Director of Positive Sexuality, Stanford University
Doctor of Philosophy, human sexuality studies, Widener University ’14
Master of Applied Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania ’11
Bachelor of Arts in psychology, Whitman College ’05
“Human sexuality and positive psychology each need the other,” says Brianna Booth, Director of Positive Sexuality at Stanford University. Brianna was drawn to the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program in the midst of her graduate work in human sexuality studies when she realized that sex education needed a new paradigm. “If you get through high school and don’t have an STI or an unintended pregnancy, does that mean you’re experiencing sexual well-being, or that you’re flourishing?” she asks. She wanted to reimagine sex education in a positive way, “where sexuality is something that is nurtured and can flourish.”
As she dove into her year of MAPP study, Brianna was surprised to discover that there wasn’t already an established body of research on sexuality within positive psychology. “Instead, in every lecture, I listened for how I could think about sexuality in the context of whatever they were talking about,” she recalls. “I was alert to the different ways that ideas were being conceptualized and the way questions were being asked.” When it was time to develop her capstone project, the MAPP Program Director, Dr. James Pawelski, told her that if she wanted to see research connecting the two fields, she would need to author it herself. After Brianna completed the MAPP program and went on to finish a PhD in human sexuality studies, her MAPP capstone became the foundation of her dissertation, Toward Sexual Well-Being: A Grounded Theory Study of the Lived Experience of Sexuality, with Pawelski as one of her dissertation committee members.
With her research in hand, Brianna went on to create her current role at Stanford University as the Director of Positive Sexuality. There, her mission is to “breathe warmth into a conversation about sexuality that is typically shrouded in shame, taboo, ignorance, and silence.” She does this by bringing her own openness and compassion to the topic, and a spirit of curiosity and growth toward how we develop ourselves and our relationships. Drawing from her research, she points out that young people are often taught to protect themselves, but they are rarely taught how to connect. “There's nothing wrong with protection—knowing how to be safe is a good and necessary thing—but we need to talk about connection, too. We're afraid to say, ‘here's how you can connect with another person.’ There’s fear around sexuality and fear around young people being sexual, and yet it is a reality and something that can be really positive, if given the right support.” Her passion to transform sex education has taken shape through this lens of connection and is exemplified in coursework on storytelling where students learn from their own and others’ lived experiences.
Brianna teaches a class at Stanford every quarter called StoryCraft in which a small group of students from all different backgrounds learn to tell their stories about sexuality, intimacy, and relationships. In the course, students explore the vast terrain of these topics. As the culminating project, they choose a story from their life, support each other in crafting these stories, and then perform it on an open stage with no podium and no notes. Brianna says, “I'm always blown away by the magic that happens at the end of the quarter. It’s the simplicity of oral storytelling applied to one of the most vulnerable parts of our lives. People are hungry to hear honest expressions of our experiences. It feels real.” This is a part of her work that Brianna cherishes. “I love watching the students gain that confidence and the ability to go deeper and, in the process, cultivate intimacy. Watching them grow and connect with each other through this course is infinitely rewarding.” Many students remark that it is one of the most impactful classes they took while at Stanford.
A selection of these stories is also performed as part of the Beyond Sex Ed program, which Brianna developed as a required part of new student orientation at Stanford. For this program, all matriculating undergraduates gather in an auditorium “to start a thoughtful conversation about sex, sexuality, intimacy, and relationships,” with the student stories as the centerpiece. Brianna introduces the topic of positive sexuality with a warm and compassionate tone, preparing the audience to participate in conversation circles after the program where they practice sharing their own perspectives, begin to set positive norms, and start building authentic relationships.
Acknowledging the importance of teaching about consent, Brianna believes it is more important to teach about the skill that’s required for consent and all forms of positive connection: attunement. She explains, “If you are attuned to yourself, to another person, and to the surrounding context, you will not only be able to navigate consent but actually connect.”
Brianna is creating a new model for sex education, which she says is partly inspired by Marty Seligman who helped shift the model of psychology from a focus on alleviating problems to a focus on building strengths, savoring beauty, and cultivating possibility. Brianna wants to do the same for sex education and the broader culture surrounding sex. “We should have a vision for sexual well-being where sexuality is seen as an integral dimension of our humanity, and something that can be embraced, nurtured, and developed as part of being whole,” she concludes.