I have many talented, fascinating, smart Facebook friends. And when one mentions they are writing a book I do what I do about 25 times a year: I offer to interview them to both help them promote the book and get the chance to not just learn about a new topic and ask questions.
Karen Rayne is a sex educator in Austin, where I live. I don’t know a lot about sex education curricula beyond that sex ed in the public schools is often lacking and messed up and that what we have at my church, called OWL, is more comprehensive. OWL stands for Our Whole Lives and more is said about it in the interview itself.
Karen’s book, GIRL: Love, Sex, Romance and Being You, is excellent and comprehensive. I recommend it for girls and parents but especially as something moms can read with their daughters.
Being neither a mom or a girl I felt like I needed someone who was to ask better questions. I reached out to a friend/colleague, Laine Young, Interim Director of Lifespan Faith Development at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin.
In addition to being a mom Laine also in charge of the OWL program at my church. Laine read the book and provided many of the good questions below in the interview. Thanks again, Laine!
I encourage everyone to check out this book and Karen’s site and project, Unhushed.
How did this book come about?
The publisher, Magination Press, contacted me to ask if I would write a book for teen girls about love, sex, and romance. I was initially hesitant because gender inclusive sex ed, including books, is so important. While I am often asked to provide girl-only sex ed, I push for gender inclusivity whenever possible. With this book, my response was to ask Magination Press to publish a book for trans and gender nonconforming youth after they published GIRL: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You. They were really excited about the idea and are beginning work on it now.
Can you talk about some of your earlier work, as an author, as a professional?
I always wanted to go into education and work with teenagers – and my PhD is in Educational Psychology. I fell into sexuality education as my topic area in my last semester of graduate school ten years ago and haven’t looked back. Since then I’ve had the honor of working more and more directly in the way that I want to. I started by offering local (Austin, TX) middle school sexuality classes and teaching Human Sexuality at the community college. But I also did less-fun things like write question banks for textbook publishers, built and maintained websites for sexuality organizations and professionals, and even taught doll making classes to make ends meet.
Now I count myself lucky to be one of the professionals in the field making a living wage doing what I love. I am the Executive Director of Unhushed, which will be a nonprofit by the end of the year. I am the Associate Editor of the American Journal of Sexuality Education. I help run the National Sex Ed Conference. And I write books like GIRL: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You.
Why did you decide to do work in sex education?
I kind of fell into the work at the very end of grad school. Talking about sex had always come fairly easily to me and I had a friend whose daughter had a pregnancy scare as a freshman in high school. My friend was bemoaning the lack of comprehensive sexuality education in her daughter’s school and broadly available in Austin. Without really knowing what was involved, I offered to put together some one-on-one classes for her. We had so much fun together! That first student of mine, now in her 20’s, recently posted this about her experience on Facebook:
Karen, early in my teenage life (and at the insistence of my incredible mother), instilled a sense of empowerment that I had never before heard from the adults in my life. Although it took me a while to truly hear her advice, it stuck with me and eventually became the metronome that brought me back to treating myself with the respect and reverence that I deserve.
I consider it a gift to be able to play this role in young people’s lives.
For those who do not know can you explain what OWL is and what you think of it?
OWL stands for Our Whole Lives, and is the lifespan sexuality education program run by Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. It’s one of the largest comprehensive sexuality education programs in the United States and offers topnotch community education. The OWL curriculum was one of the first curricula that I came to know well and I’m now a trainer of facilitators for the grades 7 – 9 and 10 – 12 programs. I am also the author of a parents of middle schoolers program that is designed to be run in affiliation with OWL.
Is there a goal that this book gets tied to an existing curricula like Unhushed, OWL, etc.? Is the goal that this book is for females who are not able to take one of these classes for various reasons?
While it’s possible for GIRL: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You to be used in group settings like a book group, it’s not designed to be tied to any particular program. This is partly because I encourage all sexuality education to be gender inclusive, and GIRL is obviously not written to be gender inclusive. However, for groups that are already segregated, GIRL could be a great resource for a group setting.
I wouldn’t suggest that GIRL be used as an alternative to a comprehensive sexuality education class. The book is able to offer things that a class does not – and a class is able to offer things that the book does not. But if a class is not available, by all means, make sure that the young woman in question has access to GIRL!
What do you hope females will take away from this book? Do you want males to read any of it and, if so, what would you like their takeaway to be?
I hope that readers will take away knowledge, yes, but more importantly I hope they will take away a deeper understanding of themselves and what they want and need from sexual and romantic relationships. This is true regardless of the reader’s gender identity.
How do we get this material to people who need this material the most (those with no sex ed classes, families that don’t discuss sex ed matters, etc.)?
The Internet! The issue, of course, is that the Internet is relatively wild – and for a young person looking for accurate, appropriate information, a random google search can be a wild and wooly thing to try and navigate on their own. This is why it’s SO important for parents to provide access to information rather than trying to keep it hidden away. But for many young people without access to information at home, church, or school, the Internet is their best bet. I highly recommend Scarleteen and Sex, etc. as digital sources of sexuality information written with teenagers and young adults in mind.
I really liked the part about Columns and Shadows (the graphic is on p. 160, but a good part of that chapter talks about that). Can you summarize that part and explain how that part came to be?
Thanks! This model actually came about specifically for this book – but we published it online first so we could make sure it is available for anyone to use. Readers can see it, along with accompanying information, here:
As I was diving into writing about healthy and unhealthy relationships, I wanted to be sure and include some kind of model as a framework for the conversation. There are a ton of relationship models out there, but none of them quite fit what I felt this book needed.
So, as I tend to do when I want to create a theoretical model for understanding an aspect of sexuality, I called my colleague Sam Killermann. He and I sit together at a local coffee shop and hash things out with some regularity, and this process was no different. Our goal was to create a way to conceptualize both healthy and unhealthy relationships and particularly focus on the grey areas where many people aren’t sure if a behavior is healthy or not.
I have used the model in a few different ways now, including incorporating it into my upcoming Unhushed middle school curriculum, and many people seem to respond to it really well.
What is the best way for someone to follow along with this book? Skipping chapters as needed? Creating a Wreck-This style journal? Some other thing I haven’t thought of?
Hm. I would say that the book can be read in a hundred different ways. Want to skip through and only answer the questions about yourself? Or maybe just read the journal entries by teenagers and young women? Maybe the book was a gift, and the reader just wants to start at the beginning – or maybe they bought it up for a particular chapter and they want to skip directly there? Want to take notes and add on to the illustrations? Feeling like this should be a group event and read it aloud with your friend group? Go for it! Do all of these at different times or find your own way completely. There’s no wrong way to read GIRL.
How can parents who buy this book for the females in their lives best support this book? Reading their own copy at the same time? Family discussions?
That’s such a personal and individual process. I could, of course, give recommendations to specific parents, but I would hesitate to give a broad recommendation to parents in the same way that I would hesitate to give a broad recommendation on how to read the book to girls. But here are a few suggestions: Trust your gut and do what feels right for you and the girl in your life. Just be sure that you both have information about sex and sexuality, however that happens, and that you sometimes push through any awkwardness and talk about that information.
What was the most difficult chapter to write and why?
The chapter on kink, fetish, and porn was definitely the hardest to write. It’s very rare that educators talk with young people about kink and fetish, but that doesn’t mean that young people aren’t thinking, reading, or talking about these things among themselves. (Think 50 Shades of Gray, which plenty of middle and high school students have read or seen!) The lack of professional focus on this area means that there is very little agreement on how to best talk about them, so I was pretty much flying blind on my approach. But some information is better than none, so I knew it was critical that I push through and create a chapter on these difficult topics.
What are you working on next?
I am in the process of turning my business, Unhushed , into a nonprofit, and that’s really exciting for me! Unhushed is about to publish its curriculum for middle school students and we are in the process of writing our high school curriculum. We are also working on creating cultural translations into Spanish and Turkish.
I am also beginning work on a new book with a colleague, tentatively titled Gender is Hard, for trans and gender nonconforming youth.