Over the past five years, Ellen Friedrichs has given sex advice to hundreds of teenagers and adults, answering questions about penis size, pregnancy and orgasms, and has worked at the Museum of Sex, taught at Rutgers University and run sexuality workshops at high schools, NYU, Baruch College and many other institutions. Armed with a Masters in Human Sexuality Education, the 30-year-old, Brooklyn-based teacher, author and educator has set out to provide "saucy and scientific sex education and advice," and has even taken her work to India, setting up sex ed curricula. She recently contributed to Best American Sex Essays 2005, with her piece "South Bronx Sex Ed" and is now working on a book focusing on the hidden lives of teenage girls. (Full disclosure: This interviewer is a friend of Friedrichs.)
You moved to New York from Vancouver, Canada, where you grew up, after graduating college. What led you to your present field, and how has your focus changed since you first started out?
I studied Human Sexuality in grad school and then started working at the Museum of Sex. Over time I became more interested in adolescent sexual health–partly because every day kids are having more and more of their rights challenges and even getting them basic information about their health and safety had become incredibly difficult. I still love the cultural aspects of sexuality, but these days I tend to work more in sexuality education.
You were among the first employees of the Museum of Sex as their Director of Public Programming, doing research for their inaugural exhibit NYC Sex and arranging workshops and a walking tour of the Tenderloin. What do you think having a museum dedicated to sex offers our city? Did you find the clientele to be mostly curious tourists or New Yorkers looking to find out more about sex?
I’m a little out of touch with what’s going on with the Museum these days, but when we started there was definitely an interesting mixture of tourists and seasoned sex scene enthusiasts. I am really happy that the Museum is still going strong. There are very few venues that can celebrate sexuality and which treat sexuality as worthy of legitimate study and contemplation. I love that fact that I was able to be a part of an institution with a mission to explore the history and culture of this topic.
Under the auspices of the Citizens Advice Bureau, you teach sex education to teenagers in The Bronx. What are your main duties, and what are the biggest issues facing these teens? How much free reign in terms of your curriculum are you given--did you develop it, or are you going by guidelines/curricula that were already in place?
As you mentioned, I teach sex education classes. I also run an HIV prevention program and train teens as peer educators. In between that I meet with kids on-on-one. My teens face so many different issues. The neighborhood I work in has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the country. Most of my teens don’t get sex education in school. A lot of the girls have unprotected sex because they couldn’t possibly imagine asking a boy (or in some cases grown man) to use a condom. Then there are the kids who get pregnant on purpose. When I work with them, it’s not simply a matter of explaining reproduction, directing them to Planned Parenthood and handing out condoms. A lot of the kids I see want to have a baby and I think in the end this is probably the hardest thing for me to address.
As to curriculum, I pretty much developed my own based on a lot of really good resources. I draw heavily on Planned Parenthood Canada’s Beyond the Basics curriculum and from the Advocates for Youth Teen AIDS Prevention curriculum. What I really appreciate about the Citizen’s Advice Bureau is that I am encouraged to teach comprehensive sex education.
Do you find that teenagers are more willing to open up to you once they've gotten to know you, or do they prefer anonymity?
It really depends on the kid. I answer questions online for a teen sexuality website and I think many of those kids wouldn’t dare ask a real live person their questions no matter who that person was. However, many of the teens who I work with in person often open up to me about extremely intimate issues. They talk about getting chlamydia or having an abortion or falling in love. I try really hard not to be judgmental.
I have one boy who comes to me every few months to tell me about the most recent girl he has fallen in love with. Throughout the course of the conversation, it usually comes out that they are having sex but that they’re not using condoms. The kid justifies it by explaining that they are in love so if she gets pregnant they’ll get married. I think I’ve heard this three times from him already. I really like this guy. He’s older, 18, but it is as if he has blinders on. I give him condoms, talk about risk, and I feel like we have a really good rapport. But, my conversations just aren’t getting through to him.
So on the one hand I feel like it is great that teens trust me, but on the other hand I sometimes wonder if I need to throw a bit more judgment in with my open door, you can tell me anything policy. It’s a balancing act.
What's the most common question you get from teenagers? What do you do when you're asked a question and don't know the answer?
The most common questions are:
My boyfriend pulled out before he came, can I still get pregnant?
I’m a girl and I’ve had sex lots of times but I can’t have an orgasm, why not?
and, How do I make my penis bigger?
What I do when I don’t know the answer to a question really depends on the question. The thing I never do is lie. Usually I will explain that I am not qualified to answer a particular question and try to refer them to someone who can.
Two years ago, you traveled to India for three months to teach sex ed. How did that trip come about and what were your responsibilities? What were the most pressing issues for the women you worked with there?
I wasn’t actually teaching sex ed, I went to develop sex ed curriculum. I went to India with an organization that sends health professionals around the world to work as consultants. The idea was for me to create a sustainable program that would last after I left, so I worked with an agency that offered services for people affected by HIV.
I worked with their night shelter for the daughters of Red Light Area sex workers. The shelter was open from 6 pm until 6 am and gave the girls a safe place to sleep while their mothers were working. This was a pretty radical approach as most agencies shipped the children of sex workers off to far away boarding schools (as you might have seen in the film, Born Into Brothels). My agency was adamant that just because someone’s mother is a prostitute, this does not automatically make her a bad parent. They really worked to keep families together and provide services to girls within the community. I worked on creating a curriculum that they could use to talk about sex and infections and puberty and all the usually stuff. I tailored it for an Indian audience as best I could, but they really let me cover most of the key issues.
How did that experience shape your view of sex education in the United States?
Honestly, I came back thinking we weren’t doing a much better job here. We can’t really feel superior to anyone when coat hangers may once again become a woman’s only option for abortion.
You teach a variety of classes and workshops; what's your favorite one, and which gets the best response? How is teaching adults about sex different than teaching teens—are adults more hesitant to ask questions because they're "supposed" to know the answers already?
The adult workshops can cover racier topics. With adults, I can do sex toy workshops and orgasm workshops and vulva workshops. I can use props and show movies that wouldn’t be appropriate or acceptable in classes with teens.
I think people have the most fun at the sex toy workshops, though women probably leave with the most new and important information after the orgasm and vulva workshops (so much we don’t know about our own bodies, for example, what the vulva actually is!).
My favorite workshop however, is Myth Busting. It’s fun for me to debunk a lot of misinformation that people assume is factual.
You teach human sexuality at Rutgers Newark–what kinds of attitudes and ideas about sex do your college students have, and what do you contribute to their education? Are today's college students better-informed about sex than college students a decade ago?
I think that in some ways they might be less informed than students were ten years ago. A lot of students are coming out of a high school experience where they have not received decent sex ed. Ten years ago we had a lot more school sex education and it covered many more areas. Many have only learned about reproduction and anatomy (but even there, there is a lot of missing information).
I think a lot of people assume that college students are all extremely liberal and have sex at drunken parties with strangers every weekend, but this is not the impression I get from most of my students. I’m often surprised at how conservative some of my students are. Issues like gay marriage and abortion can stir up a huge amount of controversy when we discuss them in class. For the most part, though, the students are open to learning about the subject, but I do think for many of them it is really strange to be talking about sex in a classroom setting. I had one student write on her end of the semester class evaluation, something like, “Before I took this class I though girls should never talk about sex so it was really shocking for me to hear the female instructor talk about sex so comfortably.”
On your website, you state, "I believe that we are suffering from a lack of accurate information about sexuality that affects us throughout our lives, both as a society and as individuals." Can you elaborate on what kind of accurate information we're lacking, and what can be done to remedy that?
A report done by California Representative Henry Waxman last year found that a significant number of federally supported sex education programs taught completely inaccurate information to public school students. The two things that I remember were that over half of gay teenagers have HIV and that touching a partner’s genitals can cause pregnancy. Adults too are uninformed. Women still feel like there is something wrong with them if they don’t have multiple orgasms from vaginal penetration alone and a significant amount of people have either never heard of emergency contraception or confuse it with medical abortions. Even supposed experts perpetuate myths. I recently read some advice given in a national woman’s magazine by a well known doctor and “sex expert” warning that that having anal sex will result in incontinence and lifetime health problems.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m working on a book about teen girls and what they can’t reveal to the adults in their lives. In five years, if all the American kids seem thoroughly schooled on sex ed, maybe I’ll move back to Canada and pick up where my country woman Sue Johansson left off.
Find out more about Ellen Friedrichs at her website, sexedvice.com.