The latest interview in this series comes from Dawn Serra, sex educator extraordinaire and host of the amazing Sex Gets Real podcast. I’ve reached out to Dawn for advice before, as have many other people, and I’ve always found her to be one of the most open-minded, affirming and compassionate educators around. I’m absolutely thrilled she agreed to take part and give us a little peek into her world.
Tell us a little bit about you and the work you do?
Officially, I’m a sex educator, sex podcaster, and a sex & relationship coach. But what those titles actually mean is I’ve dedicated myself to shame reduction, resilience building, emotional & sexual intelligence development, and helping people find words for things that feel scary or awkward. I’ve learned that what people really need is permission – permission to ask questions, permission to explore, permission to let go of stories that hurt them, and I try to do that every day by connecting the dots between the cultural stories and systems of oppression that keep us all trapped in pain and disconnection, and then giving people new tools and skills for moving in the direction they’d like to move.
What first made you want to be a sex educator and run a sex podcast?
I’ve always been the person my friends came to with sex questions and confessions, even in middle school and high school. Then, in my early 20’s, I started selling sex toys with one of those in-home party companies. While the company & products were problematic, it gave me a chance to talk with hundreds of women, one-on-one, about their deepest fears and shame.
It cracked me open in ways that surprised me, and I knew it was work I wanted to keep doing. It was fascinating to watch groups of women socially interacting with each other around sex. Many of them were loud and laughing, telling these wild stories about their sex life, very Sex and the City, but then behind closed doors with me would admit they’d never had an orgasm or didn’t know they were allowed to use a sex toy with a partner. Others would be quiet and shy during the group portion of the party, and then break down crying in private with me over their deep sense of shame, of being a disappointment to their partners. I started realizing just how many of us are performing what we think sex is supposed to be and look like without actually experiencing it in a way that made sense for us.
That was the beginning.
My podcast, Sex Gets Real, got started was because my friend, Dylan, and I heard some terrible advice about strap-on sex from a shock-jock Playboy type of podcast. We just could not let it go. We were angry at how wrong it was, and that people were actually listening. So, on a whim, we decided our voices were needed. A few days later, we recorded our first episode and now I’m nearing 200 episodes and 3 million downloads. Whoa.
How did you break into the industry and how does one ‘make it’ as a sex educator?
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I still don’t have it all figured out.
But for me, it’s always been about relationship building in the industry and finding ways to promote and lift up other voices. I knew that if I helped everyone around me, they’d in turn want to help me win and celebrate. I started attending conferences like Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, promoting all the speakers, and stepping outside my comfort zone a bit by introducing myself to folks I’d long been a fan of.
The podcast also was a huge help. Even in the very very beginning of the show, I found that if I asked nicely, told someone why I thought they were super awesome, that they’d almost always say yes to an interview. Having them share the show helped me grow organically, which built some buzz, too.
Now I coach sex educators and therapists around building an online presence, creating online summits and courses, and my number one piece of advice for getting noticed is always be yourself. It’s SO tempting to want to emulate, copy, parrot, and follow in the footsteps of other educators. But then people don’t really know who you are. Be bold around stating your vision for a new world, your beliefs of what’s holding us back, your story and why it matters. Learn about social justice and oppression and then find ways to be unapologetic around your values and ethics in those spheres. Apologize when you’re wrong or hurt someone (because you will), and always always always take feedback graciously.
That more than anything has helped me to show up and be known for the sex educator I am today. The money stuff I’m still trying to figure out because the bottom line is people don’t want to pay for sex education unless it’s built on shiny promises and magic bullet solutions. To offer something more real and honest means a lot of swimming against the current. It’s possible, but it takes some grit and determination. And never, ever feel bad if sex education is your side hustle while you have a day job that pays the bills. Some of the biggest names in the industry do the same thing.
What does “a day in the life of a sex educator” look like for you?
For me, a typical day is a whole lot of admin work around the podcast, projects I’m working on, managing client updates and emails. One a good day, I’ll have a chance to do one or two podcast interviews with ridiculously amazing people. I may have a client session or two for personal or business coaching. Loads of social media writing and planning. Nurturing my Explore More group on Facebook. And then making big plans for future workshops, summits, webinars, etc.
What’s the best thing about being a sex educator, in your opinion? The worst?
The best thing is seeing people have massive shifts – seeing their relief, seeing their eyes light up at the possibilities they never knew could be theirs, hearing their vulnerable stories and knowing they trust me enough to hold them so gently and tenderly. That feeds my heart and soul.
The worst is how sex education is treated in the world. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – they all ban ads and promoted posts from sex educators because they consider sex education the same as pornography. Google Ads won’t allow you to buy ad space for the same reason. Getting the word out can be so tough because so many people are so filled with shame and embarrassment they aren’t willing to share your posts, even if they love them, for fear of people seeing them consume the content and thinking something is wrong.
Also, people don’t realize just how badly they need support around sex, love, relationships, and their bodies, so they aren’t willing to pay for webinars and workshops unless they’ve reached a total place of crisis. I wish more people understood that the sooner we all start practicing and learning together, the less we ever have to be in crisis or deep shame. But the world isn’t quite ready for that shift. Until then, we hustle and we persist, even in the shadows.
What’s your favourite episode of the podcast and why?
You have no idea how much I agonized over this question. I decided to go with one of my more recent episodes, simply because I’m incredibly proud of it.
For episode 162, I interviewed law professor and author Carol Sanger. It was the first time I dedicated an entire episode (or more than a few moments) to the topic of abortion. Carol’s book is truly spectacular, and to honor the seven years she spent writing it, I asked listeners to send in their abortion stories. I received about a dozen submissions. Each and every one was raw, real, and deeply personal. I felt like I was holding some of the most precious stories on earth – stories many of these people had never told another living soul. I read some of them on that episode, and Carol and I held them together. It wasn’t a super popular episode because I think too many people are scared of or biased around abortion discussions, but I am so so proud of that work.
Tell us about a book that changed your life/perspective completely?
Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score.” As a trauma survivor with PTSD, it was the first time my body, my reactions to situations, my trauma actually made sense. I started understanding what was happening inside of my body, inside of my brain, and it felt like pure relief.
Until I read that book, I considered myself broken in a lot of ways, incapable of healing or moving beyond certain things. I carried tremendous shame around my triggers, especially as a sex educator since my PTSD tends to come up in sexualized situations with strangers.
The research, the techniques to move towards integrating and recovery gave me hope. That book also gave me new language that allowed me to not only create permission and space in my own trauma, but around the trauma of the people I work with.
It led me to Peter Levine’s work and Somatic Experiencing. It took me down a path of learning more about being trauma-informed. It made sense of so many of the things that seem to not make sense in the world.
I am forever grateful for that book and the shift it caused in me.
Who inspires you, professionally and personally?
Professionally, Meg John Barker. Their work is powerful. They turn a lot of cultural stories and myths upside down, and in a way that doesn’t feel super threatening. I’ve found that so much of what I thought to be true is actually not true at all thanks to them, so I keep a close eye on their work. It’s always radical and permission-granting. Kate McCombs, Karen BK Chan, and Megan Devine in their work on empathy and emotional intelligence. That has done wonders for my professional work, how I work with clients, and my personal relationships, as well.
Personally, I’m inspired by folks who are brave and fighting endlessly for justice. The more I learn about my own racism, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism, classism, the more I grow and can lift others up. People like Ijeomo Oluo, Kelly Diels, Monica Raye Simpson, Jes Baker, Feminista Jones, Audre Lorde, Conner Habib… I feel rich with the people who offer me tough questions and who challenge me. It’s my favorite place to be, even when it feels terrible.
Also, as sappy as it sounds, my husband. He is so ridiculously smart. He reads endlessly, he listens to brain-growing podcasts all the time, and he knows more about all the things than anyone I know.
If you were stuck on a desert island (sorry, sorry, I HAD to do a ‘desert island’ question) and could take one sexy book, one sex toy and one kink item, which would you pick and why?
For my sex toy, I’d bring a rechargeable Magic wand. We’ll just pretend the island has a source of power for charging it. It’s deliciously diverse: I use on myself, I use it on my husband, and we use it together for sex in all sorts of configurations and positions.
For my kink item, it would have to be rope. I was tempted to say a flogger, but we could fashion a flogger from rope because it’s versatile like that. Then I’d have rope for both the kinky stuff (I’m imagining being tied to a palm tree and fanned with palm leaves) and practical island living stuff. Ha!
One sexy book… I have to go with Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy (it’s a box set, so I’m counting it as one). The first time I read those books I was probably 19 or 20 years old, had never heard of kink or BDSM, and they terrified me. Absolutely terrified me. I couldn’t understand why I kept feeling aroused by these very very unusual (to me) activities. In fact, I couldn’t finish the 3rd book because it was too much. A decade later, I picked them up and had to laugh. By then, I’d dabbled in all sorts of kink, had a chance to exploring shifting identities, and met people into all the things in the book. Now, they’re a fun escape that’s sexy and hot and full of delicious ideas.
What’s something you used to believe about sex/relationships but don’t believe any more, and what changed your mind?
I used to believe men wanted sex more than women. I used to believe there were only two genders. I used to believe monogamy was the only way to do relationship. I used to believe fat bodies were rarely, if ever, desirable. I used to believe that love was enough. I used to be in soul mates and true love and fairy tales. I used to believe if you loved someone enough that sex would be automatic and natural, with no need for words or explaining myself or awkward moments. I used to believe you couldn’t come back from betrayal.
I’m sure there are hundreds of other things I used to believe, having grown up on Cosmo magazine and Sex and the City. What really changed my mind was listening to peoples stories and realizing that it’s not that every single person is broken or inadequate in some way – it’s that the system, the stories, the culture are fundamentally flawed.
Reading powerful books on racial justice, reproductive justice, and sexual autonomy helped give me words and new questions which led me on a journey to overturn and question nearly everything we’re taught. I have a talk called Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong. It’s not because any individual is wrong, it’s that everything we’ve all been taught is wrong.
What’s the one thing that you wish everyone in the world could understand about sex/relationships?
I wish more people realized that we’d all be a lot better off if we normalized a lifetime of learning and professional support BEFORE crisis struck in both sex and love.
I wish people knew just how much pain, shame, uncertainty, hesitation, anger, resentment, confusion, and regret they could shed if they worked with folks like sex educators, sex coaches, sex therapists, relationship coaches, relationship therapists, trauma counselors, sex workers, body workers, etc.
So many people spend months, years, or decades silently suffering, worrying, not sure what’s changing or why things are so tough, and if they only knew how much permission and relief they could find with the help of folks trained to do this. No one should have to wait until they’re in deep pain or betrayal to begin to do the work that could genuinely move things forward for them.
There are a lot of amazing people (and even more pretty terrible ones, so be particular, folks) doing incredible, affirming work in all of these rich areas. Even professionals need a safe space to process, to learn and grow, to grieve and mourn the things they’ve fucked up or gotten wrong, to gain a little perspective. So if professionals needs it (goodness knows I do), then everyone does.
If we could all celebrate asking for help and having places to turn to constantly ask new questions together, I suspect we’d have a world with a lot less shame and fear and so much more connection and pleasure.
What do you think is the most toxic myth that our society perpetuates about sex/relationships?
In my humble opinion, all myths that we have are built upon one myth that feeds them all. It’s the myth that tells us the answers we need are outside of ourselves.
We are a culture that teaches children to turn to others to tell them who they are. We are trained from the youngest of ages to accept labels from people who do not know us, from people who are not us, and we are a culture that thrives on conformity (while claiming to admire independence).
Because of that, we get trapped in stories that tell us to compare ourselves to others, to let outside forces dictate our identities and our worth, to tell us what a normal life or romance or happiness look like. It is a myth that says you are not the one with the answers. We don’t know how to trust our bodies, how to speak up for ourselves, how to advocate for our pleasure because we, our bodies, our lives, are foreign to us.
And yet…we are the only ones who live in our bodies, who think our thoughts, who feel these sensations, who experience these feelings. If we can begin learning how to listen to our bodies, how to trust those sensations and the wisdom we have about what’s best for us, how to sit in our feelings and ask ourselves questions about what we really want and feel, we’d find that we have tremendous power and sovereignty over our own lives.
Sex wouldn’t be about performing what we think sex should look like. It would be about intimately knowing our bodies and what brings us the most pleasure on our own terms without worrying if it looked like everyone else.
Love wouldn’t be about achieving a relationship status or adhering to external, superficial factors, but instead about connection and curiosity and knowing based on a deep trust of ourselves.
Entire industries would collapse, but wow what a world that would be.
What’s one question that you wish people would stop asking you?
I love that you asked this, and at the same time, it’s difficult to answer because my goal is always to create space to reduce shame so folks can ask the hard questions. By answering, do I, in turn, create an atmosphere where it’s no longer safe to ask this question? Possibly, yes.
To answer the question, though, I wish people would stop asking how to “make” their partner orgasm because they’ve decided, on their partner’s behalf, that their partner having an orgasm is somehow vital or a huge puzzle piece is missing from their partner’s pleasure experience.
Our cultural focus on orgasm is bananas, and it’s created tremendous pressure on everyone to be orgasming all the time in all the ways, and to feel terrible if they aren’t.
I love people getting curious about their own pleasure and their own bodies, finding new words and tools to advocate for their explorations, and demanding recognition of their pleasure especially if they’re in a marginalized body, so what I think causes a lot more harm than good is people who make their partner’s experiences a personal mission.
Too many people feel like their sexual success, or being good in bed, is tied up in “giving” their partners an orgasm. It’s not really about the partner (though many say that it is). It’s actually about their own stories and needing to feel successful in some way because their partner’s orgasm is tied to their own identity.
That’s not to vilify folks who ask this question, but to point out that the sexual stories we’re given tell us this is normal. That orgasm is the end-all-be-all, and so of course we should want to do whatever it takes to make someone we care about get there. But at what expense? Making them feel more broken or abnormal?
The bottom line is expectations suck when it comes to sex – whether the expectation is a hard penis or certain feelings or an orgasm. It’s the fastest way to turn off pleasure and create distance, because even if an expectation goes unspoken, it still gets communicated – loudly and clearly – to the person who isn’t orgasming that something about them isn’t good enough. And they are good enough.
Instead of worrying about orgasm as a goal, I always invite people to simply focus on maximizing pleasure and being present for each other. Curiosity, space, time, and fun are much more likely to give everyone the peak pleasure experience they’re hoping for, anyways. And yet… no matter how many times I offer this answer, people still ask this question. So I’ll continue repeating myself until we have a cultural shift that takes this pressure off us all.
And just for fun, because it is “Coffee and Kink”: do you like coffee and how do you take it?
I love coffee. The floofy, fancy kind. A latte with caramel or an iced coffee with cream and lavender syrup. It’s a decadence that I treat myself to from time to time rather than a daily kick start.
Thanks again to Dawn for her time and amazing insights – and for being the amazing, fabulous educator she is.
Words and Sex Gets Real logo copyright Dawn Serra, 2017.