Everyday Icon: The Sexual Health Educator

We sat down with University of Washington Sexual Health Educator Melissa Tumas to talk about her important role and how she supports the campus community.
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Amanda Carter Gomes
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We sat down with University of Washington Sexual Health Educator Melissa Tumas to talk about her important role and how she supports the campus community.

Of the many essential advocacy professions that exist, we think the role Melissa Tumas holds to be one of the more challenging. This is an assumption she is quick to correct— she tells us her job as a Sexual Health Educator for the University of Washington is “a great honor and privilege". Melissa spends her days providing support and education for students, faculty and staff on the sensitive topics of mental health, sexual assault, relationship violence, alcohol and other drugs.

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We sat down with Melissa to hear more about her daily efforts—at a time when stories of sexual assault and misconduct on college campuses seems pervasive, we find the work she does to be of utmost importance. Join the conversation as we talk about how she believes we can raise the next generation of young adults to be sexually educated, aware and empowered.

You are a sexual health educator on the campus of a large university. Can you explain what your role entails and the main focus of your position.

For the last 7 and a half years, I’ve been a Sexual Assault Advocate at UW supporting students survivors, but recently I moved into a new role that focuses on education and prevention. Now I educate students, faculty and staff (about mental health, sexual assault, relationship violence, alcohol and other drugs) with the goal of minimizing the impacts to students’ college careers and the larger vision of creating a campus free from violence. I work closely with peer educators, stay up-to-date on prevention research and collaborate with departments across campus. The heart of what I do will always be to support survivors. My passion is in prevention and education.

Are there any common misconceptions about your job?

Whenever I meet someone and share my profession in the field of sexual assault and relationship violence they usually respond with a concerned look and say, “That must be so hard”. While I agree that there are many challenges to the role, (namely politics, lack of resources and daily frustrations with rape culture and systems) the vast majority of my experience has been centered around the great honor and privilege of hearing student survivors’ stories and being a witness to their healing process. I’m constantly in awe of the resilience of students and so inspired by their courage and self-determination in the face of trauma and hardship. Survivors have a high capacity for empathy that is often overlooked.

The other misconception is how valuable the Advocates and Prevention Educators are on any college campus. Clearly, I’m biased. While no one has the panacea for the epidemic of sexual assault, these are the people who have a lot of ideas and opinions. If you really want to know what is going on with universities and what to do about it, talk to the Advocates and Health Educators.

 There is a larger movement happening across college campuses nationwide to increase awareness around sexual assaults and to empower communities to take action. How has this impacted your job and the campus where you work?

Wow, it has been an intense few years! For a long time, it felt like my close colleagues and I were alone in believing that sexual assault was a major public health problem on campuses and now that outrage has gained more attention. The national conversations have created broader awareness, federal and state policy changes, an amazing documentary (Go see The Hunting Groundwith a buddy) and other critical feminist writings. It’s also ignited the roller coaster of emotions and confusion that accompany social change.

There are days when the end goals of reducing violence and keeping students safe feels unattainable. The barriers seem too large, activists and allies are fighting each other, there’s too little money and change feels slow. And then there are days when I feel like our small wins are chipping away at the fabric of the systems of oppression that allows violence to continue. One thing for certain is that more survivors are reaching out to seek support, more people want to get involved in solutions and we finally have the attention of lawmakers. All of this creates a larger load for the staff on campuses providing services, but really, that’s also what it’s all about.

What has been your greatest professional accomplishment thus far?

I’m proud of the breadth and depth of my career at all of the universities and non-profits where I’ve worked. But my career has been more about the small wins rather than one particular accomplishment. I think about the moments when I’m at a fraternity talking about relationships and someone asks a question that is so sincere and vulnerable. Or the times when I presented research on the prevalence of sexual assault to administrators and then received a place to speak in first year student orientation as a result. Or when I work with survivors and they feel they finally have the strength, self-determination and tools to take the next steps on their own. I think about the privilege of working with such incredible thinkers and activists and how I get to learn from them everyday.

 We can only imagine how intense your position must be, are you able to disengage after a particularly stressful day? And if so, how?

I remind students every day about the value of self-care and also I’m constantly striving to live it myself. When I’m stressed, I put my head down and plow forward and that usually works for a short period of time. When I realize I’m burning out—sometimes even after I’m sufficiently burnt—I have to work hard to get back on track with a self-care routine.

That usually includes chatting with my husband, yoga, hiking, being in nature, social time with friends - reminders about what really matters in life through inspirational books or podcasts. Most recently as a creative outlet I signed up for a feminist film class. I need reminders that I have so many interests in life and that one aspect of life doesn’t define me, whether that is work or home or whatever.

 Do you have any personal heroes or icons?

This is hard! I’m constantly inspired by my parents, friends and family through the course of their everyday lives. That list would be rather large. And then there are the artists who motivate me to create: Sophia Coppolla, Ira Glass, Tavi Gevinson, Sarah Koenig, and Starlee Kine. And then there are the feminists and activists like Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, Nina Simone (the recent documentary about her really reached me) and I recently enjoyed Roxanne Gay’s book.

Clementine Daily is a space for women who believe in embracing simple pleasures, setting realistic expectations and bettering their lives to better the lives around them. How do you relate to this mission?

My undergraduate and graduate school experiences opened me up to the world by giving me language to explain the inequalities that I witnessed and experienced, and then the career options to do something about it. I feel that my purpose is very much to better the lives of others around me. I’ve gravitated to higher education because it gives me the opportunity to do so.

College students are awesome and hilarious and the higher education environment is where I found a community. As I mentioned, I talk to students about self-care a lot, which includes setting realistic expectations and doing things that make them feel like the best versions of themselves. It would be inauthentic if I also didn’t do that for myself. So I’m always striving to fit that mission and recognize that sometimes I’m on target and sometimes not.

As women and parents, what are a few things we can do to raise a generation of individuals who are sexually educated, aware and empowered?

This is a great question - thanks for asking it. Send your child to a school that promotes evidence-based comprehensive sexual health education! Aside from that, one conversation that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is that of boundaries (emotional and physical boundaries) as being a major component to a well-rounded perspective on self and relationships.

We already have boundaries with every person in our life (for example, how much we censor ourselves with others or how much we share), but we rarely acknowledge them or discuss them in any meaningful way. And that only makes the mystery around boundaries even murkier. It would be great if kids were taught to respect the boundaries of others (to be held accountable if they don’t) and also felt safe and comfortable to create and articulate the boundaries they need in their lives. Boundaries don’t have to be just about what you don’t want or the NO boundaries but they can also be about what you do want—the YES boundaries with the people you care about.

Ultimately, if parents model and teach their kids about boundaries in an age appropriate way, they will be doing them a service for their college years. As parents, you come to the sexual health conversation table with plenty of your own experiences and biases. A big step is to notice what you are bringing and then seek out the resources for yourself so that you are better equipped to support your kids.

p.s. Have you met The Journalist?