Welcome back to the Coming Out Happy blog! We've got a special guest today who contributed an amazing workshop to the Queer Happiness Collective.
Erica Smith (she/her) is an award-winning sexuality educator and consultant with over 20 years of experience. She has provided comprehensive sex education and advocacy to young women and LGBTQ+ youth in Philadelphia’s juvenile justice system, worked in abortion care, and supported HIV+ and transgender adolescents and their families. In 2019, she developed the Purity Culture Dropout™️ Program to help people learn all of the sex education that they missed growing up in purity culture sex ed that is accurate, queer inclusive, trauma informed, compassionate, and comprehensive. Erica is a queer femme in her 40s who lives in Philadelphia with her partner and house full of rescue animals.
Erica, we would love for you to just introduce yourself. How did you even get into teaching this? Tell us a little bit about you.
“First of all, I am a sex educator, and I have been doing sex education as my work ever since I was in college, basically. I've been a sex educator for over 20 years now, and my work has taken very different forms over the years.
I started working in reproductive health care. I worked in abortion care. I worked in HIV care and HIV prevention. In the last few years, I have landed in the area of focusing my sex education on people that were raised in very conservative religious environments. It seems like a natural progression because we are in the United States, and a lot of people here are raised in very conservative religious environments, sometimes straight up purity culture where they learned to save their virginity and that being queer is a sin.”
There's so much shame, especially with purity culture, and it’s important to know that you're not alone and you're not the only one that's felt that way or experienced that. When it comes down to it, religion really does play such a pivotal role in the shame that we all carry. In this country, we were founded on deeply puritanical values, and those are very baked into the fabric of the society here. Whether you grew up going to church and hearing explicit messages or not, you still get a lot of the shame around sex just in the pop culture of this country.
When we say shame, we mean things like victim blaming, the double standard around sexuality for men and women, the very rigid gender binary, and the idea of compulsory heterosexuality. You don't have to sign a virginity pledge to experience the effects of this narrative. It comes from movies and TV, depending on your age. If you were a young person, like in the early 2000s, you saw it a lot in pop culture, especially with the pop stars of the day.
For some people reading, there may be some confusion as to why sex education is so important. We think we should shed a light on that now because it's seen more and more, but comprehensive sex education is still not very common. For a lot of people, it’s uncomfortable to talk about.
Let's talk a little bit about just sex education in general and how it can be something really helpful for communication in our queer relationships.
“To start, I would say that, even if you had a decent sex education experience, it probably didn't include a lot of information about queer sexuality. So say you went to a public school that had a pretty good program. You would have learned some basics about protection against STIs, which tends to be a very heterosexual focus. It's all about condoms. You would have learned pregnancy prevention. But the idea that, you know, there are tons of other people that are very left out of that conversation is really important to acknowledge.
It can feel really scary for queer people to not even know where to go for that kind of information. Luckily, there are more and more resources available with the rise of social media. There are more and more people online specifically doing sex ed that is for queer people. Not only does it teach us about our bodies, but it can normalize our desires, our attractions, and the way that queer people have sex.
I love to teach people who are very newly out! It’s exciting because you get to write the script. The possibilities are endless, and teaching people all about the different ways we can connect and the different ways we can experience pleasure, and then everything that goes on with that such as STI prevention, is so rewarding. There's just so much to learn and explore, and I love to approach it from a fun learning and exploratory perspective, not from a scare tactic perspective.”
We work with so many LGBTQ+ adults who came out later in life, and they're so overwhelmed by having any kind of sexual experience. They don’t know what to do or who to talk to. It's a beautiful thing to offer the support that is really a big part of people's lives or can be if it's important to them.
We're talking a lot about sex education, specifically for relationships, but at the same time, this is a way of connection for ourselves. Sometimes we miss that and we think we can only learn if we have a partner, but, really, it's a connection with ourselves as queer people because it all ties back to understanding ourselves and our needs.
Something that we talked about so much is that we've become disconnected from ourselves and live that way for so long. You can have a sexual relationship with a partner, but you also have a sexual relationship with yourself. If you think of those as two circles, they definitely touch and overlap, but they're completely separate things.
Even if you never have a partner, you can still have a sexual relationship with yourself and that involves being in tune with your emotions, your attractions, your desires, and inhabiting your body so you know what you like and know what pleasure feels like in your body. It’s also having a positive body image, and that includes like a positive genital self image, which can be very difficult, especially for people who grow up in such a sex-shaming world or people who may struggle with gender dysphoria.
In Erica’s workshop in the Queer Happiness Collective, she talks a lot about the boundaries that we create with ourselves and the competence to speak up and say, “Hey, this is a little too much.” Sometimes people are afraid of that rejection, right? Ultimately, we don't want to speak up because we don't want to be rejected and we don’t want others to feel rejected. It’s hard to ask for what you need in such a vulnerable way.
But there’s a difference between assertive and aggressive communication. Let's talk a little bit about that and sexual communication in general.
“I think this is especially important for queer women. Queer women that I work with have grown up learning that sex is very bad and that objectifying women is bad. Sometimes we are so afraid of being seen as aggressive. And for some people, they're just talking about telling a girl she's pretty, but they’re afraid that's going to make them seem aggressive or like they’re trying to initiate physical affection.
They're afraid that's going to make them seem like a creepy heterosexual man, essentially. There's so much fear around that. So, I was very careful to lay out the difference between aggressive communication and assertive communication. We don't want to be aggressive, that is, not taking the other person's feelings or emotions or consent into consideration. It's kind of like bulldozing just to get what you want.
Assertive communication is very clearly stating your needs, but also listening to your partner's feedback, your partner's boundaries, and giving your partner or partners the opportunity to accept or reject your advances or accept or reject your suggestions about what to do sexually. It is not aggressive, it is assertive. It's okay to be the one who initiates conversation about sex or to be the one that initiates sexual activity. You are not an aggressive creepy boundary pusher if you say, ‘I would like to kiss you,’ because you were giving the other person the opportunity to say yes or no.”
That brings up a whole other conversation about gender roles, right? Who should initiate? You have no rules, so it can get kind of difficult to figure out on your own, and it can be overwhelming. We are looking at existing outside of boxes and outside of boundaries and traditional ideas about who gets to initiate and who gets to experience pleasure. It just takes that little bit of stepping out and realizing there's a lot of pleasure to be experienced here. The world opens a little bit more, and you just get more comfortable with yourself and the people around you.
You also see that the people that you bring into your life are a lot different than what you brought in before as you step into this version of yourself. You start to ask yourself, “What feels good to me?” You get to make decisions from that place instead of deciding based on what someone else told you to do.
Tell us more about some of the transformations that you've seen from the clients that you've worked with.
“There's one person that always comes to my mind when I am asked this question. When I first started working with her, she was definitely aware of her queerness, but was very, very terrified of it and had actually experienced, not exactly conversion conversion therapy, but like low-key attempts by clergy to coerce her into straightness.
We would have sessions where, half the time, she wasn't even able to fully listen to me. Sometimes, she would be so uncomfortable during our talks, and I would never try to push her. I would be like, ‘Hey, it seems you're having a really hard time discussing your sexual history and the idea of what you want out of a partner.” So whenever we finished our work together, I don't know if I really was able to do much for her. She was just struggling so much.
She also lives in a very conservative state with very deeply oppressive policies around queerness and was afraid, as a teacher, that being out would be harmful to her. About a year and a half later, I got an email from her, and she's like, “Hey, remember me? I went back and I did all the assignments that I couldn't do and we worked together, and I have a girlfriend.” To have so much love and affection for her and this position she was in, I was just so proud of her.
I used to work with young people in juvenile detention, and I always thought, ‘I'll never do any work that's as important as this,’ but I was wrong. Getting to have conversations, especially with the people who come out after having been in a young Christian heterosexual marriage, and then come out in their 30s and 40s, it's just such a cool role to play in people's lives.”
We’re so excited for everyone that's watching the workshop in the Queer Happiness Collective and reading this now. When we're thinking about our patterns and our unrealistic expectations and who we've been told to be and then access this deeper part of who you are and connect it all together, that's a beautiful thing. You get to explore healing from aligned relationships and exploring yourself on such an intimate and beautiful level, you know?
Everyone seems to think they're the only one who experiences difficulty with this. They think that they're gonna get on Tinder or they're gonna get on Bumble, and finding the one is going to be this incredibly smooth, suave experience, but the app is full of other people just like you. We don't all know how to do this stuff. We are not born with these incredible dating skills or sexual skills. We all start somewhere, and that somewhere is awkward. That somewhere is clingy.
The chances of you meeting another person in your dating journey that also feels awkward and cringy are incredibly high. People seem to always think they're the only ones, but we talked to 20 other people in the same boat as you just last week in our membership. It may be difficult at first, but everyone can gather together and show each other that there's so much joy and happiness and peace on the other side.
You don't have to come out at 12 years old to have a good life as a queer person, like you can come out at 90 and make it work. You don’t have to know everything right away, even if you do come out at a younger age.
If there's one thing that you really want our readers to take away from this blog post, what would you like them to take away and think about?
“The one thing that is coming to my mind is to please try not to compare your journey of queerness with other peoples’, especially people that are younger than you and people that have never experienced the same trauma you have. Especially if that trauma is homophobic family, homophobic church, homophobic religion. We do not all get to be born into families that are like, ‘I love my child regardless of gender and sexuality.’
I know lots of people who are raising their kids that way, but most of us were not raised in that world. Don't let the fact that you have had that interfere with your ability to recognize your queerness at a young age keep you from really being who you are now. Everyone's journey is different. You have to make the most out of the situation that's given to you, and that's what was given to you. You just have one shot. It can still be awesome.”
Where can people find you? How can they get support from you?
“My Instagram is @EricaSmith.SexEd and I'm on Twitter @EricaSmith. My website is PurityCultureDropout.com and that is where you can find out about working with me. Every once in a while, I run support groups that are specifically for queer people healing from purity culture, and those are running right now. I offer classes like webinars, I have a workbook, a sexual values workbook, that people can work through if they are still not sure where they stand.”
We're so grateful we found Erica and for her contributions to the Queer Happiness Collective Membership, which you can join on ComingOutHappy.com!
Loved this blog? Check out the full interview with Erica on the Coming Out Happy Podcast.
Dani & Keely
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