The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

Sex in the College Classroom

Should we, and how should we, teach students about sexuality?

GUEST BLOGGER:  This entry is written by Randyl (Randi) D. Smith, LCSW, PhD, who is an assistant professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, where she regularly addresses sexual issues in her clinical and counseling psychology classes. In her independent clinical practice, Dr. Smith works with individuals and couples. She currently chairs the Colorado Board of Psychologist Examiners.

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How do we teach students about healthy sexuality?

Before we get to that question, maybe the starting question is "do we, should we, teach students about sexuality?" At many institutions, educators do surprisingly little to teach students about sex. From introductory psychology classes (some intro texts have a chapter devoted to issues of sexuality, but most don't) to graduate degree training (most master's and doctoral programs provide little in the way of formal education regarding sexual concerns and behaviors), sex is often overlooked. And yet, by some counts, sexual dysfunctions are the most pervasive mental disorders, surpassing anxiety and depression in their prevalence.

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Now, you might be thinking, "but there are specialized programs for individuals who want to train as sex therapists," and you'd be absolutely right. Let's leave the serious paraphilias and cases of profound sexual aversion to them. But sexual activity involves a broad set of behaviors that occur maybe as often as visiting Starbucks or washing one's hair (though sexual activity is infinitely more complex, challenging our brains and our bodies with concerns related to self-confidence, guilt, anxiety, and self-image). Can we really relegate such a ubiquitous part of life to the specialists? Or, in education, can we assume that a human sexuality class (generally an elective!) alone will cover all the necessary sexual information? And we're not just talking "necessary" to the developing clinician who might be faced with helping clients navigate through sexual difficulties. If we teach child development not only to impart theoretical knowledge, but to help students raise their own children, might we not teach sexuality so that students themselves can experience more satisfying sexual interactions?

Perhaps, then, we educators should visit the topic of sexuality regularly, across the spectrum of coursework that psychology students take. If so, we're back to our original question: how do we teach about sexuality?

It may not be enough just to talk about sex. We know that people jump to all sorts of assumptions and retreat to old ways of thinking when the information is limited. If we really want students to have a broader understanding of sexuality, why not use some of the same resources we would use to teach other topics?:

  • Surveys: some professors administer anonymous surveys to their students to illustrate the range and frequencies of sexual behaviors. It's likely, though, that surveys, even anonymous ones, cause some students discomfort. Do the pros of information acquisition outweigh the cons of embarrassment, anxiety, and the perception of judgment by peers? Consider, for example, the student who responds affirmatively to the statement, "I think women can and should have many partners in order to explore their own sexual pleasure." Even if the survey is anonymous, the student risks hearing negative comments about the response, which classmates might label immoral, reckless, or slutty. And yet, if we don't make sex personal, we might lose some of the impact and the potential for increased awareness.
  • Videos: Some professors use pornographic videos. (Granted, these are not typically produced by the porn industry, nor do they feature the tried and true, or, more accurately, tired and untrue, storylines involving pizza delivery men or attractive young secretaries, but they do include graphic depictions of people having sexual intercourse and engaging in other sexual behaviors such as masturbation, fondling, and oral sex. As such, they are considered by many people to be pornography.) In feedback provided by a colleague's human sexuality students, more than 90 percent reported being positively impacted by viewing sexually explicit videos. But what about the other students? Are they harmed? Does viewing homosexual intimacy, for example, open minds or inflame stereotypes?
  • Demos: live demonstrations are probably ill-advised. Consider the fallout after Northwestern University professor J. Michael Bailey allowed some guest speakers in his human sexuality class to engage in a show-and-tell with a high-powered sex toy in front of nearly 100 students in March 2011. Bailey faced severe criticism and outrage, a university investigation...and, undoubtedly, a flood of students clamoring to enroll in the class for the next semester.
  • Hands-on experience: In practice-oriented classes, we might teach students regarding the use of erotica, toys, and new positions to help clients enhance their sexual satisfaction. Yet do we risk students (or their parents) accusing instructors of promoting prurient interests rather than scientific value?

How much sex education is too much? We want students to be in charge of their sexuality, not to feel degraded, bombarded, or violated by the material. Yet we also want them to be educated about the many variations of sexuality and sexual behavior. As we expand students' awareness of the range of normal sexual behaviors (e.g., masturbation, homosexual sex), we'd likely open some minds and relieve some anxieties, but we'd also invariably offend some sensibilities, especially of students from cultures and religions with strict mores and doctrines.

Still, it's probably fair to say that we do students a disservice when we avoid addressing sex in the classroom. There's lots of evidence that sex education not only provides essential factual information about topics like sexual health, but that it also helps students to be better communicators about sex. Because sex is of fundamental importance to most people, it makes sense to talk about it.

 

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2012 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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