A teacher’s persistence: Professor Towne’s journey as a sex ed teacher, volunteer, researcher

Angela Towne, visiting assistant professor in gender, women and sexuality studies, converses with a Collegian reporter at the Aggieville Radina's on June 26, 2018. (Alex Shaw | Collegian Media Group)

In one of Angela Towne’s classrooms, a person is bound to find two things: a large sheet of paper filled with class guidelines and an educator who listens intently, ready to learn from her students just as much as she teaches and influences them.

Dr. Towne is a visiting assistant professor of Kansas State’s gender, women and sexuality studies department. She teaches the department’s introductory course, GWSS 105, as well as classes like Feminist Thought and Human Sexual Behaviors. Her interest in sexuality research and education brought her to K-State, but before she could teach at the university level, she had to attend college herself.

Towne’s path to becoming a professor started when she was 23 years old, a graduate of a private college preparatory high school working as a waitress, an occupation she held for 18 years of her life.

“I honestly thought I was not smart enough to go to college,” Towne said. “I had that impression.”

A friend eventually convinced Towne to enroll in a course at a community college, which she found to be easier than her high school classes. She finished her associate’s degree at community college before studying health psychology at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences.

“What was interesting about [the program] … was looking at how the mind, body and the spirit connect together and affect health,” Towne said. “It was really unique in that interaction between the mind and the body, which I’m still fascinated by and is still a big part of what I do.”

Starting out in Tucson

Upon finishing her undergraduate studies, Towne knew she wanted to be a sexuality educator, but was unsure how to move forward. While continuing to wait tables, she developed a sexual education curriculum on reproductive health, gender roles, decision making and defining personal values.

“It sat there,” Towne said. “It was like, ‘What do I do with this?’ I was volunteering at this place called Spirit of Service, and they do complementary alternative medicine for people with low income. And I was talking about it, and the CEO there was like, ‘Oh, we’ll fund you. We’ll fund you to teach this class.’

“So I put out flyers,” Towne continued. “I ended up getting one student, so the class didn’t happen, but what I did realize was there might be some support for it. There might be a market for it.”

She began making unsolicited calls to agencies near Tucson, Arizona, to find a place to teach her sexuality course.

“I ended up cold-calling agencies saying, ‘If you pay for copies, I will come and teach for free,’” Towne said. “So I taught — I was still waiting tables — for the next two years. I just taught whoever said yes.”

In that time, Towne said she taught her course to homeless mothers and pregnant women, to young adults aging out of the foster care system, at STI clinics and a juvenile hall near a Navajo reservation. During that time, the deferment on Towne’s student loans ended, leading her to become a case manager aide at a behavioral health center called CODAC.

Soon after she started working there, Towne said, a miracle happened.

“About two weeks after training, the vice president of the company and my supervisor and then the site director all wanted to talk to me, and I did not know why at all,” Towne said. “They just said they wanted to meet with me at the end of the week. Apparently I had stood out in some training with the vice president, and she took a look at my resume and saw all of this volunteer work. So she asked me to come and teach my curriculum at their drop-in center. She ended up creating a position for me.”

As an educator at CODAC, Towne taught classes on life skills, pre-employment training and sexuality. She later took a job elsewhere to focus on sexuality education, but CODAC brought her back with a full sexuality education program, plus a large raise.

Towne said she taught 53 courses there, all focusing on aspects of sexuality or gender equity. She often used art as a method of learning in her courses, a learning activity she practices at K-State, too.

Then, Towne hit a ceiling — to move up to a higher position at CODAC, she needed a graduate degree. She applied to Philadelphia’s Widener University, the only U.S. school with a nationally accredited human sexuality graduate studies program at the time.

“I decided within myself, ‘If they don’t accept me into this program, I am going to apply again next semester, and I’ll apply again next semester, and I’ll apply again next semester,'” Towne said. “Before I was accepted, I packed up my crap and moved to Philadelphia. I was quite determined.”

The hard road to a Ph.D.

While completing her master’s degree at Widener, Towne said she worked as a health resource center coordinator in an inner city high school, taught at Planned Parenthood and worked with the Philadelphia condom project, an initiative to combat the stigma against condoms.

Towne decided to pursue her education further and earn a Ph.D. Her dissertation adviser said she was not required to be on campus, so Towne returned to Tucson.

Unfortunately, a problem lay waiting for her there: the apartment she moved into had a bed bug infestation. Towne left that apartment after only six weeks.

“To make a long story short, I ended up getting rid of literally everything I owned … because they can live anywhere,” Towne said. “Things that I couldn’t replace I put in storage, because bed bugs can live for 18 months without eating. It was really intense.

“I went to Wisconsin — which is where my sister lived — got off the plane, my sister-in-law brought an outfit and shoes and everything that I had ordered online,” Towne continued. “I took a shower, threw everything I was wearing in the trash, and put on new clothes and literally all I had on me was … just my driver’s license and my flash drive that all of my stuff from my laptop was on. Everything else was completely gone. That happened. That was pretty devastating.”

Towne stayed with her sister for a brief time, before moving to a friend’s couch in Portland, Oregon, where her resilience paid off a few years later, as Towne said another miracle happened.

“I was dating somebody who was talking about me to their therapist, and their therapist was on their board of directors at Pacific University and knew that they were looking for an adjunct faculty in their gender and sexuality studies program and told me to call,” Towne said. “So I did, and they offered me a position. It wasn’t advertised.”

Towne learned that there was only one student in the gender and sexuality program at Pacific, and she was also the only staff member who taught exclusively in that program. Towne said other gender and sexuality professors came from other departments like anthropology, psychology and history.

The gender and sexuality program was set to close one year after Towne was hired. She said she thought students just did not know about the program, so she taught a course on using multimedia to promote gender equity and sexual health. Students’ projects doubled as advertisement for the program, as everything included the gender and sexuality studies program logo.

“Two newspapers ended up covering the class, somebody from the community ended up donating to support the class and fourteen students, by the time I left, were majors and minors in the program,” Towne said. “So the program went from about to close to solid.”

During her time as an adjunct professor, Towne also worked graveyard in-home health care shifts and in retail to make up for what she lost to the bed bugs.

“I knew that I needed to appear to be a certain socioeconomic class in order to be a professor, so I could earn free clothes at this job,” Towne said. “So that was an intense time. Working three jobs and trying to finish a Ph.D. was super intense.”

Towne earned her Ph.D. in 2016, a process that spanned five years and four states.

“In 2016, I graduated and I was looking for something full-time, and I was offered a position at K-State,” Towne said.

And to the Little Apple she came.

Engaging in each community

Towne has a long history of volunteer work; she began teaching as a volunteer and continued to volunteer in other capacities while in graduate school.

She said there is “no shortage” of volunteer opportunities and ways to participate in activism. She referenced the “Take Back Our Lives” rally and march on April 30, organized by the K-State student organization FIRE.

“I went and yelled down the street about equality in a lot of different ways — trans equality, racial equality, things like that,” Towne said. “I felt really satisfied doing that, and there was an opportunity, it was already organized. … I just had to show up. Being a body showing up makes a difference, because the more people, the more bodies that we have showing up protesting, it matters.”

Towne mentioned the importance of figuring out how much you can contribute to a cause and following through with your action. In Tucson, she said she knew people associated with CODAC who were recovering from severe mental illness who took shelter dogs on walks when they were able.

Although there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer, Towne said people do not have to wait for an opportunity to present itself to start something, like Towne did with her sexuality course.

Towne said she is now participating in two research projects on a volunteer basis.

Her first research project focuses on how medical transition affects transgender individuals, particularly how testosterone affects transmasculine people’s sexual function and pleasure. Transmasculine is defined by Gender Wiki as a term to describe people who were assigned female at birth but identify more with masculinity than femininity.

“I’m trying to work on centering pleasure,” Towne said. “Not just centering sexual function necessarily, though pleasure and function are definitely intertwined, but centering sexual pleasure, which is unique to that. The research that has been done on sexuality and the effects of medical transition has mostly focused on function.”

Towne said there is a lack of research in the realm of sexuality for transgender people.

“The use of testosterone for hormonal transition with transmasculine folks — testosterone is off-label use, which means that the FDA has not approved the use of testosterone for gender affirmation, yet it’s been used for decades and decades for that purpose,” Towne said. “I’m not suggesting that we deny people the use of testosterone for that reason, but I am saying that it’s been decades that maybe research should be done.

“Maybe there’s some knowledge that could be gained by doing that research, and I think it’s kind of, as a social justice issue, inexcusable that it hasn’t been done,” Towne continued. “I believe the reason it hasn’t been done is because of the marginalized status of transgender people.”

Since Towne said she does not identify as trans, she recruited people who are trans or otherwise do not identify with their gender to join her research team so the identities of the research subjects are represented in the group creating the research.

“I was looking for people of color specifically because there’s also an absence of voice when we talk about transmasculine people of color, even more so,” Towne said.

The research is in its preliminary stages; Towne said the first round of interview questions went out a few weeks ago for colleagues to review.

Towne’s second study is in its initial planning stages, as it needs “a bunch of funding” to be able to operate, she said.

“I want to work with people who are postmenopausal, so older women, around sexuality and looking at the interaction between the body and the mind in terms of [how] strengthening the pelvic floor muscles affects orgasm and affects sexual function and pleasure as well,” Towne said.

Comprehensive sexual education: a personal definition

In regards to sexual education, particularly at the high school level, curricula can be comprehensive or focused on abstinence-only. As a sexual health educator, Towne has her own definition of what comprehensive sexuality education is.

“When people use the term ‘comprehensive sexuality education,’ a lot of people think condoms and birth control,” Towne said. “My definition of sexuality includes intimacy and relationships and pleasure and sensuality and abuse and harassment, things like that, and health and identity, as well — sexual identity.

“If you look at all of those things, that’s a lot of the joy of life and a lot of the intensity of life and traumas (in some instances) of life, too,” Towne continued. “It covers a lot of ground when you think of comprehensive sexuality as all of those things. … It’s a lot of things that we’re afraid of culturally, and then we use it at the same time to sell stuff.”

Many people are not taught about sexuality, Towne said, but people are still curious about the subject. In that way, pornography becomes a sex educator.

“Porn depicts this kind of sexuality where only certain kinds of bodies are desirable; women really lack assertiveness in terms of their own pleasure,” Towne said. “You don’t see communication happening. It very often mimics gender power differentials. So you’re seeing that modeled over and over again where gendered power becomes eroticised, and women are on the bottom of that.

“You’re not learning about anatomy and physiology in accurate ways,” Towne continued. “A lot of things are not shown that should be shown, and they’re just giving misinformation out there. We’re proclaiming that it’s used for this pleasure reason, but really it’s our educator. That’s a problem.”

Towne pointed to the age-appropriate sexual education guidelines developed by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States as a model for comprehensive sex ed.

“By the time you get to the twelfth grade … you should have gotten all of these messages that build on each other about all of this wide range of topics,” Towne said. “I don’t know who has gotten this guidelined stuff, but it’s the recommendation for people. If you look at those guidelines and you’re teaching people about those guidelines, you’re also getting messages that are preventative of sexual assault, that increase communication, that are supportive of gender equity, equitable relationships.”

Onto the next journey

This summer, Towne is teaching an online GWSS 105 class. After that, she said she does not know what she is doing next. Towne has applied for sexuality education and research positions around the U.S. and Canada.

Towne said working with college students is her favorite thing, and said she has learned a lot at K-State.

“The gender, women and sexuality studies program is established here,” Towne said. “It has been here for decades. I was coming from a place where they were about to close it, and I was the only professor that was entirely teaching in the program. … Having the colleagues that I had here was a very different experience as well.”

As Towne moves on from K-State and on to her next adventure, it is certain that her long record of volunteerism and education will positively guide her future endeavors.

I'm Dene Dryden, and I graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor's of Arts in English. Before graduating, I worked at the Collegian for more than three years as a copy chief, managing editor and editor-in-chief. I also served a term on the Collegian Media Group Board of Directors. While at K-State, I also worked at Wildcat 91.1 FM. My cat Robyn is the light of my life, and I take compliments in the form of coffee.