Top 10 Lessons I Learned in Sex Class

Teaching a human sexuality class teaches you things.

Posted Dec 12, 2017

Every year, for close to 20 years, I’ve been teaching the human sexuality class at my small midwestern university. It’s a popular class, as the subject matter famously sells itself. Over many years of teaching a class like this, one notices things. Here are a few impressions:

1. At the beginning of each class, I do an anonymous ‘class sexual profile’ survey to see where my students are and who they are in terms of their sexual background. Within a wide range of experience and identities, there are consistent and predictable norms. Most of my students are sexually active; most identify as straight; many are in a relationship; most have experience with contraceptives. Condoms are popular. If they have been sexually active, their number of partners is in the low single digits. Most of them also have had abstinence education. Which means they have had no sex education. There are two main problems with abstinence education. First, it is ineffective in achieving its own goals (delayed sexual initiation and reduced teenage pregnancy). 

Second, abstinence education is not sex education, in the same way that telling people to not drive can’t be called driver’s education. The American sex education landscape is a wasteland, lagging far behind other developed countries

2. By and large, my students have not heard any credible grown up—someone who genuinely cares about their future rather than looking to distract, scare, titillate, lie to them, or sell them something—advocate for or about sex. No one has spoken to these students about sex in positive, informed, non-salacious, non-commercial, and non-exploitative terms. They’ve heard plenty of warnings about bad sexual stuff but no positives. No encouragement, no endorsement, not even good wishes for their sexual future. No acknowledgement that a sex life is a part of a normal life, something most people really want to have; that sexual intimacy and pleasure and health are crucial components of good living. No one has spoken candidly to them about the reason most sex around the world actually takes place: human connection and pleasure, not reproduction. Physicians don’t discuss sexual satisfaction with their patients. Parents don’t discuss orgasms with their children. The images, myths, and narratives young people consume in the popular culture are no more instructive about achieving sexual satisfaction than the images, myths, and narratives of the American wedding are instructive about achieving marital happiness.

3. I start every semester by showing erotic arts from across cultures and time. I show them images of sculptures from ancient Greece, brothel paintings from Pompeii, Peruvian pottery, contemporary photography from Japan. They see works by Lucian Freud, Nan Goldin, Egon Schiele, and Henry Moore. The obligatory Georgia O’Keeffe is somewhere in there, as are Mapplethorpe’s male nudes. I do this because I like art. But also because it helps to set a tone for the class, one that is respectful of the pull and mystery of sex, its fascinations, and power to preoccupy. It shows the students that they have not invented sex. That sex has been compelling human beings everywhere since before they were human beings, and since before they were everywhere. This is a surprise to many of my students. In part, because young people tend to be self-centered and are prone to conclude that what’s new to them is new to the world (which is why new parents are often quite insufferable). But also because sex is unique in that every generation is certain that they are the only ones who are, or should be, having it.

4. The class is explicit. We talk about intercourse and anal sex and vaginal lubrication and queefing; we cover pedophilia, abortion, sexual harassment, homosexuality, and gender identity. We talk about heartbreak and betrayal and jealousy and STIs. We talk about love, relationships, and marriage. We talk about, in other words, dangerous topics, topics that young people do not often discuss in a scholarly, formal, public space; topics that scare people and stir deep emotions. We don’t shy away from difficult realizations. We acknowledge that sex, like any worthwhile undertaking, carries real risks. That no one who engages fully will remain unscathed. Life itself, after all, is a chronic and terminal condition.

5. This class is always over-enrolled, even though it’s not required. And the most common course evaluations comments I receive at the end of the semester mention how challenging the experience was, and how safe they felt. I think my students are onto something here. A true safe space is one inside which dangerous ideas and emotions can be honestly explored, like a therapy room, like an art museum. It is a place that challenges students without traumatizing them. A true safe space is like a good gym, where you get both a hard workout and protection from injury. It can be done. Not perfectly, but well. It is in that space, where we are both permitted to try and instructed how to stretch without tearing, that our flexibility improves.

6. Access to porn is now as easy as access to news. In the old days, you needed to exert effort to see porn. Today, you need to make an effort not to see it. The availability of free porn is bound to change people’s psyches in the same way that the sudden availability of cheap food has changed people’s physiques. As with food, our ancient brain, having evolved in times of scarcity and limited access, is ill-equipped to deal with the sudden, new reality where abundance and open access are normative. I don’t know where all that leads. Yet I think it’s not unlikely that with advances in AI, robotics, and human-machine interface we will soon regard the choice between sex with a human partner or a robot partner like we regard today the difference between organic and processed food.

7. Time passes. I used to show instructional videos in my class, in which non-actor 30-something West Cost former hippies demonstrated sexual scenarios while expert talking heads in the background provided advice and explanations. There was a time when this was almost scandalous and dangerous. Then it became comical, as my students began to balk in disbelief at the 80s fashion and hairstyles on display; then it became redundant. My students today can find explicit sex of any kind with two clicks. And yet, try to find honest, erudite, explicit, and free sexual instruction online. Good luck. Sex sells. Sex education—not so much.

8. In class, I ask my students to write down three things they wanted (or would want, if they are yet to experience sex) to tell a sexual partner but didn’t (or wouldn’t) and three things they wanted to say and did (or would). Then I ask them to rate each item for importance in terms of their sexual and relationship satisfaction. Inevitably, the items that were not communicated are rated as most important. We read the research that shows that half of young people have not discussed contraception with their partners at time of first intercourse. We discover this: young people are often quite willing and ready and able to have sex long before they are ready, willing, or able to talk to their partners about it. 

9. We end the semester with a storytelling assignment where each student gets five minutes to stand in front of the class and relate a true story from her life that has to do with sexuality, broadly defined. The stories range from explicit to vanilla, from revenge threesomes and DPs to movie dates and sloppy first kisses. Most speak of first loves, boyfriends, breakups, and betrayals. One theme I hear in their stories is that young men are often confused, selfish, and disappointing. Young women, for the most part, find it hard to speak up, to assert their sexual needs and wants, to say ‘stop’ when they’re in pain. And perhaps these are the two main ‘gendered’ failures of our system. For change to happen, it is not enough that men stop ‘mansplaining.’ They need to listen up. And it’s not enough that women know. They need to speak up. Perhaps the current #metoo moment will facilitate this transformation. But don’t count on it. The #metoo players and audiences are mostly comprised of full-fledged grown-ups, not teenagers or emerging adults. Most of my students don’t follow the news; they don’t read newspapers or watch TV much. To most of them—I know because I asked—the name Harvey Weinstein means nothing.

10. I think for most of my students the overriding emotion associated with this class is relief. It is OK to talk about sex. It’s OK to have sexual desire and fantasy. It’s OK to want to have sex. It’s OK to have sex. It’s OK to want to have good sex. It’s OK to take ownership of your sexual health and satisfaction. It’s OK to be scared and confused and make mistakes. It’s OK to be fully human. In fact, that’s kind of the point.