Every Wednesday The CSPH highlights a Sexuality Professional you should keep your eye on. Their backgrounds are very diverse in order to bring attention to the wide variety of amazing people working in the field. This week we bring you Laura Anne Stuart!
1. What do you do in the field of sexuality?
I am the owner of the Tool Shed erotic boutique, a feminist/sex-positive shop in Milwaukee, WI. I write a sex advice column called SEXpress for Milwaukee’s local free weekly paper, the Shepherd Express. I am a curriculum writer, trainer and teacher for Our Whole Lives (OWL), a comprehensive sexuality education curricula series jointly published by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. I’m the Coordinator of Sexual Health Education and Violence Prevention at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. I also lead sexuality-related workshops and trainings for colleges and community organizations by request, mostly in the Midwest.
2. Where are you based out of?
I live in Milwaukee, WI, where my shop is located, but I spend half the week in Evanston, IL when I’m working at Northwestern. I grew up in Evanston and my family still lives there, so this is not as complicated as it sounds.
3. What is your focus? What do you do?
I do a lot of different things, but the common thread that binds them together is creating a safe place for people to ask questions about sexuality and receive affirmation and support for expressing their authentic sexual selves. My shop, my column, OWL, NU, all the different classes and trainings I lead – no matter who the audience is and how I’m reaching them, it’s all about open, honest, shame-free communication about sex.
4. What are your particular goals and passions in the field?
I went to pre-school in California at a place called “I’m OK, You’re OK,” and I guess that hippie 70s message has stuck with me, because my hope is that I encourage people to acknowledge that almost everybody (with the exception of people who identify as asexual) is a sexual being, and that sexuality can be expressed in an infinite variety of ways – there’s no one “right way” to be sexual. Sexuality is typically viewed in our society as the province of young, white, able-bodied, cisgender, thin, “beautiful” people, and if you do not fit this description, your sexuality is either ridiculed or fetishized. I think sexuality educators have a responsibility to explode that myth and represent and support people of every age, race, ability, size, etc. to own their authentic sexuality. I also think that even within sexual communities that are viewed as positive or progressive, there is policing of what the “right” way to be sexual is – are you kinky enough, are you queer enough, is your gender expression or the gender of your partner acceptable, etc. I really strive to create an affirming place for everyone to the best of my ability.
5. Why did you choose to work in this field?
I chose to work in this field because I felt it was necessary on a personal level. I was always that kid who talked constantly about sex on the playground and at Girl Scout camp, so I suppose I had some natural predisposition, but when I was in college, I started to become an activist around the lack of women’s voices in our traditional liberal arts curriculum, and this lead me to become involved with women’s rights, women’s health and LGBT rights – I was fortunate enough to go to school very close to Washington, DC, so organized groups from my campus to attend two national marches on Washington that took place during my undergraduate years. When I was a senior, it occurred to me that this work could be not just a personal passion, but a career, and I moved to Washington and started volunteering and working. I feel very fortunate that my work and my personal passions coincide.
6. Where did you go for school/training?
I have a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan. However, a lot of the knowledge and skills I have were acquired through years of working and networking – countless trainings and conferences, constant reading, observing other sexuality educators whose work I admire – just getting out there and doing it, really.
7. Do you have any literature out (websites, articles)?
The Tool Shed’s website is www.toolshedtoys.com. My sex advice column (current and archived) can be found at www.expressmilwaukee.com/sexpress. Please send me questions! More information about the Our Whole Lives curricula is available at http://www.uua.org/re/owl/ (and let me emphasize that although OWL is published by two progressive religious denominations, the curriculum itself is suitable for use in any setting). I just launched the website for my office at NU, CARE (Center for Awareness, Response and Education) this year – hooray: www.northwestern.edu/care.
8. What would you recommend to future professionals attempting to get into the field?
There’s no one path. When I was getting my start as a young professional in the late 1990s, there was still a lot of federal money for and interest in HIV prevention, so that was my foot in the door – the first three jobs I had after I got my master’s degree were all related to HIV prevention and treatment and they were all grant-funded. That money and interest doesn’t really exist anymore, but there’s been an explosion of other sex-positive for-profit and non-profit businesses. I always refer interested people to the FAQ that my fellow OWL trainers and amazing sex educators Marshall Miller and Dorian Solot wrote about breaking into the field: http://www.sexualityeducation.com/sexeducator.php
I also can’t emphasize enough how important it is to volunteer and seek out part-time work. My entire career is a crazy quilt of odd jobs and volunteer work that I felt passionate about. It’s hard to just walk into a job in this field without first gaining some unpaid experience, whether that’s being part of a student group, a local community organization, a blog, etc.
9. What is the most challenging aspect for you working in this career?
The most challenging aspect for me is the constant hustle. I can’t recall a time in my life when I just had one job and wasn’t ping-ponging back and forth between different projects. That’s partly due to my own restless personality, but also to the fact that there isn’t a lot of money or stability in sexuality education as a field. This is not an area of work that our society values, and that value is reflected in lack of funding and payment for the work. Many sexuality educators I know are constantly asked to share our expertise for free, because people assume that the work we do is really fun and amazing and/or that we are really passionate about it, that we’re not in it “for the money.” But in a capitalist society, we all need money to survive. This can feel really draining at times.
10. One must read-what would you recommend? Why?
Haha. “One” is not possible! I’m looking at my bookshelf right now and thinking about people whose work influenced me and who also still blog, write, and teach frequently. Susie Bright was the first person whose work I read who made me realize that you could be a feminist and be sex-positive at the same time (this was in the 80s, at the height of the feminist “porn wars”), so I encourage everyone to read her books and blogs. I also love and respect Tristan Taormino (have lent “Opening Up” to about a million people) and Julia Serano (so smart – “Whipping Girl” is a game-changer). I use Jaclyn Friedman’s and Jessica Valenti’s book “Yes Means Yes” as required reading for my peer educators at Northwestern, and many of them say that this book has changed their lives.