I am the founder and director of the Institute for Sexuality Education and Enlightenment (ISEE), a professional training program for educators, counselors, and therapists. The vast majority of the people who come to our program are professional psychotherapists who wish to have advanced knowledge of sexual problems so that they are well-trained in their practice, and health and sex educators who wish to make sure that their information is well-rounded, holistic, and of a high standard.
I faced a conundrum when we first opened our doors and my first sex worker called us, asking if we would certify her as a sex educator. Being affiliated with multiple organizations in the field, I didn’t know. Would we?
Don’t get me wrong. We would not certify sex workers for sex work. We would not certify strippers for stripping, escorts for escorting, or erotic massage workers for happy endings. But what about simply certifying them as sex educators, for the educational work that they do that is non-sexual in nature?
It is socially unacceptable with many in the human sexuality field to discuss this. This is partly because the education and therapy professionals have banded together to create organizations, and they are understandably worried that people will mistake “Certified Sex Therapists” or “Certified Sex Educators” for Certified Surrogate Partners or sex workers themselves. They are not. These are hands-off, clothing-on professionals who work very hard to get out good information as well as healing. These folks can be trusted to behave impeccably in any environment and with any age population, and all have signed ethics statements.
But when we opened our doors in 2011, I received calls from people who were, or had been, sex workers. Have you ever actually spoken with a sex worker at length? I have, many times. I learned how often sex workers were asked questions by their clients, and how many of them actually research the answers. I learned how common it is for sex workers to talk to clients about erectile dysfunction, difficulties with intimacy, fetishes, body image and penis size, and even to help them get over and through these difficulties. I also learned that the people I was talking to loved to help their clients—even when they felt inadequate to the task. Yet when they reached out to some organizations and wanted to be honest about their backgrounds or their professions, they were either turned away or told that they must keep the sex work to themselves.
Again, this is understandable, given the legal situation. But is it, in fact, hypocritical? Even exploitative? Has the field forgotten its history? The fact is, the study of human sexuality in this country was founded substantially through the expertise and contributions of sex workers.
Let’s take a little trip down memory lane, shall we? Alfred Kinsey, arguably the father of American sex research, interviewed sex workers as part of his study of human sexual behavior, and was known to ask them regularly for information about sexual functioning. Kinsey’s work was the seminal scientifically and statistically rigorous research on human sexuality in the United States, and his data remains valuable to this day.
Bill Masters of Masters and Johnson also gained extensive amounts of information about sexual response and orgasm from female sex workers, and it was a sex worker who famously told him, “You need a translator” (between himself and women), prompting him to hire Virginia Johnson.
Masters and Johnson then went on to create a training program for sexual surrogates—people who worked directly and physically with their clients to help them to work through sexual problems. Hartman and Fithian followed suit. This profession still exists, most known in the form of the International Professional Surrogates Association.
What about Somatic Sex Educators, Sexological Bodyworkers, Sacred Intimates, Sacred Sexuality/Tantra practitioners? “Sexual Surrogates” have transformed over the years and their work as Surrogate Partners includes everything from helping someone to learn how to date, to how to flirt, to how to hold someone’s hand, and also how to be sexual with another human being. Certified Somatic Sex Educators use one-way touch to educate their clients one-on-one, therefore aiding them with pleasure, masturbation, and orgasm. Both of these fields of work have their own ethics codes, and people certified by these organizations must abide by them or lose their certifications.
So are we in the human sexuality field hypocritical? Worse, are we in fact exploiting sex workers by using the data that they have provided, and yet in some cases silencing them as people who may want an education, people who deserve the chance at certification like anyone else, for the hands-off work that they do? If they are willing to sign ethics statements like everyone else, and use their certifications for specific types of work only, who is to say they may not be educated, may not be certified–unless they keep their other work to themselves?
It’s time that we addressed these issues–including the respectability politics–in more depth, as well as finally giving the somatic folks the floor for a while so that they can speak for the work that they do. We literally owe it to them.
Dr. Rosalyn Dischiavo