Jennifer Gibson (The "Sex Lady")
Jennifer Gibson MA, is the Coordinator of Community Education Services. She is a professional sexual health educator whose knowledge, sense of humour, enthusiasm, and comfort level give her the unique ability to make sexual health education accessible and easy to relate to. Most often referred to as “The Sex Lady” by youth participants, Jennifer believes in making sexual health education relevant, accessible, and fun for all participants. Jennifer earned her Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies from the University of Victoria, her counselling support certificate from Camosun College, and her Masters of Arts in Leadership from Royal Roads University. During her MA work, Jennifer conducted research on the relevancy of sexual health education and published a thesis entitled, “Making Sexual Health Education ‘Sexy’ for Youth.” Previous to her work with Island Sexual Health, Jennifer worked in the field of disordered eating prevention, media literacy, and positive body image promotion with youth and adults in communities throughout Vancouver Island.
1. How did you come to be a professional sexual health educator? What inspired you to pursue this career path?
I was raised by a single mom who is a great communicator and she always encouraged me to approach life’s big topics like sexuality with humour, empathy, and curiosity. When I first came to UVic, my goal was to become a classroom educator. I took sociology and gender studies classes as electives and realized that I was far more interested in people, wellness, and society than classroom education. After graduating with my BA from UVic, I worked in disordered eating prevention and support, facilitating workshops for youth around the promotion of positive body image and media literacy skills for a local non-profit. After funding issues ended my position, I joined Island Sexual Health as the coordinator of volunteers and quickly found myself training to become a sexual health educator. Fast Forward 15 years with the addition of a counselling certificate, a master’s degree and working with more than 100,000 workshop participants and I am more inspired than ever.
2. How did you come by the nickname “The Sex Lady”?
About 10 years ago, a group of local high school students and their teacher began calling me “The Sex Lady.” Most people don’t remember my name but they remember the topics that I facilitate conversations about! I feel like it’s the ultimate compliment– it means I’ve made an impression! It is not unusual for me to hear “Hey Sex Lady!” yelled as a greeting from a passing car or be written in place of my name on my coffee cup.
3. What was your research focus for your master’s degree?
My master’s research focused on practical ways to increase the relevancy and currency of sexual health education for youth participants based on the experiences and opinions of youth. I was lucky enough to have 3 very diverse groups of youth research participants who all articulately told me the same things: 1) Youth want more opportunities for sexual health education; 2) Youth want community based professionals to help facilitate this education and 3) Youth value the adults in their lives talking to them about sexuality.
4. How do you maintain your work-life balance?
Honestly, not as well as I encourage others to! Work-life balance is a challenge for me to maintain. I think this can be especially true for people who love their job and receive a lot of personal and professional fulfillment from the work they do like I do. I definitely struggle to set boundaries with the number of workshops and projects I commit to because I am so passionate about the topic and the people I work with! Luckily, I have great family and friends who help create opportunities that remind me of the benefits of work-free time spent!
5. What is the most interesting question you have been asked by a workshop participant?
This is a really difficult question to answer because every day participants ask questions which fascinate, challenge, entertain and educate me! I do remember early on in my teaching there was a high school student who asked me “is there anything positive about sexuality because most adults just talk about the gross and scary stuff?” This question shapes all of the education I do. It’s my greatest fear that the information in my sessions would be received as gross or scary. I strive for it to be funny, engaging, and relevant.
6. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from participants in your workshops so far?
I think the most surprising thing I’ve learned is that most people are willing to share their curiosities, questions, and concerns about sexuality even if it challenges their comfort levels! This amazes and inspires me. I’ve learn that there are many reasons why people, especially women, aren’t always encouraged to explore their natural curiosities about sexuality and that when people are given space and encouragement to do so, they are willing to engage in honest and real conversations! That is incredibly humbling and it’s what makes me feel an incredible sense of privilege and responsibility to have this job.
7. In your opinion, what myths persist surrounding sexual health, particularly for women?
I believe there are still a lot of myths around contraceptive options, especially their efficacy and safety and the need for sexually transmitted infection screening. In short, there are numerous safe, effective contraceptive methods but they should be chosen based on the individual user and, if you’re sexually active, get tested for infections! Knowledge is power.
Most current myths stem from a historical lack of accessible, evidence-based education opportunities and judgement free health care. Unfortunately, many people still gather their sexual health knowledge from others’ opinions and experiences rather than evidence-based information. Access to online and credible information and client centred health care professionals are changing people’s knowledge levels, experiences, and expectations.
8. What is still lacking in sexual education, especially for girls and young women?
Open and honest conversation about pleasure, healthy relationships, and enthusiastic consent. The discussion of pleasure has been absent in typical sexuality education. Historically, the focus has been on the prevention of negative outcomes – sexually transmitted infections and unintentional pregnancy. True comprehensive sexuality education includes the discussion of sexuality as a diverse, positive and affirming life force. In my opinion, not talking about sex as a potentially pleasurable experience allows space for shame and embarrassment and negates the autonomy and freedoms so many people have fought and are still fighting for us to benefit from.
9. What advice do you have for women to have healthy sex lives?
Build your self knowledge by learning your physical and emotional needs well as they transition throughout your lifespan. Trust your own expertise and judgment. Find qualified health care professionals who will recognize your knowledge, beliefs, and needs and support you as part of your wellness team. Recognize that you deserve to experience and express sexuality as it feels comfortable and safe for you – there’s no one prescription for sexual vitality.
10. What do you find to be most effective for educating adults about sexual health?
Meeting people where they’re at, asking them to identify their needs, values, beliefs and identifying my role as a resource to help them get to know themselves better. When introducing me, people often refer me to as an expert which makes me uncomfortable because the only thing I am an expert in is maybe my own stuff on a good day! I have come to know that each person is an expert on their experiences, needs, values, beliefs and that expertise cannot be undervalued. Ideally the most effective education pairs participant self knowledge with evidence based information.
11. What advice do you have for girls/women who are interested in choosing this career path? Sexual health care and education is an incredibly rewarding and energizing field of work. I literally end every day feeling like I have the best job because I work with amazing people in an area that can be positive and fun. There are many avenues into this work and opportunities to leverage your passions, skills, education, and abilities. A person can take a science background (microbiology, psychology, nursing..) or a human and social development background and find diverse and fascinating opportunities to study and work.
12. When have you felt most proud of your work and why?
I feel most proud of my work when participants tell me that the information I offered them helped them to understand themselves, their partners, children, parents or situations better. Recently, I was presenting at a conference when a second-year student approached me after the talk and told me that they took their first sexual health class with me in grade 4 - Eek! They graciously told me that they loved how comfortable, funny and safe I helped them feel and this inspired them to consider health care as a career. This is the type of feedback that makes me feel proud of the work I have been doing because I believe that the BIG life issues like sexuality should feel comfortable, safe and accessible. I think we’ll all be healthier because of it!