Sexuality Specialization Tackles Topics to Increase Well-Being and Social Justice | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
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Sexuality Specialization Tackles Topics to Increase Well-Being and Social Justice

Social Work; Faculty; Alumni; Students

The Sexual Health and Education specialization at the Brown School aims to prepare social workers to address problems related to sexuality and beyond.

It is one of six in the MSW program, and the only specialization of its kind in the U.S., according to its chair, Susan Stiritz, associate professor of practice and president of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT).

“Our goal is to clarify the importance of sexual health and satisfaction to other realms of clients’ lives,” she said. “When social workers talk knowledgeably and comfortably to clients about sexuality, they inspire them with confidence to create the healthy experiences of connection and pleasure they want.”

Social workers have long recognized sexuality as a source of empowerment but one especially vulnerable to exploitation by those seeking domination, Stiritz remarked. Helping people gain sexual knowledge and skills they want is a formidable tool in helping them become more confident and effective in other areas of their lives.

“About 46 percent of people seeking help from a social worker are looking to solve problems related to sexuality. Most of them are too embarrassed to bring the topic of sex up,” Stiritz said. “If social workers don’t ask if they have any sexual concerns, clients go home with unaddressed issues that undermine their confidence, their relationships, and their personal power. Sexual satisfaction accounts for 15-20 percent of couple satisfaction, contributes to mental and total health, and is an important catalyst for positive change.”

Stiritz, a sexologist, psychoanalyst, and social worker, taught women’s literature, sexuality studies, and women’s studies in the School of Arts and Sciences before joining the Brown School. She developed the sexuality specialization in 2013, with the first students graduating in 2015. About 30 students enroll in the specialization each year, with additional students from public health, undergraduates, and other fields such as occupational therapy taking courses as well.

Nine courses make up the specialization, including: Sex, Society and Social Work; Couples Therapy; Sexual Health Across the Life Course; Intimate Partner Violence: Theories, Problems and Issues; Social Work Practice with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Populations, and two sexuality education practice teaching courses.

Stiritz said rather than teaching students to take sexual histories based on medical models, she teaches students skills in what she calls ‘sex chatting’: creating friendly dialogues that help clients expand their sexual self-efficacy. Tools used in sex chatting include a sexual self-efficacy scale, sexual ecomaps, genograms and timelines. “Social workers are the best professionals to deliver psychoeducational sexuality services,” she said. “Not only do we have ecological tools for developing more reflective lives, we also are the only professionals formally committed to social justice, and the foundations of sexual health are consensual, equitable, mutual relationships. Further, the social worker’s ‘strengths model’ is a great framework for teaching sex positivity.”

Social justice issues weave together the personal and the political throughout the specialization, she said. The specialization provides students with tools to heal individual and cultural sexual trauma such as mindfulness, self-advocacy, individual and group teaching, community organizing, political action, and artistic expression.

Numerous practicums are offered in the area at sites including Danforth Campus sexual violence prevention and sexual health education programs, Planned Parenthood, the Children’s Aid Society and the Washington University School of Medicine. Stiritz said she encourages students in the specialization to begin planning for their careers in the field of sexual health early, tailoring their coursework around mastering transformative interventions in sexuality education, wellness programs, policy initiatives, and advocacy campaigns.

“I want students to make contacts with professionals in the field right from the start,” she said. Her leadership role at AASECT and contacts with its 3,000 members offer good networking opportunities. She said there is growing demand in the job market for students with skills the specialization teaches. College campuses offer especially promising job opportunities, as many are looking for sexual health educators and leaders of violence-prevention programs.

“Graduates with our specialization get good jobs quickly because of their unique skills and positive attitudes towards sexual health,” she said. “It’s a growing field.”

Dalychia Saah, MSW ’14

One of the adjunct instructors in the specialization is Dalychia Saah, MSW ’14, who is teaching a spring semester course: “Designing and Implementing Sexual Health Education: Sexual Pleasure, Power and Protection.”

Along with another Brown School alum, Rafaella Smith-Fiallo, MSW ’15, Saah started Afrosexology, a pleasure-based sex education program that offers workshops on sexual liberation aimed at people of color.

“Sex in our country is shame-based and focused on avoiding risk, especially in the Black community,” she said. “We talk about the things we should be moving toward: exploring your erotic self, turn-ons, how to figure out boundaries.”

The workshops focus predominantly on people of color and are centered around Black experiences and narratives, including those dealing with oppression, such as police brutality that are specific to race. “Because the trauma has been specific, the healing should be specific,” she said.

Her business, like her course instruction, focuses on the social damage done by unhealthy attitudes toward sex.

“Susan and I have a serious social justice perspective,” she said. “It’s not just how to get people to have better sex, but how sex is tied to patriarchy, sexism and racism, capitalism, colonialism, heterosexism, truly all -isms and how we can change the way we relate to our bodies, and so to one another without replicating oppressive norms.”

“We teach students how to be informed and empowered to talk about sex,” said Saah, who will be the opening plenary speaker at the annual AASECT conference in June.

Molly Pearson, a second-year, MSW/MSP student, said the specialization has helped guide her thinking about her future.

“I want to center my career on gender and sexuality policy,” said Pearson, who learned about the specialization when she arrived at Brown. She has learned about how systems and policies affect gender, sexuality and institutions like marriage, and what it all means for people’s day-to-day lives.

The specialization has strengthened her policy skills through work writing and submitting opinion pieces to local newspapers and learning how to communicate with policymakers about sex-related topics. She utilized those skills during her practicum at PROMO, the statewide Missouri group that advocates for LGBTQ equality.

“Policy work is social work,” she said. “I’m learning how to find ways to interact with policymakers and how to hold their hands and walk them through all of this.”

The nature of the subject matter and Stiritz’s cheerful explicitness in talking about it can make some uncomfortable, Stiritz said. “Students come in nervous, but by the time they leave they’re so relaxed about sexuality,” she said. “Nobody likes to talk about sex— except the people in my classes; they can’t stop talking about it.”

“I’m passionate about it because I see the good it does.”

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