The problem with stating my business

Yesterday I met someone formally who I’ve known for about two years now. It was a delight, really.

Joe works construction. For the past two years he’s been the gate guy for a building under construction at UT. So every day that I’ve gone to UT over the past two years, I’ve passed by Joe. If you’re a regular reader here, you know that I often encourage my readers to say hello and engage with their communities around them. Generally I’m encouraging you to do this with the teenagers in your community, but the principle holds regardless of the age of your friend-in-potentia. So taking my own advice, I’ve said hello and then later good-bye to Joe about three days out of five for the past two years. Joe’s got grown children and six grand-kids. When there’s something official going on at the gate, he’s all business, but when there’s not, he’s delighted to chat for a minute or two. But for whatever reason, even though we always said hello and chatted, Joe and I had never formally introduced ourselves. He knew I had kids because sometimes they came to campus with me, but that was about it.

The building that Joe’s working on will be finished this month. So as my class ended yesterday, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t see Joe again. As I was leaving campus, I stopped to say a final good-bye to Joe. Here’s how our conversation went:

Me: Well, today’s my last class day! I probably won’t be back until the spring at the earliest.

Joe: I guess that means we won’t see each other again. My name’s Joe.

Me: Hi Joe. I’m Karen.

(we shook hands)

Joe: I’m going to miss seeing you here. It’s been nice saying hi whenever you’re coming in.

Me: Yes, I’ll miss seeing you too, Joe. Here’s one of my cards.

Joe: Oh good! Can I call you sometime to say hi and see how your little girls are doing?

Me: I would love that, Joe.

And then Joe looked at my business card.  And suddenly I wished I hadn’t given it to him.

Because here’s the thing. I love my work. I think it’s important work. Critical, even. But there are people who I don’t talk with about my work. Like my grandparents. Don’t get me wrong, my grandparents know what I do. I tell them when I have parenting classes coming up, and I’ve given them this blog address. But they tend not to read it, and they don’t ask me probing questions about my classes. My grandparents expressed some sadness that they wouldn’t be able to watch the documentary I was interviewed for last month.  (It will come out next March probably – I promise I’ll let you know!)

Back to Joe. He’s a bit younger than my grandparents, and yes, I was jumping to some huge conclusions and making some brass, potentially unfounded, judgments about what he would think of me when he read my business card. (It says “Adolescent Sex Education”.)

So I’m worried that Joe thinks…well, poorly of me because of what I do. My grandparents are proud of me, because that’s just the kind of grandparents they are. If they heard of someone else doing what I do, they would probably say something along the lines of, “Well, I never!” Because I’m doing it, they probably say something more like, “Well, it must be important then! Good for you, for doing something important!” Joe, of course, has no such compunctions about being proud of me.

And this is why I find it hard to state my business outside of business circles. If I meet someone in the context of my work, they’re welcome to disagree with me and argue with or ignore me. But it saddens me deeply when I’m suddenly worried that someone I’ve met in social circles won’t want to continue our friendship because of my work. I’m sad when I realize that in addition to being not-safe-for-work (yes, I know there are plenty of you who consider me that, regardless of my tastefully worded content), I am also sometimes not-safe-for-friendship.

That, in a nutshell, is actually why I do what I do. Sexuality needs to be talked about. It should be a topic appropriate for public spaces. And eventually, it will be. Between now and then, I just hope that Joe and others accept me for who I am: someone whose business is to talk about sex.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. If you were confident about the work you are doing, then why are you apprehensive about distributing your business card? It sounds to me like you find your work embarrassing.

    I don’t think twice about handing out my business card, even though my own profession (Realtor) is getting a lot of negative publicity lately. That is because I know how many homeowners I’ve helped sell their property who would have had difficulty selling it on their own.

    You, on the other hand, sound ashamed of your work.

  2. The difference, Bob, is that regardless of the bad rap that some professions can have (lawyer, realtor, etc.), I suspect that it’s extremely rare for someone to decide not to have any social contact with you on the basis of it. But people walk away from me, in a social context, when they find out what I do professionally. And that makes me sad.

    I am not ashamed in any way of what I do. I’m quite proud of it. I help parents and teenagers come to a more open, communicative relationship. I help teenagers – and some young adults – find their own understanding of what a healthy sexual relationship is and decide whether they’re ready for that.

    But when people hear the word “sex” in reference to my professional life, they either giggle like third graders and want to ask lots of questions (and I’m delighted by that, and generally giggle right alongside them) or they clear their throat and make an excuse to leave the conversation.

    I suspect many of the people who leave would actually support my work, if they took the time to listen to what I have to say. But they generally don’t.

    And their choice to cut off of potential community relationships makes me sad, and occasionally reticent to state clearly what I do at a first formal introduction.

  3. What if you substituted “Human Sexuality” for “Sex” in your official job title? Same meaning, but I think it makes your work sound a bit more academic and less snicker-worthy.

    Anyway, I’d have thought that you, of all people, would have long since been desensitized to snickering about sex…

  4. Yes, I generally say “sexuality” rather than “sex” and that does help. But plenty of people see them as one in the same. I’m considering changing my card in the same way next time I get a batch printed.

    And good lord, when I stop having fun talking about and laughing about sex and sexuality, I hope I find something else to do! (But I am completely desensitized to being shocked about anything sexual.) But sex is fun, and often very funny! So I try to bring a similar lightness and awareness of fun and amusement into my conversations about it.

  5. I appreciate your blog about this topic, Karen, and also appreciate your willingness to be at the forefront of breaking down the barriers you encounter as an adolescent sex educator. You didn’t describe Joe’s actual response to your card, only your wish that you hadn’t given it to him. I’d like to hear more…did he actually have a negative reaction that would lead you to believe that he wouldn’t want to have a social relationship? This is definitely tricky, as you explained to Bob…and I think his suggestion is well-founded…perhaps for your business card the wording could be different. But, the bottom line is you are breaking new ground here; ground that needs to be dug! I appreciate your sharing the nitty-gritty details of what gets in the way; especially in how you’ve internalized the culture’s reaction to anything having to do with sex (amazing, isn’t it? That people could have a negative reaction to sex ed for adolescents!!) So, my main message is “YOU GO GIRL!” Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks for your kudos, Margaret. 🙂 The same words of kindness and support, of course, apply to you as well! (For those who don’t know Margaret’s work, I recommend checking out her website)

    Joe looked at me…well, closely and a little critically. But then he tucked my card into his pocket, we wrapped up our pleasantries, and I went on my way. So I have no idea what he actually thought of my card or my business. The important thing to me here was not his reaction – but my reaction to his potential reaction. I’ve had plenty of people be supportive of my work and plenty of people walk away because of my work. Either way, he can be said to represent a trend.

  7. I picked up (again) the book by Virginia Wolfe, A Room of One’s Own, last night and was leafing through it. I came on a description of Jane Austin writing her books. She kept a blank sheet of paper always over her writing and even the SERVANTS who worked in her home were not allowed to know she was actually writing anything other than plans for the house or letters. It was considered shameful. I’m so glad you do this work and I’m sorry it is still emotionally difficult. I don’t think wording will have much affect on people’s reactions – they are uncomfortable with the idea of discussing sex – their’s, their children’s, your’s or anyone else’s. I think they respond to their fear that if they ‘let you’, you might start ‘making them’ have a conversation they are scared to have.
    Bravo for your continued work, in spite of the difficulties inherent in it.

  8. Sometimes when someone asks me, “So, what’s Karen doing these days?” I find myself saying “She’s offering parenting classes” without saying what the parenting classes are about. I think what you’re doing is awesome, but I get tongue-tied explaining it.

  9. Well being someone who talks about sex is regarded icky to many folks, being a sexuality expert is like a psychoanalysis expert only no one is willing to talk openly about their sex life vs. their surface problems but the times are changing. BTW next time when you hand out your business card don’t internalize about what that person could be thinking about you, it’s your job and you should be proud of it!

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