I’m a sex educator in a rural town, and the local foster care agency reached out to me to do “relationship education” with the foster kids they support. Of course, I emailed them right away to tell them that I talk about sex, not relationships. They’d have to be comfortable with me answering all of the kids’ questions about anal sex, because that’s what I do.
They were still interested. But now they’ve got me filling out pages and pages of bureaucratic paperwork. They are asking a million questions: Am I registered with the state regulatory agency for licensed counselors? Will I show up in court? Will I do reports for case managers? I’m starting to feel like an imposter here. Given my training, I couldn’t even register with the state if I wanted to! Do I have to go back and get another master’s degree to take this gig?
I made a promise to myself when I started this business. I used to do sex education inside schools, and I promised myself that I would *never* work within schools again. While this is technically a nonprofit, I feel like I’m creeping back into exactly the kind of bureaucratic system that I wanted to avoid.
And yet when I forget about the paperwork and think about the youth I would be supporting, it’s not easy to give up this project. I did a lot of work early in my career with youth in foster and detention systems. My heart strings are pulled both wanting to support these youth and wanting to support the people working with them.
tl;dr They reached out *to me* — and yet filling out their forms, I feel like I’m the last thing they want. Should I quit now?
Am I Wanted? Or Am I a Bureaucracy Imposter?
Dear Resist Bureaucracy as Relationship Education,
First, thank you for teaching youth about things like anal sex, consent, and power! And for immediately setting the tone that this project will not be shaped into the too-soft words and misdirections guided by parents, caregivers, advocates, and the state. Your clarity and capacity to set boundaries is your guide here.
Bureaucracy is designed to make people feel small
Forms are designed to be impersonal, an attempt to translate policy into action without the complications of a conversation or nuance to the particularities of personal needs. Who benefits from you feeling like an imposter, like maybe you aren’t skilled enough to do this work they have asked you to do?
You do have the benefit of relationships with real people here, which isn’t the case every time you are dealing with bureaucracy. In this case, what would it be like to treat the form as a site of conversation between you and another human, who are at comparatively equal power levels?
Bureaucracy as surveillance
An important reason to resist the bureaucracy here is that you have the power to question some of the policy that is embedded within the form, policy that it sounds like you have been questioning since your early work with youth.
Foster youth are hyper-surveilled by the state through piles and piles of paperwork. Even more than in public schools. The bureaucratic paperwork is not so much checking up on you, as it is establishing your relationship to surveillance of foster youth.
Your main sense of being an imposter is that you are not trained into this system of surveillance. Review the questions you have the greatest tension around. They are all about court, reporting, state regulation.
What if your discomfort with these questions was framed less as “imposter syndrome” and more as “resistance to youth surveillance?” What if resisting these requests was part of your own small power to resist this system of surveillance?
Finding your power: Just Say No
I actually think you have a lot of power in this situation, given your likely unique position in a rural community.
In the big city, there are more sex educators with a variety of credentials. In your small town, you are potentially the only option. These employees are experienced at working around strict regulations that are set at the state level but don’t actually make sense in a small town.
What happens if you just say no? No, I will not be registered with the state. No, I will not testify in court. No, I will not submit reports to case managers.
The worst that happens? They let you know that it won’t work out for you to do this work, and you go on your way. It doesn’t say *anything* negative about who you are as a person or a sex educator, or your lack of credentialing.
However, if you are the *only* option they have to teach sex education in your region, you have a lot of leverage to tell them what you are willing to do. If they have few options, they will need to make it work with you.
Boundaries and Consent Are Your Superpower
It is true that in their ideal world, you would be a person who offers sex education AND is willing to participate in their required surveillance of foster kids with the state. But if their need is strong to provide sex education, they will be willing to work with your boundaries.
Like in any relationship, you will want to know what your needs are, how to communicate them, and how to maintain a relational distance at which your needs can be met. As somatics teacher Prentis Hemphill says, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” As a sex educator, this is what you teach and model to others, so this is already your superpower!
I am guessing that part of your refusal to work with schools is because of the way that bureaucracy assumes power over individuals. Within bureaucracy, your needs and capacity for consent feel minor in relation to the driving force of bureaucracy. To maintain a close relationship with schools requires you to swallow a certain set of needs that you haven’t been willing to swallow.
You are feeling that pressure creeping up in the bureaucracy of this nonprofit — and I don’t want to gaslight you that it’s real. The distancing of bureaucracy, of checkbox forms and protocols, is designed to remove the negotiation of needs that comes within real relationships.
Given that this *is* still a small-town nonprofit, I encourage you to demand real relationships as part of what you model within your own practice of offering sex education.
They might say no, they have to succumb to the practices of bureaucracy and surveillance.
But like you are feeling, there’s a reason this crew is reaching out for support outside standard bureaucracies. And you know something about the feeling of being a staff member who feels like a cog within the surveillance bureaucracy.
So your insistence on being not an imposter, but a resistance to the bureaucracy of youth surveillance — it might be exactly what they want to say yes to. Thanks for taking the risk to offer them something more real.