really fore fronted itself. The idea of body ownership has fore fronted itself. Those seem to be some pretty hot topics. I think teaching about sexuality, and I support a comprehensive approach -- so not just one course when you're in eighth grade, or a semester when you're graduating high school -- I'm [talking about] K-12. And I think what we'll do . . .  what we'll find if that were to be instituted, I would say, 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 at that moment, such as unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, such as chlamydia, HIV, herpes, etc. I think those things will decrease as well.

James Loy:

All those benefits, especially as you list them out, all seem so obvious, like common sense. So what are the barriers? And why do so many still seem to exist? Historically, many ideas and issues around sexuality have instead led to a general silencing or even outright repression around sexuality. But why is that? Why has that always been a thing? Why has it been such a struggle to get to a place where it seems like so many positive things could happen? 

Richelle Frabotta:

Yeah, I know, right? My goal was to do myself out of a job, right? Why should my work exist? We have parents. We have micro-communities that we live in such as religious cultures, such as neighborhood cultures, such as school culture. We've got lots of really caring grown-up people who want young people to get information and succeed, right? It's a no-brainer. So, to be candid, I don't really get it. And I have to really push myself to remember the shame and the guilt. Because that's going to be my answer.

You know, we've got huge conversations happening in the field of sexuality. We could talk economics. There's a capitalistic, uh . . . what is the right frame of the word? There is a capitalist economy [that] thrives when we sell products for people to use, such as feminine hygiene care. To be candid, most of the stuff on the market that says you're supposed to smell better “down there,” women. Is completely unnecessary. Yet it's marketed and sold. So there has to be a problem with the “down there” in order for you to want to buy the product. So that's just an example of what I mean by capitalism. Why do we need six thousand brands of condoms? Okay, I get it, because we live in a country that says we can do that. Great. But why would really anybody want to buy an animal skin or natural skin condom? And if they do, is it because they're educated and know the difference between that type of condom and, say, a latex condom versus a silicone based condom? Right? So I think we need my job because nobody's teaching discernment around products and product use.

And then, you know, we have to talk about our cultural values and norms, which I think are framed oftentimes for folks in a religious context. And, not that it has to be. So shout out to non-religious folks. Having said that, we all have a moral code, and most of ours, I think, in the United States was informed by at least a Christian, if not a Jewish, and of course other perspectives. So what are those particular moral codes saying around things like sex and sexuality?

So, we've got economics, plus we've got moral code, and then we've got this idea of how do we develop fully into who we are? And most of us have been raised to not want to disappoint people in our lives. So . . . . because think about . . . I mean, James, what's the first question when a baby is born? Most people ask, is it a boy or girl, right? And then we have folks in our culture, in our communities, all over the place, who don't necessarily identify as a boy or as a girl. Whether we're talking about folks who are intersexed, which is a physiological concern, or we talk about folks who are trans-identified, which is also a physiological concern. But all of these things have cultural implications. And so, I think we're looking at, again, you know, economics, moral code, and this idea of individual development and identity. And I think there's some real value that some folks -- not me -- find in keeping people buying those products, or feeling crappy about themselves, or meeting other people's or other organizations needs. As opposed to developing fully individually on their own, and in the rightful unique way that they are. Yeah, shame and guilt, man. Judgment. Shame. Guilt.

James Loy:

Yeah. It's so curious that there's always seemed to be that disconnect, between on one side what is not only a natural behavior, it’s literally an essential biological function that has led to the life of everyone. Ever. But on the other side, it’s always portrayed as something that is negative or something that is to be avoided, or, again, repressed. But it does make more sense within this context that you present of power, oppression, and expectation, that can lead to all this cultural baggage.

Richelle Frabotta:

Exactly. When, ideally, and I'm guessing we believe this. I know most people believe it. It should be a joyous act of connection. Now, how and what definition is active connection? What is joyous? I don't know. But that's, again, the beauty of my job. I'm not your mom. I'm your teacher. And I think teachers should support students where they are in healthy choices, without me saying what your healthy choice ought to be. 

Now, there clearly are some things I cannot support, and my students know those right away when I'm in a classroom. There are three things I'm just not . . .  It's not going to . . . I mean we can talk about it, of course. But you cannot have sex with people who don't consent. That's not okay. So there are some hard and fast rules. But most of the work that I do is really gray. Unfortunately, there are folks who believe . . .  and this is that conversation again about co-opting the sexuality education message with moral dictates, and there are folks who think that the world should only work one way. That's not true. 

James Loy:

I have heard you say that, in your classes, that you often teach college-level students, you often teach them this material at a 6th-grade level. I thought that was really surprising. Can you expand on that? 

Richelle Frabotta:

Yeah, and what I mean when I say that I'm teaching a sixth-grade curriculum in a 300 level course is because we're doing the basics. There's a group of folks I really respect. I think it's three or four different national nonprofit bodies, came together and created what we call the standards . . . the national sex-ed standards. And you can access this. It’s at FOSE online. The “future of sex-ed.” And you can download the standards. They also talked about teacher preparation standards, which I also value. So this group of people actually put in writing, in a format that all of us can access, a philosophy that I've been supporting and espousing before the standards existed. And that is, you need to be informed in order to make healthy choices. If we continue -- and I'm referring to the absence only until marriage programming stuff -- if we continue to non-inform, or if we continue to have educators, who are great teachers but are also uninformed in this particular interdisciplinary information, or don't choose to teach medically accurate, or don't choose to pull their personal values out of their curriculum as much as possible, then we're still going to have me teaching the same course since 1999. Birth control 101. Endocrine system 101. STIs 101. Showing a picture of genitals that have been exhibiting symptoms of particular STIs is not education. Maybe for pre-med students. But that is not going to help a young person make informed decisions about what to do with their bodies down there. It's not a deterrent. It's just ridiculous. 

James Loy:

It’s . . . it also seems like it’s part of another disconnect, right? Conversations about sex can be awkward, and as we’ve already established, often avoided or repressed in some way. But yet, ironically, it’s also absolutely everywhere. It’s used to sell cars, alcohol, product of all kinds. It’s in magazines and emphasized in almost every aspect of the media. Earlier you used the word “culturized.” So it seems like a mixed message, to say the least. 

So in light of all that omnipresence, but yet also ironic avoidance. Does that raise the risk of misinformation? Almost anyone, young people especially, can just go online and get bombarded with unrealistic sexual scenarios or unrealistic body images. So, are they getting misinformation or maybe information from maybe not the best source? Like from movies or from the internet . . . 

Richelle Frabotta:

Or not at all. First, I would argue that some students don't have access to information for lots of reasons. Second, I would argue, I think, what you're posting that, yeah, there are students who have access to information and maybe they're getting misinformed through that. I would agree. And so, I want to teach: How do you become an informed consumer of information?

To kind of switch wheels, but make the same point. Pornography. Which I use the term “adult erotica,” and I use it with intention. Adult erotica, first of all. Not for kids, right? Does that mean kids aren't seeing it? No, of course, kids are seeing it. You can lock down anything, and I'm pretty sure a kid is going to be able to figure out how to get to it if they're determined enough to. Which, you know, then I'm going to want to support them in trying to figure out what they need to figure out. Having said that, I would love to teach that adult erotica is not reality. Now sitting here in this office as grown people, and by growing people, I'm talking about brain development.     So when I'm dealing with a 23-year-old, when I'm working with an 18-year-old, when a 13-year-old presents as wanting information, they may all want the same information. How it gets delivered, and their brain’s ability to discern the quality and the credibility, and then what the heck to do with that information, is very different.

And these are where my ed psych folks come in, as far as my discipline is concerned. [And] it's not always about development. We got to throw in a lot of culture there too. However, yeah, just because somebody can access it, doesn't mean they know what or how to do with it. And most sources that are offering information, I'm not impressed with. 

James Loy:

So pornography, or adult erotica as you say, especially concerning the ease of access now, it does seem accessible very much more so now than ever before, which is a concern for parents and probably for a lot of people. Does that increase the harm that may result for people who may not as easily figure out that disconnect? Between what is fantasy and what is reality, or . . .

Richelle Frabotta:

I mean, I also think most humans do figure it out. But that doesn't mean that when that individual turns 47, and is in their second relationship because the first one went down in flames, that not processing or asking or getting information wouldn't have perhaps influenced that first relationship differently. Right?

There are some incredible things coming out of watching adult erotica, and it . . . You know, this whole “me too” movement around consent. You know, people . . . I . . .  my students laugh, and that's important because it is funny. But I remind them that just because somebody's delivering your pizza doesn't mean they want to have sex with you ten minutes later. And, you know, if you don't get to unpack it, sure, I mean, I don't think most people are scarred or traumatized. But there's an element to recognizing and discussing here that, again, in an academic environment, that's the stuff we embrace, right? And these are the things we talk about in my classroom. 

James Loy:

I read in one of your academic papers where you quote the sexual educator and expert and psychotherapist Ian Kerner, who says he does not see pornography as the main cause of objectification or sexual violence. Rather, he says that the language around sex hasn’t really changed in the last 200 years, that we continue to pathologize sex. Is that really the larger problem that our culture has with sex, do you think? 

Richelle Frabotta:

Yeah. In my informed opinion, it is. It's exactly . . .  I mean, you've already made the point sex exists. I mean, whether we go biblical. Or we go, you know, evolutionary biology. We can talk in both schools of thought. Human sexuality exists, right? To what end? To what purpose? [That] is the moral, debatable, or is the economic approach, right? Having said that, none of that has changed how it’s packaged and received. Or shamed. Or, you know, stuck under the bed. Or in the closet. [That] is what we're dealing with. And if we don't . . . you know, there are plenty of examples, and, you know, it's so easy to do this research. But, you know, our friends over in the Netherlands -- in countries who are similar in construct in the United States, in the way that folks who do this type of research -- say, you know, human sexuality is a norm. [It] is a natural thing for young people to want to have sex. And then, to make decisions to do sex is not weird. It's normal.

So, yeah, we need to unpack that. We need to de-pathologize, which is going to be really hard to do in our culture. But  . . . and that's what comprehensive sex-ed does. If we don't start expanding or allowing folks to expand the conversation, then, you know, it's just going to continue. And we see it in so many horrific ways, that people are very quick to say are values based. You know, do you believe in choice? Do you believe in a woman's body . . . that a woman has a right to do what she wants with her body? These are all conversations that continue to inform how sex, and in particular sexuality . . . I mean, it is sex, definitely. But sexuality is undervalued as a cultural discourse unless it's politicized, or used for capital gains. I'm comfortable saying that.

James Loy:

Alright, we’ll leave there for now. Richelle Frabotta, certified sexuality educator, and Miami University instructor. 

In the next episode, you can join us for part two of our conversation on human sexuality, when we will talk about whether acceptance around sexuality is getting better or worse. And we’ll talk more about the work and mission of the new Sexuality Education Studies Center, and how people can get involved.

Until then, you can download many more free episodes of our podcast right now on SoundCloud and on iTunes.

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