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The Happiest I’ve Been in My 25 Years
Women in Their 20s Speak out about Work: Enjoying Life as a Sex Counselor/Unemployed Person
Wan-du   |   2024-04-02

Once a week, the hand holding the mouse becomes tense. Unlike most days, when I just read the posts on my phone, I swallow nervously and click. Crap, there is a new message I didn’t see yesterday. I check the date and time it was posted, find out about the person who posted it by clicking on their ID, and then read each word of the message slowly and carefully, as if I were on a treasure hunt.

 

I have 24 hours. But I can’t hurry. I close my eyes, to internalize the writer’s feelings as if I had experienced what they did. As the cursor blinks on the screen, I begin my reply with questions. Pushy, hasty advice or recommendations won’t do. My role is just to give a variety of suggestions.

 

After writing for a while and checking and rechecking my answer, I never forget to think one more time about what kind of effects my answer will have on the writer, and whether I’ve written something that will help them. And then I click ‘post’! It is already my third year of doing this work.

 

What kind of counseling did you say you do?!

 

I worked (and continue to volunteer) at a youth center as an online counselor for youth and those who are raising or guiding them. When I tell people that I’m a youth counselor, they say, “Wow, that must be difficult,” because they are imagining that I talk to kids who are worried about their grades and future path or meet with so-called “problem youth” who bully others or run away from home.

 

But what the people who write to me usually talk about are things like, “My breasts are too small,” “If I masturbate, will I stop growing taller?” “I ejaculated outside of her vagina, but could she still get pregnant?” “My friend’s older brother touched me,” “I think my child has been watching pornography,” “I’m a guy but I like guys,” and, “My boy/girlfriend keeps pressuring me to have sex.”

 

That’s right. I’m a sex counselor. Since I’m a female counselor barely into her mid-twenties, sure enough, when people hear that my field is sex counseling, their common reaction is to either awkwardly and hastily change the subject, or to jokingly pester me to counsel them.

 

Of course I, as someone whose entire ‘sex education’ consisted of listening to the story of how the egg and sperm drawn on the classroom blackboard met and watching a video that somewhat threateningly described sexual violence and abortion, do not find such reactions very embarrassing or uncomfortable.

 

▲ My desk when I first started ©Wan-du


My role as a counselor is to read the messages posted on the center’s homepage and help the poster protect themselves from sexual dangers like unwanted pregnancy, rape, and STDs, or, when they and their partner have different levels of sexual experience, help them find the right standard and make the best choice for both of them.

 

The biggest reason that I’ve chosen to do this kind of work is my dream of our society enjoying a safer and more independent and egalitarian sexual culture as the posters go on to share positive praxis with the countless people they meet.

 

The sexiest group in the world

 

The group of counselors of which I am a part, who range in age from their 20s to 50s, don’t just do counseling, we also meet together twice a month. At our meetings, we use various media to share our experiences and thoughts about sex, sexual violence, prostitution, sexual orientation, sexual identity, puberty, etc. In the process, we face our thoughts and feelings about sex and widen our viewpoints and interpretive frameworks.

 

We prioritize the counselor reflecting on their attitudes and values about sex in this way over counseling theory or techniques. This is because, like everyone else, we counselors have internalized our society’s beliefs about sex, and so there is a risk that might simply repeat them back, unquestioned, to the person we’re counseling.

 

In this way, in our group, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, occupation, and history are no barrier to our becoming close and engaging in exchange. To me, this is the best thing about the group.

 

But when I’m counseling, it sometimes feels like I’m talking to a wall. This is because one-off interactions are an unavoidable characteristic of online counseling, and I can’t check whether my answer was helpful to the poster, or even whether they read it. Sometimes a poster will include a photo or an overly explicit description, which causes a stir.

 

So I really treasure the one or two letters of thanks that I get each year. It’s also rewarding when I can help out a friend or acquaintance every now and then.

 

Women liking women

 

Actually, the most heart-pounding moments I have as a counselor are none of the above. They are when I get messages from people who are considering their feelings for or experiences with same-sex friends or who are experiencing confusion because of the gap between their biological sex and the gender they feel themselves to be.

 

“What do you think about women liking women?”

This was how a friend of mine confessed her feelings for me in our second year of high school. A few years after I had replied, “It’s not common, but I don’t think it’s weird,” I found that her question became mine, surprisingly enough.

 

Perhaps because of my personality, I accepted my identity without as much conflict as you’d expect. But the fact that I couldn’t tell anyone about my feelings made me feel very alone, and I was frequently struck by the fear that I would have to live a different life than everyone else.

 

It was during that time that I found feminism. I was secretly agonizing over unusual questions like “Why are there only two genders in the world?”, “Why is only love between people of opposite sexes recognized?” and “Why is it that people telling me to be more feminine makes me so uncomfortable?”

 

Feminism taught me that my questions weren’t foolish and that there have been many people who have had similar thoughts since long ago, and gave me great comfort and a new way of seeing difference. I started to see the variety and possibility of lives unlike the one I had been living. That was when I truly became interested in sex.

 

The first time that I came out to anyone was when I was volunteer-counseling female teenage iban (a term that plays on the word ilban [“normal”] and that sexual minorities use to describe themselves) at a sexual minority human rights organization. Having never had a chance to meet someone like me, I was quite envious of these teens who discovered their true selves at a young age and could make friends through the organization. And the fact that—at least in this place—I didn’t have to hide myself meant that even just sitting in that space gave me a feeling of liberation.

 

There was another kind of fear, however. Even though I felt safe in there, I was scared because I knew only too well that not just my friends, but most of the people that I have to interact with in life, were not sexual minorities. I imagined in my head a world in which these teens could get along safely and receive support and counseling anywhere, not just in a group for sexual minorities. 

 

Quitting a job that I loved

 

That’s why I wrapped up my short time with my teenage iban friends and connected with my present center through a workshop for counseling specialists. After volunteering as an online counselor there, I was lucky enough to be hired as part of the counseling team when I graduated from university. It was like my dreams were coming true.

 

It was also at that time that I moved from just a regular counselor to the person in charge of the meetings we have. This change in position didn’t cause any major problems with the counselors with whom I’d already been working, but new counselors in their 30s and above whom we found through a workshop searching for a new group of counselors saw me at first as just a young woman who had no experience with giving birth or child-raising.

 

I had to show them that, despite being a young woman, I was capable of talking about young people’s sexuality and about the difficulties that their parents feel in dealing with it. I worried 24/7 about how to do this. I took the opportunity presented by a training meeting for the new counselors, and spent a lot of time—even staying up nights—to prepare for it. At that meeting, I continually worked to make sure we concentrated on talking about our personal thoughts about and experiences with sex, not things like age or academic background.

 

After one day when I had trouble communicating with some of the counselors, I made a decision and sat before my computer. I wrote out an encouraging message about what this work meant to me, how much effort I was putting into our meetings, and what a great job the counselors were doing in poor working conditions. After reading over it probably 20 times, I sent it out to the counselors and finally went to bed at 4 a.m. A few hours later I awoke to the sound of my cell phone buzzing repeatedly. Knowing it was the counselors, who were replying after just then seeing the message, I couldn’t sleep because of my nerves. It turned out to be the first time since becoming a manager that I felt moved and rewarded.

 

Our counseling messages can be seen not just by the asker, but by anyone who visits the center’s homepage. They’re the inerasable face of the center. Perhaps because we share that invisible burden, we all have an unusually strong will to learn and improve. Amid the tangle of confusion and questions resolved and unresolved, the pleasure we feel at our meetings is beyond words. That stimulation makes it possible to live each day excited and overflowing with happy nervousness, despite our difficult everyday lives.

 

In the evenings and on the weekends, I went around looking for discussions or lectures about the disabled, women, sexual minorities, counseling, and other topics I’m interested in. At those, I was inspired by the solidarity within these groups and the can-do spirit of the people, and the fun of discovering new viewpoints and ways of speaking often gave me a brain orgasm. More than anything, I no longer felt overwhelmed by my minority-ness. I wanted to learn more, experience more, and share more.

 

But as time went on, the overwork affected my health, and I felt increasingly unfulfilled and regretful that I was only sitting in front of a computer. I ended up quitting a job that was like heaven to me after only a year. 

 

▲ For the sake of a safe space for you and me ©Wan-du


To me, work is everything that we share while living

 

Now, 7 months after quitting, I’m unemployed. An unemployed person who still does online counseling at the center, but as a volunteer, and goes to a sexual violence counseling study group at the Women’s Human Rights center once a week. Also, an unemployed person who is planning a campaign as part of a twentysomethings’ group for dating violence prevention and a gender-equal dating culture, and is about to put out her first newsletter about it. And who is reading the memoirs of survivors of sexual violence and wildly scribbling poetry or suggesting to my friend that we should make a documentary within the next ten years.

 

I’m also an unemployed person who has been living with no income, off of the money I made during my year of work, and so am considering now whether to dip into my installment savings. I’ve found myself imagining walking along the street and finding 100,000 won.

 

We call anybody who doesn’t have a particular workplace ‘unemployed,’ no matter what else they’re doing, but I’ve never been as busy or happy in my 25 years as I am now. All of these activities don’t make me any money, but they do make me feel alive. Compared to the time when I didn’t even have the energy to snort at the word “choice” and listened with annoyance to people telling me to maintain my pride, or the days when, depressed, I thought only of everything that could go wrong, and my existence was shaken to its roots, my problems these days are manageable.

 

What kind of work I’ll do in the future is something that not even I know. I chose counseling because I hoped to expand the spaces where my loved ones and I could live more safely, and just as that hope was a major criterion when I chose what I do now—devoting myself to encouraging faceless people—I can only predict that it will be when I choose what to do in the future as well.

 

To me, work is a source of motivation. It means narrowing the gap between my dreams and reality. It doesn’t matter what it is; as long as it involves living and sharing, it’s fine. Anything, as long as it means speaking out about what’s in my heart, what’s rolling around in my throat. And I shouldn’t put off finding paid work, if only to make this kind of work possible.

 

Even today, I question the kind of life that most people think of as the ‘right’ one. I imagine having more experiences in new worlds and I want my life and my writings to become proof of that healthy imagination and show a non-academic sensitivity. These days, my question is how I can go about steadily achieving these things in an enjoyable way.

 

They say that when you dream alone, it’s just a dream, but when you dream with others, it is reality; I want to try believing in my vision, at my own pace, with my people. [Translated by Marilyn Hook]

 

*Published: October 3, 2014. Original article: https://ildaro.com/6838

 

◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

기사입력 : 2024-04-02

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