This piece is a part of an ongoing series on sex and relationships, in accordance with the Valentine’s holiday in February! Some stories will appear in the print edition of the Gateway, while others will enjoy their space online throughout the month.
Sofia Jawed-Wessel is an associate professor in UNO’s School of Health and Kinesiology, specializing in sex research. She is also the co-director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative on campus and is well-known for her advocacy in the community.
Due to her extensive knowledge in the field, I figured it was vital to have a Q&A with her during our series of sex and relationship-focused stories. Without further ado, bask in her knowledge:
KB: Why is sex education important?
SJW: Sex education is important just like mathematic education, or reading comprehension, or biology, or any other subject matter is important to learn as we develop and need to use various skills. Sexual literacy is a skill that must be taught—while we can pick up some elements as we go along, we should not have to rely on trial and error when it comes to our sexual well-being. Basic evidence-based sex education can help prevent unnecessary infections and unwanted pregnancies, and comprehensive evidence-sex education provides the full spectrum of knowledge that would allow individuals to make truly informed decisions and live out sexually autonomous and healthy lives.
KB: How many students at UNO are studying sexual health and education?
SJW: Currently, UNO does not offer a major in sexual health or education. Students can Minor in Sexuality/LGBTQ Studies or take various courses on campus such as my course HED 3080 Public Health Perspectives in Sexual Development. I typically have about 35 students in my class each semester.
I also am the Co-Director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative and we currently have six graduate students and two undergraduate students as party of our team.
KB: What is your specific field of research and what inspired you to pursue it?
SJW: My field of study is broadly sexual health. My research focuses on understanding the sexual health of women and couples as they transition into parenthood by documenting sexual behaviors, sexual function, relationship adjustment and sexual changes during pregnancy and after childbirth. The long-term goal of my research trajectory is to understand how women’s intimate relationships are impacted by sexual and maternal objectification.
My work is not limited to sexuality during pregnancy and after childbirth, though. I am the primary investigator on several projects including a federal project evaluating the efficacy of pregnancy prevention curricula in Nebraska and Iowa. We are currently building the infrastructure for the first LGBTQ-specific leadership institute in the Midlands, and we also are responsible for organizing condom distribution via the Get Checked Omaha program. In every project I am involved in, my goal is to work towards placing sexual health knowledge, skills, and services within everybody’s reach.
KB: What are some of your greatest accomplishments?
SJW: That is really tough! I am pretty proud of the work we did to update the Human Growth and Development standards in Omaha Public Schools. The standards were incredibly outdated (as old as me!) and making that push felt productive and impactful.
I also enjoy when my research can reach a wide audience beyond academia so it felt pretty great to have my TEDx talk viewed by millions of folks all over the world. I think that I put a spark in some people’s minds with that talk and I’ve really loved all the positive feedback I’ve gotten (particularly from mothers). My greatest accomplishment, though, are the cohorts of students I have the opportunity to mentor and help place in the world to work towards a more just community in a way that is entirely their own—those students are my legacy and what I am the most proud of.
KB: What are some of your favorite sex ed resources in Omaha?
SJW: The XONE app! Check it out, especially the map section that geolocates every Get Checked Omaha condom box and testing/treatment sites all over Omaha.
KB: What can students at UNO do to help progress sexual justice for women and LGBTQ folks?
SJW: There are so many ways students can choose to participate in sexual justice. I think the first step for many should be reading and becoming literate in what a sexually just world looks like and that includes understanding heteronormative, gendered and racialized systems that still exist today and then thinking of where you fit in. What needle do you want to participate in moving (because there are lots of needles, right?!) and how.
Take my course! It’s a good one! There are others as well. Jay Irwin, Peggy Jones, Alecia Anderson, Jennifer Harbour, Aja Kneip-Pelster, Jenny Heinemann (I could go on and on here!) all teach courses from a social justice perspective and often intersect with sexuality; we are very lucky here at UNO to have so many amazing professors and instructors to choose from. There are many organizations and policy makers in our community who address sexual justice as well—go volunteer.
KB: What is the most important thing (or couple of things!) people should know about sex? Why does the pleasure-inclusive, sex-positive approach work for you?
SJW: This is a tough question because I believe in tailoring advice on sex to people’s specific needs. I will say, though, that I think it is so important for us as adults to be honest with our youth that most folks, on a given sexual encounter, are most likely having sex because it feels good. Sex is not just for making babies, but it is so much easier for parents to regulate their children’s sexual behaviors by claiming that babies are the only reason people have sex, because then, they can follow this assertion up with “you don’t want to have babies right now, right, so you don’t have any business having sex.” I think this sets up parents to fail and for youth to lose trust in their parents.
On an even bigger level, I think this is the start of women being left out of the pleasure focus. Boys, young men are going to get the message from somewhere—media, culture, that sex feels good, that it’s supposed to feel good, but girls and young women often don’t.