by Alice Gauntley
If you’re a young person who has done any kind of activism on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), you’ve probably had people ask you what that’s like. Maybe you even have some stories ready–funny stories or inspiring stories. I know I do. But I know there are other stories I didn’t always know how to tell, because just thinking about them made me a little embarrassed. I’m talking about times when I realized that, despite all my passion and engagement in SRHR activism, there were still things I just didn’t know.
Like the time I was 16 and in a workshop on contraception while training to be a peer sexual health educator, and kept quiet because I wasn’t totally sure whether you could get pregnant from oral sex. Or the time I was 18 and facilitating a training for high school students on consent and communication, and didn’t know how to respond when students pushed back against the way we talked about asking for consent because honestly, I also found talking about sexual desires harder than our training workbooks made it out to be. Or the time I was 21 and planning a workshop on healthy relationships for my university, while also feeling lost after a bad breakup during which I’d said some things I really regretted.
In all those moments, I remember thinking: how can I be teaching others about sexual health when I don’t even have everything figure out for myself?
But what I wish I’d realized then is that I didn’t need to know everything to be doing this work. In reality, the fact that I was still growing was a strength, not a weakness. And I promise that if you’re a young person passionate about SRHR activism, that’s the case for you, too. Here’s why:
Think about the people you’ve learned the most from, or the people you’d really like to have teaching you. Are they people who seem like they know everything and always have? Or are they people who seem human–knowledgeable, but also relatable? Maybe they can tell you about times that they were confused about the same things you’re confused about now. Maybe if you ask them a question and they don’t know the answer, they treat that as an opportunity for you both to learn together. Maybe they’re people who get where you’re coming from because that’s where they’re coming from, too. Maybe they’re even people who’ve made some big mistakes.
Well guess what–that’s the kind of person you can be for others! Not a flawless expert who knows all the answers and finds everything about sexual health easy or simple, but someone who can be real about how SRHR can be a lot. Because the truth is…
Contraception, STIs, pregnancy options, sexual identities, sexuality and culture, sexuality and ability, sexual and gender-based violence, desire and pleasure and boundaries…these are huge topics! It makes sense that they’re not the kinds of things we can learn about once and then know everything about forever. For one thing, information is constantly changing–from scientists discovering new things about STIs to queer people finding new words to describe their experiences. For another, everyone’s experience of sexuality changes over the years–this is a lifelong journey for all of us, whether or not we’re taking leadership roles in SRHR.
And part of that journey is to learn how to be OK with always learning! I’d even go so far as to say that learning to be OK with not knowing everything, and with the idea that you’ll probably make mistakes, will give you a leg up as a young leader. Which matters because…
I started volunteering for a sexual health organization when I was 16, and I did it because I thought it would be a way I could help other people. I was already the person friends went to with sexual health questions. I was already involved in my school’s queer-straight alliance. I was already the kid who asked the questions in health class that other people were afraid to bring up. I figured this was a way I could make a difference for others. And it totally was–but that isn’t all it was. It also made a big difference in my own life.
But I thought for a long time that wasn’t the point. It felt kind of selfish. It took me years to realize how counterproductive this was. In addition to all the reasons discussed above, aiming to “help others,” especially when you feel you don’t need any help yourself, can actually feel pretty condescending to the people you’re aiming to “help.” As I’ve continued to grow, I’ve learned more about working in solidarity with others, and how that means it’s actually a good thing if I get something out of what I’m doing, too.
Plus, every year I keep doing this work, there are more and more things I learn that I know I’m going to value for the rest of my life. That’s not something to feel bad about, or push to the side, right? That’s something to celebrate.
Maybe some of you are reading all this and thinking it’s super obvious. And if you are, great! But I know all of this took me a long time to figure out. It’s now over a decade after I sat in that peer training session and felt like I wasn’t cut out to be a sexual health peer educator because I didn’t know some pretty basic facts about pregnancy. Since then I’ve done a lot of work, both paid and volunteer, in SRHR. I’ve learned a lot, and unlearned even more, and I’ve done a whole lot of good, all without ever knowing everything.
If I could go back in time and tell my 16 year old self one thing about the world of sexual and reproductive health advocacy she was beginning to explore, I’d tell her that she still has so much to learn–and that’s actually a wonderful thing.
Alice Gauntley (she/her) is a project officer with Wisdom2Action based in Tkaronto, on the traditional territory of many Indigenous nations including the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe, the Wendat, and the Mississaugas of the Credit.
Passionate about health equity, Alice has over a decade of experience as a public health researcher, advocate, and educator, with a focus on sexual health promotion. This includes both volunteer and paid work with organizations such as: Planned Parenthood Toronto, McGill University Student Services, the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society, AIDS Community Care Montreal, the University of Toronto Factor-Inwentash School Of Social Work, and Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights (where she currently serves on the Youth Advisory Board).
Alice holds a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Gender, Sexuality, Feminist and Social Justice Studies from McGill University. In her free time she likes to watch Star Trek with her cat.
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