I field a lot of questions from people who want to become sex educators for adults and are looking for advice for where to get trained. So rather than answer them individually, I thought I’d write a post that I could link to and make my life easier.
The first thing I need to say is that sex education is a tough way to make a living. There are a lot of people who want to do it and not nearly as many opportunities to get paid for it. Part of that is that US society doesn’t value sexuality and relationship education as much as it deserves, even though the trial-and-error method that most people go through clearly leads to unnecessary confusion, shame, and hurting each other. But part of that is also that there are a lot of people offering sex ed for free or for very little charge, which means that it’s difficult to justify getting paid.
“Writers, actors, and prostitutes all face the same fundamental economic problem: they are competing with amateurs who are pretty good and will work for nothing.”
One of the best ways to distinguish yourself from the pack is to get some kind of formal education or training. I have to say that having a PhD and being certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors,and Therapists makes a big difference for me. Since AASECT certification requires extensive documentation, I suggest taking a look at the requirements before getting started. It’s much easier to track and document your training as you do it than it is to go back and try to take care of it after the fact.
As far as academic programs go, there are a few to consider. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their fans and detractors. Please take whatever I say about them with a grain of salt- these are my opinions, based mostly on talking with people who went through them. If you’ve been through any of these programs and have other information to share, please comment below.
The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality is a mixed bag. On the negative side, the program isn’t very academically rigorous, it’s not accredited (so there’s no financial aid), and there’s not as much academic support as I think many people need. Having said that, it’s a great program for helping people overcome their biases and triggers around sexual communities and practices, which is nothing to sneeze at. Yes, I know that most people in the field are convinced that they’ve already done that work, but trust me- there are always new ways for us to grow. My observation is that IASHS students who come to the program with professional experience and strong research skills can do amazing work. But I’ve also seen some dissertations come out of the school that were, frankly, weak tea. I don’t think it’s because those students weren’t intelligent, but without training in how to conduct research, what could you expect?
The program in Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State doesn’t offer a degree in sex education, but it does provide some good background in sexuality. If you want to study the intersection of sexuality and social justice or do work on a policy level, it’s a fine place to go. But there’s very little exploration of how sex works, what it means to people, or how to help them create better sex lives. I’ve heard it said that SFSU offers a program in sexuality but not in sex. If you want to teach workshops or offer coaching, this might not be the best fit for you. However, there’s much more academic structure than at IASHS and if that’s useful for you, it’s worth looking into.
Many of the same things can be said of the program at Widener University, though your career options are a bit broader. If you want to conduct research, teach at a university, or do policy work, there’s a lot there for you. But again, if you want to work with individuals and couples to help them improve their sex lives, or if you want to learn about sex rather than sexuality, it might not be what you’re looking for. I’ve also been told by past students that when negative judgments were expressed during classroom discussions, they were often left unchallenged. This might not currently be part of the program’s culture, but given how often sex educators need to explore our own unrecognized biases and judgements in order to offer the best possible support, this is definitely something to be mindful of.
California Institute of Integral Studies just launched a PhD program in Human Sexuality. I don’t know anything about it beyond the fact of its existence, since they haven’t opened the doors yet. From the website, though, it’s going to focus on clinical practice for mental health professionals and policy work, so I’m guessing that it will have some of the same strengths and limits as Widener and SFSU.
If your interest is in sexual health, take a look at the Sexual Health Certificate Program at the University of Michigan. I’ve only spoken with one person who has completed it, but it sounds like a great experience, especially if you want AASECT certification. Classes take place on weekends, so it’s good for non-local students and the course descriptions are pretty impressive.
There are other academic programs that sex educators might be interested in, though many of them focus on social work or psychology. The website for the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality has listings for undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate programs.
I often get questions about my doctorate in adult sexuality education. I received it from the Union Institute and University and technically, my degree is in interdisciplinary studies. My focus was the relationships between sex and shame, and my doctoral dissertation was an evaluation of a semester-long course I taught at Starr King School for the Ministry on the topic. The program is mostly independent study and when I was there, it offered a lot of flexibility and support, which is an uncommon combination. However, while I was a student, the federal accreditation requirements shifted and the program lost much of the flexibility that made it such a good fit for me. Given how extensive the changes were, I don’t know enough about it to offer an informed opinion about the current structure. Further, since it wasn’t actually a program in sexuality or sex education, I’m hesitant to offer it as an option. That was my area of study, but I was only able to get the support I needed by recruiting outside mentors and committee members with relevant expertise.
It’s worth saying that there are a lot of amazing sex educators who are self-taught. Having a degree helps for some things, but if you want to teach workshops, write books, or work as a coach, you can do a lot without an academic program. The difficulty with this route is that it’s hard to know what you don’t know, so a lot of folks don’t recognize where they have gaps in their knowledge. I’ve been in plenty of workshops where the teacher made the mistake of assuming that their experiences were universal, or in which they simply weren’t able to address all of the questions because they fell outside their range of knowledge. Of course, those are challenges any sex educator faces, but self-taught folks have to work especially hard to overcome them, in my experience. If you’re dedicated enough and if you’re willing and able to do the work, go for it.
There are also other fields that can offer a lot to potential sex educators. Many of us come to the work through psychology, women’s studies, gender studies, sociology, and queer studies, among others. Others get their start working for non-profit organizations or as peer educators on their college campuses. (That’s how I got started.) Megan Andelloux wrote a great article on that topic, which she’s allowed me to repost here. You can also take a look at Bill Taverner’s Tips for Emerging Sexology Professionals.
It can be challenging to set yourself up as a freelancer, and while that’s certainly true in any field, it can be even tougher in sex ed. It’s worth taking a look at Patti Britton’s sex coach training, as well as the many other (non sex-related) coaching certifications. Reid Mihalko is another great resource for people who want to make a living as a freelance sex educator. And the training at San Francisco Sex Information is also pretty amazing. I also know of at least two non-profit organizations that have been talking about creating professional trainings for sexuality educators, but they’re still in the planning stages. And even if you don’t want to get AASECT-certified, their guidelines are a good starting point for anyone who wants to piece together a self-directed training.
So there it is. As important as sexuality education is, there are unfortunately very few training options for anyone who wants to make a career of it. I wish it were otherwise, especially since there’s so much need for it. But don’t let that discourage you. Each of these programs offers things that you might find useful, especially if you supplement it with your own work. Or take the self-taught route, as long as you get some input to make sure you’re not missing anything important. We need more sex educators in the world and maybe when we do, there will be more folks who could put a professional training program together.