I grew up in a conservative farming community in Minnesota. My sex education involved the gym/health teacher telling us, “You all are a Christmas present under the tree, and you have to wait until Christmas for that special person to unwrap you. If you let people unwrap you before Christmas, and then try to wrap yourself up again, the paper will be wrinkled and no one will want that present. It wouldn’t be special for that one person you’re giving it to. Even if you just peek and put the wrapping back and they don’t know, you’ll know, and you’ll be less special on that day.”
I took that last part to mean no oral or hand stuff either.
This created deep shame surrounding my own sexuality. With my first boyfriend at age 16, I knew I wasn’t ready to have sex. I felt guilty and dirty for sharing sexual touch, as though I had tarnished myself. On top of that, I knew from age 11 that I was bisexual, which wasn’t safe to talk about. I never met an openly gay person until I was 13. Many people around me thought being gay would send you to hell.
When I went to college for my B.F.A. in theatre performance, I told myself I would come out. But that didn’t happen. I told a few people, but the idea of sharing this personal information was like a rock in my gut. I heard the way others talked about the one bisexual person we knew about, as though she would try to spy on us in the shower. I didn’t want them talking about me that way. After I graduated, I forced myself to slowly start to come out publicly.
What people don’t tell you about coming out is that it isn’t a one-time thing. Telling my mom made her worry that my life would be harder. Friends told me it wasn’t a big deal, I could simply choose to date men. My grandma asked if I was just “trying out things.” My dad told me, “You’re not going to get any pushback from me, but it still doesn’t mean you have to be a Democrat.”
Their reactions were so varied and amusing. It led me to create a short performance called “The Coming Out Tour.” In it, I came out to a puppet, with rotating wigs and hats to represent different members of my family.
I decided that 2016 would be the year I came out in a larger way, because I needed to make big changes. I felt empowered, until I was sexually assaulted by someone I met from an online dating site. The aftermath sent me spiraling down a hole, to the point where I was fired from a show I was performing in.
A few weeks later, Gadfly Theater asked me to write two short plays about my life for them, as part of a series about “My Horrifying Love Life” with Patrick’s Cabaret. I wrote “Two Bisexuals Walk Into a Coffee Shop,” about my first date with a bisexual woman. I also wrote a play that displayed the text messages of the man who assaulted me, who said it was my fault that he was aggressive with me.
Writing and performing my own pieces has been the most cathartic and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. People I hadn’t talked to in years started messaging me to tell me about their assault or how they were still in the closet.
I kept writing and performing all over Minneapolis. I was on the Risk! storytelling podcast and interviewed people on stage about non-traditional relationships. I started going to bars for open mics dressed in lingerie to educate the audience about consent during intimacy. I created an hour-long Minnesota Fringe show in 2017, “First Year Queer.”
After the Fringe show wrapped, I was asked to teach workshops, and my career as a sex educator took off in many directions. I got a job as a domestic abuse and sexual assault advocate for Day One Hotline. I became the sex educator for “What’s Next: A Sexprov,” which is a monthly sex education comedy show at The Phoenix Theatre. I landed a job as a sex educator with Seeing and Exploring Life’s Future (SELF), which empowers youth with knowledge and tools to promote healthy sexuality, good decisions, and positive relationships.
SELF presentations are tailored for any audience, such as students and educators, parents and caregivers, community groups, professionals, clergy, and youth leaders. We use the “Sexuality for All Abilities” curriculum developed by Katie Thune (see Minnesota Women’s Press, May 2019).
It is 2019, yet only 24 states and the District of Columbia require sex education in schools. Only 13 require the curriculum to be medically accurate — Minnesota is not among them. Only nine states require discussion of LGBTQ+ identities, and relationships that are inclusive and affirming, which Minnesota does not.
My personal hope is that more youth, and adults, have access to comprehensive sex education. It’s exciting to see consent, communication, healthy relationships, and individuals and groups seeking out curriculums about inclusivity.
Lyssa Sparrow (she/her/hers) is a 29-year-old artist and sexuality educator. Those interested in contacting her for sexuality education can reach her at email@example.com
Scarleteen.com: inclusive, comprehensive, supportive sexuality and relationships info for teens and emerging adults
Plannedparenthood.org: educational resources and medically accurate information
Loveisrespect.org: empowering people to prevent and end abusive relationships
Sexualityforallabilities.com: tips, tools, and resources to support the sexual health of people with disabilities
Smittenkittenonline.com: Minnesota-owned, sex-positive, education-based, body-safe sex toy store, with a free lending library that includes hundreds of books about sexuality
Amaze.org: takes the awkward out of sex education, with fun, animated, age-appropriate videos
Bedsider.org: an online birth control support network for women ages 18 to 29