Sex videos are popular on the internet. Even academic ones. Just ask Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s School of Health & Kinesiology.
Her 2016 TEDx talk has been viewed more than 2.5 million times online. In the lecture, Jawed-Wessel discusses society’s objectification of women as tools of men’s sexual pleasure (with little value placed on their own satisfaction), and how this view dramatically changes during pregnancy to one of non-sexual beings whose sole purpose is reproduction.
She has become an internationally recognized expert in her field of research. In November 2018, Jawed-Wessel traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan, to present the keynote address at the country’s National Institute of Psychology annual conference.
“My niche area of research focuses on understanding the sexual health of women and couples as they transition into parenthood by documenting sexual behaviors, sexual function, relationship adjustment, and sexual changes during pregnancy and after childbirth,” she explains.
On top of her professorship, Jawed-Wessel is the associate director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative. She also holds a joint appointment with the Women and Gender Studies program at UNO and a courtesy appointment in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Her teachings utilize a sex-positive and pleasure-inclusive approach to providing medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education to her undergraduate students.
Jawed-Wessel, 35, didn’t initially set her sights on becoming a sex researcher. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she was born in the U.S. and raised with three siblings in a traditional family in Indiana.
“My mom stayed at home and my father worked multiple jobs,” she says. “We were a working-class family.”
Seeing her parents struggle likely prompted the inquisitive youngster to make education a priority. She went on to earn three bachelor’s degrees—in biology, psychology, and English—from Indiana University.
She volunteered as an assistant in a few labs and says she “fell in love” with sex science. “The specific focus on sex during and after pregnancy came to me as my relationship with feminism grew,” she adds. “I did not like how we divorce sexuality and motherhood, and the more I worked with pregnant women, I saw how their psyche was impacted by this forced de-sexualization.”
She went on to earn a Master of Public Health and a Ph.D. in health behavior, also from Indiana University, home to the Kinsey Institute (named after its founder, the famous American biologist and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey). She joined the UNO faculty in 2012.
Jawed-Wessel says her long-term research goal is to understand how women’s intimate relationships are impacted by sexual and maternal objectification. She also believes in “conducting research that will help promote women’s and LGBTQ rights and reproductive justice values, and, therefore, science that will support or push back against policy and systems-level change,” she says. With this public engagement in mind, she has provided expert testimony for the Nebraska Unicameral, the Nebraska Board of Education, and the Omaha Public School Board of Education.
For her work, Jawed-Wessel was a 2017 recipient of the Women’s Center for Advancement’s Tribute to Women Award (and was the luncheon’s keynote speaker in 2018). She was also named among the 2017 Ten Outstanding Young Omahans by the Omaha Jaycees.
In 2018, her Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative received one of the first Equality Fund grants ($40,000) from the Omaha Community Foundation to conduct work that will increase LGBTQ equality in Omaha. “Community engagement and my research go hand in hand; one without the other means lesser impact,” she says. “I want to see my science put into action.”
When not teaching, conducting research, or traveling for speaking engagements, Jawed-Wessel says she enjoys hosting dinner parties for close friends. “If I cook you an elaborate Pakistani meal, that means I really love you,” she confides. She’s also the proud mom of two young boys, 9 and 3.
This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Correction: Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel is an “associate professor,” not “assistant professor,” as noted in the print edition.