She’s known as “The Sex Lady” and that makes Ruthie Patriquin of Oxford very, very happy.
It means she’s doing a good job at making people, particularly young people, more comfortable about human sexuality and sexual health.
Ruthie is the executive director of the Sexual Health Centre of Cumberland County (SHCCC). She admits it was not her career aspiration to be The Sex Lady.
“Absolutely not,” she laughs.
According to Ruthie, she “kind of ended up” at SHCCC.
“There was a group of people who saw the need for a centre such as this in 1981. It was really focusing on teen pregnancy at the time and they put together a community committee. They decided to train volunteers to do the work because they didn’t have any sense if they’d be able to get any funding to open an office. I went with another woman from Oxford and did the training. When they eventually did get funding, the rest is history… I eventually ended up doing what I’m doing.”
Ruthie says they built the organization into what it is today. It wasn’t even called a Sexual Health Centre back then; since the focus was teen pregnancy, it was known as Cumberland County Family Planning and it was part of Planned Parenthood Nova Scotia.
In conversation, Ruthie laughs a lot. Not from embarassment but from joy. And not from the joy of sex because she makes it clear that sex and sexuality are two different subjects.
“I think that right from the time children are born, we’re teaching them about sexuality, about relationships, about loving and caring,” she explains. “That’s all part of sexuality. Sexuality education for children is really about helping them feel good about who they are, helping to build self-esteem, answering their questions about ‘Why am I different than her?’ and helping them develop good body image. It’s more than just how babies are made but they need to know that too, before they go to school.”
She is driven to discuss sexuality with anyone because she believes in the empowerment that knowledge brings and the help her office provides.
“The more information people have, the better they feel about themselves and the better the decisions they make,” she says. “Information alone is not enough; we have to feel good about ourselves and we have to have access to services, too.”
It’s a one-woman show, by the way, since the money allotted by the province for sexual health education is shared between seven centres. Given her enthusiasm for the programs offered by the SHCCC, it’s obvious the right woman is running the show.
“I love doing programming. That’s what I love to do. I’d far rather be doing that than being interviewed!” Ruthie laughs. “That’s going into the schools, and it’s doing the puberty program with parents and their children, and doing the Happy To Be Body Smart and Safe with parents and their four to eight year olds. That’s a new program I just started this year. I’m most proud of having initiated the Girl Power program. My favourite to do myself is the Worth Waiting program. I spend six sessions with Grade Six students. I get to spend more time with them and it’s an actual program rather than supplementing. I actually get to spend time with them and get to know them and talk about things. I feel like I’m making more of an impact.”
Making a difference is what keeps Ruthie motivated after more than three decades.
“I feel like I’m making a difference, still, after all these years,” she says. “Because there are so many new things. It’s not yes, we’re getting the teen pregnancy rate down. There’s always something new to tackle. Like sexual violence, sexual assault, that whole issue around consent. We’re seeing more about it in the media now, that’s for sure. You have to bring those things into everything you can. The whole point is so they can build skills they can use to deal with these issues.”
When asked for an example of the impact she and the programs are having on the young people of Cumberland County, Ruthie relates a conversation she’d had just the day before.
“A boy was in just looking around and he picked up the video we use in the ‘Worth Waiting’ program. He said ‘I remember this from last year,’ and I asked what he thought of it, thinking it would be interesting to hear a year later what his perspective was. He said, ‘I remember the affection ladder. I hadn’t really thought about where should you stop. And I was thinking that I should stop at hugging because if you’re gonna go beyond hugging in Grade Six, what are you going to be doing when you’re in Grade 8?’ I loved that!” Ruthie says. “He’s still thinking about it a year later.”
Ruthie is effervescent and enthusiastic but in a way that is warm, caring and intelligent. It’s clear why students respond to her and come to trust her enough to ask their so-called embarrassing questions.
The key to being a good sexual health educator is a willingness to answer those questions.
“Whatever they ask, they get an answer.”
Ruthie says a recent interaction at her office made her day, likely her whole year.
“Sometimes when they drop in, they don’t realize they’re going to see the same person they saw in class. When this boy was leaving, he said, ‘You’re the coolest teacher I’ve ever had’. Then he qualified it. ‘You’re the coolest sex education teacher.’ I’ve been wondering if I’m too old for the students to relate to, should I be thinking of retiring earlier than I am thinking of doing it? So he made me feel really good.”
At the end of the interview, Ruthie has a change of heart
“Thank you for doing this interview,” she says. “[SHCCC] is a big part of my life. I’ve always been someone who wants to make a difference. And I do feel like I make a difference. That’s why I love this job so much.”