“When I told my mom I was applying to study sexuality, she was like, ‘You're going to school to study WHAT?’” said Kimberly Huggins. "'We don't need to study that! It's just one-two-three boom!'” she recalled her mother saying.
Huggins is one of several sexology students I spoke to who are currently studying at Pennsylvania's Widener University. She's pursuing a Master of Social Work and Master of Human Sexuality Studies. Over the last few years, a growing number of schools have started training students for careers in sexology, pushing the boundaries of sex education and exploring fields that were once taboo.
But as students of a relatively young subject, many graduating sexologists find their career prospects unpredictable. Lingering stigma around sex means that students may need to explain—repeatedly—why their expertise is needed, or to take the lead in creating new careers that never existed before.
Academically speaking, the boundaries of sexology are still somewhat vague. It can be generally defined as the study of sex and relationships, but that can touch on just about any discipline; from biology to business to sociology to engineering. The work of a sexologist could include working with trauma victims, assisting sex workers with legal challenges, educating doctors in developing nations, or designing sex toys. As a result, sexology is often seen as a multidisciplinary approach to sexual and intimate wellbeing.
The freedom with which sex researchers now “poke and pry” into sex is a relatively recent innovation, said Matt Tilley, a clinical psychologist and lecturer in the Department of Sexology at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. But it’s a change that’s been a long time coming.
“A fundamental human experience is the experience of pleasure,” he said. “But we have such negative messages in our childhood.” An expert in sexual health, Tilley’s career is anchored at the intersection of sex, pleasure, and education.
"Even a decade ago we were seen as fluff and fun,” he said of his field. But today, thanks in part to expanding academic attention, “people [are] recognizing that they have a right to experience pleasure, and maybe some of their socialization as a child didn't give them the right information. They're starting to step up and say, ‘I don't like this aspect of my life. I want to do something about it.’”
Students in sexology-related programs are on the cutting edge of that shift in thinking.
“What we study is beyond the act of sex,” said Crystal Reed, a student of Clinical Social Work and Human Sexuality at Widener. She recited a long list of topics her fellow students are currently investigating: “Sexual development, sexual identity and gender development, sexual subculture, the body and its functioning, chronic illness and disability, postpartum changes [...] We can talk about sexual products and technology, trauma, sexuality and spirituality [...] our work is very interdisciplinary.”
“People who are sexologists could be professional dominatrixes or switches,” said Nicoletta Heidegger, a marriage and family therapy intern and co-host of the Sluts and Scholars podcast. “They could be sex educators and give talks or lectures, they can be sex surrogates, who do hands-on sex therapy and sometimes actual sex with clients to help them through issues. There are sexological bodyworkers who help people through trauma or help people to orgasm. There are abortion doulas. Some sex workers might consider themselves educators as well [and] porn performers."
"Sexuality education can be done across the lifespan,” said Kimberly Huggins. “I've done workshops for elderly adults about STDs and HIV. It seems strange to talk to people who are our grandparents’ age, but some older adults haven’t had education throughout their entire lives."
Jessica Sanchez, currently pursuing a Masters of Social Work and Masters of Education in Human Sexuality Studies at Widener, applies her training to her work as a personal trainer at a VA hospital in Pennsylvania. “A passion of mine is with pleasure and adjusting pain,” she said. “A lot of military trauma is associated with pain [...] we talk about pelvic floor, functioning, sexual assault and abuse, grief and loss of body parts […] a trainer who doesn't have a sexuality training doesn't talk about that.”
Crystal Reed noted that sexologists have had a significant recent impact on the intimate items industry, pointing out that experts have helped many adult companies adjust their focus: “Instead of products being marketed in a way that's very binary, male and female, how can we make products that are more targeted to different bodies, sizes, abilities?” she asked.
But despite the growth in academic programs and the need for trained professionals, sexology students must still confront skepticism from colleagues.
“The people in charge of having students take classes were not recommending them,” said Kelly Conroy, currently pursuing a Master’s in Human Sexuality at Widener. “Being a sexuality professional, you're constantly having to explain what you're doing. Just getting information out there, that's the biggest barrier for us in academia."
But those barriers continue to fall as more students enter academic programs, then graduate and move into professional settings. “Our seat at the table has been very limited in the past,” said Jessica Sanchez. “People are beginning to realize we've been missing a sexuality expert at our table.”
Part of being a sexologist today is making space at that table not just for oneself, but for colleagues as well. In Sanchez’s case, that means reaching out to sisters in her Latina sorority about job opportunities.
“Sex can be taboo in Mexican Latino culture,” she said. “I make sure to post on our national board what I study and where I'm studying, just to let them know that this career is so feasible.”
Sexology students are also focused on the field’s future, with broadening programs making it possible to address previously-overlooked issues.
“I'm really interested in how we talk to young people about pleasure,” said Kimberly Huggins. “We do a lot of talking to young people about STDs, unintended pregnancies, consent […] we talk about everything from a problem perspective. [...] As a consequence, we may have a generation of young adults who don't know how to have conversations around negotiating what you want to have happen in a sexual encounter.”
Compared to previous eras, Huggins said, sexuality education has made significant strides in the past few years—but progress at educational institutions could face new challenges from a hostile administration in Washington. “It's somewhat dependent on who's the president,” she said. “That dictates what content is allowed to be addressed in school settings.”