I interviewed Dr. Jess O’Reilly about sex ed curriculum changes in Ontario and I covered her talk at Tedx Vancouver. I was lucky enough to get to interview her for a feature, because I find her to be pretty fascinating. She has a show on Playboy Network, a blog and some books out. What I love about Dr. Jess is her passion for sexual education, her commitment to equality and inclusivity and how accessible she is. She’s the cool friend you can come to with questions and she doesn’t make you feel stupid for asking. I love her celebration of body autonomy. I had some questions she was kind enough to answer after I watched her handle a whole lot of mud slinging over necessary sex ed changes with class and grace.
Was being a sexologist your original career plan? If not, what was?
I can’t say that I dreamed of being a sexologist since I was young. My original plan was to go into law (unless you count my childhood dream of becoming a birthday party clown), but after working in schools and community centres part-time, I developed a love for teaching. I went to teacher’s college and taught with the Toronto District School Board before taking the leap into sexology.
How do you take care of yourself while you are teaching people how to take care of themselves? What’s your self-care plan like?
I struggle with this, but I try to indulge in small pleasures whenever I can: a fancy lunch, a walk through a new city or a hike in the mountains. Though I don’t go to the gym, staying active is really important while I’m on the road.
What do people get wrong when they imagine the life of a sexologist?
They think we’re constantly thinking about or having sex!
I do think about sex a lot, but often from a business perspective. I spend more time thinking about what others want than what I want for myself.
What advice would you have for someone who is considering this field?
Study in a traditional field (e.g. education, psychology, social work, nursing) and then specialize in sexuality.
Aside from the educational preparatory measures, you need to be equipped to manage some resistance. When I first started in the field, I didn’t realize that my career choice would be perceived as controversial or subversive, as I was surrounded by like-minded (perhaps idealistic) friends and peers. I’m inclined to avoid controversy and conflict, so learning to navigate a path of resistance continues to be a big part of my learning curve.
Why did you pick this particular career path?
I didn’t plan on working in sexology and I certainly didn’t plan on working in entertainment or television. I had anticipated collaborating with school boards and teachers on projects related to classroom-based sexual health education. Unfortunately, I realized very quickly that the school boards don’t hire full-time sexuality educators or consultants, so I carved a new path.
I still work with teachers’ colleges and school boards, but it’s a labour of love. And I’m still teaching — just in a different capacity. I love the structure (or lack thereof) of my work.
What do you find the most challenging and most rewarding about your job?
The travel is most rewarding, but also the most challenge element of my job. Being away from home can be very lonely. Even though I’m surrounded by amazing and often inspirational people when I’m on the road, I miss my loved ones.
I’m not complaining, however. This year alone, I’ve had the humbling and fortunate opportunity to travel to Poland, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Czech Republic Mexico and Jamaica for business.
Who are your biggest supporters?
My partner is so supportive. When I decided to quit teaching to study sexuality, he jumped on board without hesitation. He has stood behind me (and in front of me in a fighting stance when necessary) at every turn and forced me to celebrate every milestone. My work is in a transitionary phase right now as I plan for the next five years and the uncertainty and change can be unnerving; his support, however, is all the reassurance I need.
You have spoken out publicly in support of sex ed changes in Ontario. What kind of response have you received?
The response to my support for the curriculum update in Ontario has been mixed. I’ve received many private messages of thanks and support, but negative reactions from angry keyboard warriors have been intense. Reactions are highly emotional and many people have personally attacked me with slurs related to my race and gender. I’m working on developing a thicker skin, but it’s a challenging process.
How did you prepare yourself professionally for your career?
My undergrad major was in Sexual Diversity Studies, my education degree focused on equity and my last degree addressed sexual health education. If I could do it all over again (and I just might!), I’d likely study psychology and business. I’m considering going back to school part-time in the upcoming years.
What is the number one question people ask you when they find out what you do?
“That’s a real job?”
“What do you parents think?”