Who: Carolyn Peterson
What: Human Sexuality Professor
Where: Cincinnati, Ohio
Carolyn Peterson credits her ability to teach human sexuality on a college level to her six-year tenure as a phone sex performer as well as her master’s degree in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Before doing graduate work at the University of Cincinnati, Peterson completed her bachelor’s degree in creative writing at Ohio University. According to Peterson, her work in phone sex is the best thing she will ever do with her creative writing degree. After completing her master’s degree and writing a thesis on phone sex work, Peterson took time off to waitress and gain real world experience. She says that her personal experiences with sex, sexuality and sex work prepared her to teach as much as her academic accomplishments. Peterson has been teaching human sexuality for three years. In 2011, she was awarded the McMicken Dean’s Award for Distinguished Adjunct Service. She has since become a fulltime faculty member at the University of Cincinnati.
Q: How did you become a human sexuality professor?
A: The actual job fell in my lap. I didn’t seek it out. I have my master’s degree in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies from the University of Cincinnati — where I teach. I’ve always been interested in sexuality. I’ve always made everything about sex – even when it isn’t. It’s kind of a natural extension.
Also, I was a phone sex performer for six years, so I really think that my experiences with that are equal to my degrees and my graduate work. I learned a lot about sexuality from the phone sex performer job that I never learned in school. It felt like natural, good timing for me to get this job.
Right before they invited me to teach, I kind of had this moment where I kind of told the universe what I wanted – I had been trying to think of what job I would like to do, you know? And I just couldn’t think of a job that I really wanted to do. I kind of have high standards in regard to what I choose to do for work. A couple jobs came my way before this one, and I didn’t really feel passionate about them. And then this just kind of fell in my lap — I didn’t apply for it or anything, but it ended up being want I wanted. It was a huge blessing. It really came as an answer to a question I put out there. I never had even taken a human sexuality class in college – I wasn’t familiar with human sexuality as a class or a big lecture that a lot of students take in undergrad. I wasn’t aware of it. I never would’ve come up with this being what I wanted to do on my own, but when it finally came along, it was definitely the perfect answer. If I won Powerball today, I would still do this job.
Q: How did you become a phone sex performer, and how does that apply your teaching?
A: The short answer of how I started doing phone sex was that I knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody that had started this phone sex company. When I first started, I was graduating with my bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing at the time with a certificate in women’s studies.
At the time, I wasn’t passionate at all about getting a job – the whole process just sounds really boring to me. It was coming time for graduation and I was hanging out with a friend of the woman I was dating at the time, and he was like, “You should do phone sex.” I had always been a flirt – I’m not as much of one as I used to be. The phone sex thing was the best thing I ever did with my creative writing degree, definitely. I was trained by an acting coach, but completely bombed the audition – but my boss saw something in me, I guess, and I got the job. As soon I wasn’t nervous anymore, it was really easy for me to pick it up. Again, it was a really good fit for me. The company was started by a group of radical, Second Wave feminists, so it was just fascinating. I could go on and on and on about the company for forever – I ended up doing my graduate thesis on it. It was really interesting to me because I had identified as a feminist since I was probably like 14.
When you are a sex worker, you run into a lot of really interesting opinions and ideas about sex work. I feel really passionately about sex work, and what was really interesting to me was how much resistance I ran into in the feminist community. I think this is kind of an old idea that doesn’t really apply anymore to feminism at large, but there was this whole kind of Second Wave feminist idea that women who engage in sex work are either exploited and have no choice or they have a kind of false consciousness. That was always really irritating to me, and I always saw feminism and sex work as side by side. It totally made sense to me that feminists would be pro-sex work since it’s all about making your own choices.
In terms of the juxtaposition between the academy and my phone sex experience was like anyone who comes to the academy with experience and sees that experience theorized and oftentimes sees that experience theorized incorrectly by people who are part of the elite and who have never actually experienced it.
I also experienced a lot of support, though, from faculty and from my graduate cohorts. I think that I learned a lot in graduate school about feminist theory and philosophy that I internalized and learned, but doing sex work and doing phone sex has taught me at least as much as my formal education – especially about sexuality.
Phone sex forced me to face a lot of judgments about men – about a lot of things, really…including sex. Doing phone sex is kind of like being a therapist. You can’t be a good therapist if you’re judging your client – even if your client is, like, a rapist. You can’t judge that client and still be helpful to them or be a good counselor. You have to find neutrality and a place of compassion for them where you can connect to them, because if you don’t, you’re just sitting in judgment and can’t help them.
That was really transformative to me – experiencing all of these men and their fantasies, which may be .00001 percent of what I would have “agreed with” as a feminist. All the rest were crazy and would be considered totally unethical and would be at minimum considered exploitative of women or violent towards women. Any fantasy there is – I did it.
I feel like I got to know the depth of these men’s psyches. They would tell me everything – things that they didn’t tell their wives or their therapists or their doctors or priests because they were anonymous. The way I was trained by this company was to have the utmost respect for this client and to give them the best possible experience – not to milk them for money or to try to keep them on the phone longer, you know? None of that capitalist stuff. What ended up happening was that the company was really successful because of that.
I developed a lot of empathy and compassion for people who I would not be able to have empathy or compassion for otherwise. I think in terms of understanding sexuality, there’s nothing like delving into the deep, dark corners of people’s minds, you know? And one of the most interesting things I learned is that you don’t know whom someone is identifying as in a fantasy. You have these weird epiphanies about how complex our psyches are or how completely drenched in judgment and stereotype I am – especially as a feminist.
I think that that job really helped me to teach this class – not only in terms of knowledge of sexuality, but in terms of fantasy and just kind of sexual literacy. And also in terms of coming from a place of compassion – even if they’re into things that society deems to be “problematic.” And you can’t be a good teacher if you’re judging your student, and that has been really helpful because if I had started teaching after coming out of graduate school, then I would have been a very different teacher.
Q: So how is human sexuality class different than a sex ed. class?
A: It’s everything that’s related to sex and sexuality. It’s physical, emotion and psychological. It’s social and sociological. It’s psychology. There’s a sex ed. element to the class because there has to be since students often didn’t get that in high school most likely, so the sex ed. element. Then there are the nuts and bolts like, “Here’s a vagina!” or “Here’s a penis!” It’s the kind of stuff that, in a perfect world, you’d have known since you were five, but in the real world, most people don’t know.
Q: What is the most challenging thing about your job?
A: I would say one is walking the tightrope of recognizing where our culture is in terms of sexuality and including that in my teaching process and figuring out how to figuring out how to teach in a way that resonates with such a diverse group of students who have all experienced sexuality and sex differently by the time they get to the class. I try to see the world through the eyes of so many different people who are on opposing sides of things – that’s really challenging. Being mindful of not judging and coming from a place of compassion can be challenging, too.
I guess I’m pretty much past judgment of people about sexuality – I mean, I still judge my boyfriend, for example. I’m not the Buddha. But I used to get pissed off at people who hold certain ideological positions. I don’t do that anymore. Because I believe that every one’s sexuality is sacred, and it’s easy to see, like, women’s sexuality as sacred, you know what I’m saying? It’s more of a challenge to see, like, a frat guy and know very clearly what he’s interested in and what his perceptions of gender, sexuality and consent are, and still see his sexuality as sacred.
If I’m practicing what I preach, then I see even the frat guy’s sexuality as sacred, in all of its “ugliness,” and that, to me, is what is really beautiful about my job because it gives me endless opportunities to grow as a person and to embrace things that I haven’t always embraced.
I think being able to love all my students is really challenging, too. My perspective is really sex positive and really different than our mainstream structures of paradigms of understanding of bodies and sexualities and things. It’s interesting trying to fit what I believe is true and valuable about these subjects and what I would like to communicate about all these subjects into a format that is understandable for students. But I like the process. I just have to be real.
The topic is so personal and intimate. If I really think about the impact that this kind of impact this kind of class can have on students – not because of me, but because of the subject. A lot of students have experienced a lot of trauma, and subjects in the class will trigger things for them, and then they’ll want to come to me about it. I’m not a trained counselor, but I do my best. A lot of times, this is the only space that they’ve experienced thus far in life where they can talk about the things that have happened to them – it makes me really nervous that I’m going to do something wrong, and that’s the part that I try to really handle with care and compassion and take very seriously.
Students constantly surprise me. It’s a really transformative process for me because they share the amazing parts of who they are – this job changes my life on a regular basis.
Q: What does it mean to be “sex positive?”
A: It’s the belief that sex is fundamentally good and that it’s a force that can be used for good in the world. It doesn’t mean that every sexual experience is good, but that’s not sex’s fault. It’s the idea that sex is inherently good and is sometimes abused. Sex positivity is the belief that sex is positive.
Q: What is the most surprising thing about teaching human sexuality?
A: It’s surprising how easy it is. It’s so enjoyable. Maybe to someone who doesn’t enjoy it naturally, it would be really hard. Mostly, anything that has to with the class, I really enjoy doing.
Also, I didn’t realize how involved in the community I was going to be able to get. I’ve been able to network and create a web of connecting students with people in the community. I guess it’s surprised me how much energy and passion students have. They’re so progressive, even if they’re not like me – they’re so passionate about what they believe in and they’re so insightful. It’s just cool to be around young people who are blooming. It’s really cool to watch and I feel really blessed to be a part of that. It’s not always easy, of course, but I love it.
Q: What’s the most rewarding aspect?
A: Having mutually beneficial relationships with students. Some people, I think, feel like teaching is a top-down thing, but that’s not me. I don’t do the banking system of knowledge. Students have a lot of influence on me – I don’t know if they know that, but they do. Every semester that I teach, something life changing happens to me thanks to the class. I feel like I continually grow and learn through teaching. I hear about so many personal journeys in regard to topics that really personal. I see students come out of the closet in all sorts of ways – like they might be gay or republican or kinky or slutty or a virgin. I see students evolve and have realizations about so many sorts of things.
And it’s not because of me; it’s because of them and what they choose to take away from the class or how they view the information. Being able to witness that is really rewarding and uplifting. It’s really reassuring – it only takes one or two experiences with students to be like, “Oh, things are OK. The world is OK. Everything will work out.”
Q: What has teaching this class on a college level made you think of pre-college sex education for students?
A: There are totally exceptions to this rule, but overwhelmingly, sex education is nonexistent in America. Often, even when it is existent, it is purely negative. Abstinence-only education is not education; it’s a lack of education. It’s all fear-based. I’m sure there are schools out there that are really amazing, but we have such a taboo in our culture about age and sexuality. I’m really in touch with that taboo because I’m really aware of it thanks to all the stuff I talk about. I have these panic moments where I’m like, “Oh, my god. Am I going to jail just for saying this?”
It’s ridiculous how our culture is collectively terrorized by the idea of sexuality and youth being combined, even though young people are the most sexual people and it’s their bodies. I’ve always found it to be offensive that children aren’t educated about their own bodies. It breaks my heart that we have taught our children that the most powerful parts of their bodies aside from their hearts and brains are less than beautiful and amazing. Then they spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out how to enjoy that part of their body. I think children should be taught about their bodies immediately – they have knowledge of them anyway, so trying to combat that knowledge with negativity is just absurd.
One of the most rewarding parts of this job is being in a position where I might be the first contact that they having coming right out of that kind of environment and I feel really honored to be in that position. I take it really seriously. I see it almost as a decompression of sorts – I try to be as positive as I possibly can. I try to be as unconditionally loving as possible. I don’t know how to translate that into teaching exactly, but I do my best.
Q: What are some misconceptions you run into?
A: I don’t run into a lot of misconceptions, but probably that I teach just sex ed. where you just learn about STDs and contraception. Maybe another one would be that I’m a therapist or that I can solve their sex problems. Like I’m a medical doctor or something. It doesn’t bother me; it’s just a misconception that they have. I don’t think there are as much misconceptions as there are…well, people just don’t know what it’s about. They just have a lack of conception.
Q: Since you have a Women’s Studies background and teach the class from a feminist perspective, what does feminism mean to you? How do you define it?
A: It’s really changed for me over the years. When I think of feminism now, I think of something that’s radically challenging problematic systems – or subverting cultural norms that are exploitative and hierarchical and messed up. It used to be challenging systems of domination, but now, it’s the challenging of those systems and then the replacing of them with love and joy and freedom. For me, the solution to the problems that feminists battle is love and compassion. It took real world experience for me to be able to define feminism as something that isn’t just about seeing the negative, but about replacing that negativity with positivity. And that’s what I try to do now. Instead of just focusing on the problems, I look to actually focus on what the world wants or needs instead of what they don’t need. Teaching the class is how I move the world more in the positive direction that I envision, and I do that through being compassionate and loving toward my students.
Q: Does teaching the class ever make you uncomfortable?
A: Sometimes. Students very rarely cross my own personal boundaries. Sometimes students will talk about things that I have my own personal hang ups about. It challenges my openness, but I still don’t judge. Someone’s sexual orientation is who a person is and who they’ve always been. I just try to think about all the things that come naturally to me, and how I’d if they were considered illegal or taboo in our society. That’s what I try to do whenever I’m uncomfortable with something. Students are usually good about respecting boundaries, though. I’m very open to changing my perception and evolving.
There’s a constant evolution and I try to stay very neutral. At the same time, I try to be real and relatively transparent. If something takes me aback, it’s usually criticism of me as a teacher or being biased instead of something a student actually does or says. The thing about there teaching so many different types of students with different kinds of intelligence and experiences, you get so many different types of responses and questions. Every perspective and point of view is valid to me. All perspectives are equal to me.
Q: What do you feel are the most important things you can teach your students? What do you hope students take away from the class?
A: A respect for diversity, self love, to honor their own desire and to honor other people’s desires without judgment – even if they don’t understand it or “get it.” I think another big thing is that being selfish – or that fulfilling their own wants or caring about their own wants more than someone else’s – is a good thing. There’s so much self-sacrifice that goes on, especially in sexuality, but I think that if people respect and honor themselves more, they will be more prone to honoring someone else.
Teaching students about consent is another important aspect of the class for me. Students need to understand that all parties need to be enthusiastic about each and every sexual experience for it to be contentious experience. Consent should be “yes means yes” instead of “no means no.” “Yes means yes” is consent where a lack of a “no” is not consent. I want to communicate to students the power to say, “yes” to what their own desires are – no coercion or persuasion.
I just want to help students get over the shame and negativity that comes with sex and sexuality in our culture. I want students to realize that norms don’t really need to be norms – that they can be deconstructed and torn down. I want to promote acceptance and actually respect our differences and varieties. One way to explain the beauty of difference is that we are all parts of an ecosystem and we all serve a function and benefit the whole and form the whole. We are all part of biodiversity and because of that, our differences are beautiful.
Nature doesn’t waste anything and it doesn’t waste differences among people. We all are here for a purpose. If you realize that sex is so much more and so much deeper than what we see in porn. If I can just help anyone be responsible and compassionate and more loving – little things like that are what mean the most to me about this class. If I can communicate any of those things and just promote self-love and love of others, then I am doing my job.This article was originally submitted to The Verge Magazine.