With everything going on right now with the #metoo movement and the heightened awareness around sexual harassment and abuse, having a solid education in sexual health has never been more important. For Rene Ross, sexual education is her life’s work. A long-time warrior on the front lines of sexual health in Nova Scotia, she is also a single mom of a 13-year-old daughter.
Starting her career at women’s centres in Halifax led Ross to the role of executive director with Stepping Stone, an organization that supports sex workers, people at risk of entering the sex trade, and trafficked persons. Now, after a recent move home to Springhill, Nova Scotia, she teaches sexual health in schools and to the wider community. We chatted with her about what it’s like becoming “the sex lady,” and how that meshes with raising a teenager solo.
Why did you start doing what you do?
I think that in some ways you’re wired to do this kind of work. Even as a child I was always out starting neighbourhood groups and clubs, being together and part of a community was always really important to my family. I was writing letters to the editor in junior high, and then through high school and university.
When I said to my mother that I wanted to go to university, she said, “I think you should consider the skilled trades,” because I’m a coal miner’s granddaughter, and that’s what most of the women in my family have done. But I knew then that I wanted to be involved in human rights.
So, I went to university, interned at the United Nations, worked with Oxfam, and my direction was to go into international work — I spent my 30th birthday in a live minefield in Croatia. I worked for the commission on human rights around violence towards women in conflict zones. Surprisingly, I got back from that work and I was pregnant. After I had Zoe I went back to university and got my degree in the mail.
With my BA I started working at the YWCA of Halifax, started volunteering at Stepping Stone, and eventually became the director of that organization. I’m going back to school right now, taking my graduate certification in human sexuality through the University of Alberta.
What does this work bring to your life?
What does this work bring to my life? Gratitude and appreciation, through a deeper understanding of power and privilege. We take so many things for granted. Whether it is access to services or our basic human rights. This work is a passion for me and a purpose. When you work like this it exhausts you, it invigorates you, it terrifies you, it excites you, it angers you, it brings you immense joy, you never think you are doing enough. When of course you are doing too much, really, all the time.
Why is this work important?
Research shows that when kids have this knowledge, they’re going to be safer. When they don’t even know the basic names of things, this is what predators look for. I think that parents are the best sexual health educators, not me, not the schools. And it is absolutely okay that you feel uncomfortable, it just relates back to how we were taught this stuff.
Sexual Health Centres are there to support you — we have books and libraries, and we’re happy to meet with parents to support them in different ways. There’s just so much happening today in terms of technology, and we’re there to support parents in dealing with that too. This work isn’t just about the absence of infectious disease or preventing pregnancy, it is about healthy relationships, and so much more.
Has parenthood changed how you view your work?
It didn’t change things overnight, but I do think it has absolutely helped to shape and evolve my views. One of the key ways in which it has is that you have this unique insight into how these issues are impacting youth. As a parent, I see the need for sexual health education in our schools and communities because I’m involved in the school system in both my work and home life. There’s an importance in keeping balance with those two acts. I’m the sexual health worker for the community, and I’m also Zoe’s mom. If something was to happen in the school or community, I need to be able to look at them with a critical analysis while supporting my child.
What does your daughter think about what you do?
Zoe will be the first to tell you that she has been quite present in this work her whole entire life. When I was with Stepping Stone, I was meeting with cops about some pretty tough issues while breastfeeding Zoe at the table. I’ve got pictures of her as a toddler helping us make outreach bags. She stopped into my office after school last week and helped refill the condom dishes, and I thought, “How many times has she done that?” None of this is unusual to her, but I’ve received so much judgment for that. I’ve had hate mail, and some really surprising criticism from people, as well as threats from people that they were going to call child services on me when they’ve seen me in the media with Zoe.
Zoe is amazing, and it is really interesting to see how her outlook is, being raised around sex-positive values. I think she has a great outlook on all this. They were talking about gender identity in one of the after-school groups she is in and Zoe is a unifying force in that group. What is a little bit of a challenge is that Zoe’s understanding of some issues can be a little bit advanced compared to other kids her age, so what I do have to work on with her a lot is that other people’s values might not be the same, and she needs to be patient with people that may not have those same values.
How do people in Springhill feel about the role you’re doing?
Well, I’m taking over from someone who was doing this work for 35 years, and she was really well respected in this community. If anything, that’s one of the big reasons that I moved here, to build on the good work that she did.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about living with purpose?
You have to follow your truth. You can still be a loving and supportive parent but find your own way and purpose. What should you do? Find something that has always resonated with you, but you had to put that on the backburner when you became an adult. Maybe you’ve always wanted to save the whales, and every time you hear the whales are in trouble you feel that pang in your heart, follow that, it is intuitive to you. Listen to those messages. If doing something purposeful fulfills you as an individual, it will benefit you as a parent.
What do you think you have in common with other moms?
Guilt. I think we need to be gentle on ourselves, but so rarely do that as moms. Plus, I never make time for myself. As a single mom, that’s something that I really struggle with, and I’m parenting solo, so everything is on me. Staying true to who we are while supporting our kids, it is so hard.
What’s been hardest about what you do?
It is a challenging time right now. I work so many hours because I’m so passionate about what I do. Last week I worked 60 hours. That’s the ongoing struggle for me, I have to find some kind of balance in my life. I’m single, and there’s no time for relationships! I want to do everything, and there’s so much to do!
What other moms do you admire?
The moms that I’ve always admired the most are the moms on income assistance. They’re the moms that are working and doing it because poverty is a fulltime job. Just wow, the commitment and resilience they have in the face of dealing with so much. It is incredible how creative moms are when they are living below the poverty line, and raising fantastic children. You can’t tell me that these moms don’t know how to budget — they’re budgeting everything!
The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Join us on Facebook.