Kristen Gilbert empowers students through sex education

Caring, engaging, funny, welcoming, passionate.

Online, these are the phrases you’ll find over and over about Kristen Gilbert, a nursing professor at UBC.

And as I entered her office, a sunny spot in a far-flung corner of UBC Hospital, this immediately proved to be true.

Her office resembled that of a cool guidance counselor’s: pinned on the office corkboard were printouts of Frog and Toad and pro-choice mantras in speech bubbles. Books on sex and sexuality lined the desk, and a Pride flag sticker was up on the door. She greeted me with a warm smile, asked me if I found the place ok — she had sent me an email of instructions complete with photos — and offered me a raspberry coffee, all in pretty much the same breath.

Gilbert brings this same generous spirit to NURS 280: Human Sexual Health. Conceptualized, written and taught solely by Gilbert, it covers “beliefs, behaviours, and expressions of human sexuality” and “strategies to promote healthy sexual expression and sexual health.”

“I think it’s a joy to talk about human sexuality,” she said. “That’s sometimes a surprise [for students] … Being given permission or taking the opportunity to really dig into this incredible area of humanity is a pleasure. To be able to talk about sex is great.”

The a-ha moment

While Gilbert had always been passionate about related issues like reproductive rights, sex education wasn’t always where she thought she’d end up.

After graduating from Concordia University with dual degrees in education and theatre, she worked as a stage manager. It was a play that initially brought her to the West Coast 25 years ago.

Soon after, Gilbert decided to retire from stage management and to begin teaching. At the same time, she began volunteering for Options for Sexual Health in East Vancouver, a non-profit that provides sexual and reproductive healthcare and education through clinics located throughout BC.

Through her work with Options, she realized sex education was her true passion.

“I don’t know, is it dramatic?” Gilbert laughed. “[It] changed the direction of my life. I had never done anything that gave me so much purpose.”

This led her to enroll in Options’ Sexual Health Educator Certification (SHEC) to receive a postgraduate certificate in sex education. After completing the program, Gilbert still wanted to be involved at Options in some way.

“My big plan was to hang around the [Options] office until they hired me,” she joked.

It worked — Options hired Gilbert as a field educator, and she later joined the leadership team as its education director, a position she’s now been in for almost 20 years. Here, she oversees the sex education curriculum carried out by the clinics’ field educators throughout BC.

While working as education director in 2017, Gilbert was approached by the then-newly appointed director of UBC’s School of Nursing Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc.

Gilbert said Saewyc saw a need for non-clinical nursing courses for non-nursing students. She asked Gilbert if she would be interested in creating and teaching one of these courses.

The next year, Gilbert taught NURS 280 for the first time.

Not your high school’s sex ed class

Education is Gilbert’s life and mission.

On top of teaching UBC students every Tuesday and Thursday, she spends the rest of her work week visiting schools to teach sex ed at all levels, from kindergarten to grade 12.

Despite mandated sex education in BC, “teachers don’t get any training to teach sex ed,” said Gilbert.

“They maybe don’t have the comfort or the capacity to teach it," said Gilbert. "So they’ll either not do it, or they can call and bring in an expert, and [Options is] one of the places that people can call.”

A normal week for Gilbert might range from teaching younger kids the names of body parts and explaining "pimples and periods" to fourth graders, to discussing “complex sexual decision-making” with high school students.

Due to Options’s extensive sex education curriculum, Gilbert thought students would have a more developed understanding of sex before entering their undergrad. This meant NURS 280 was initially a "very sophisticated, high-level course in human sexuality."

However, due to students' baseline knowledge, Gilbert decided to broaden the course which now includes a wide scope of foundational topics like anatomy and physiology, contraceptives and sexual identity. This speaks to the dearth of sex education in schools, said Gilbert — something she hopes NURS 280 can address.

Despite the importance of sexual health education, Gilbert never lets her classes stray too far from joy.

"I do feel like people learning where the clitoris is, is pretty important," joked Gilbert when asked what she wants students to take away from NURS 280.

“I do actually think that’s important,” Gilbert said. (She does: locating it is a question on the midterm.)

“Beyond that, I want people to learn … the capacity for comfort in this discussion,” said Gilbert. “I think that has far-reaching implications on people’s lives — people being able to talk about what they need, what they like, what they love, what they want.”

NURS 280 is a relatively new course, but its popularity is promising. Gilbert is excited to see where it goes.

“Getting the opportunity to learn about something that maybe people had silence or shame about. Just hearing some validation is powerful.”