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How Far Is Too Far in a College Sexuality Course?

We're used to controversy around middle and high school sex education--but sometimes even college courses become the center of a storm of outrage.

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I did not use these kinds of personal assignments when I taught college courses preferring instead to ask students analyze characters in movies or books so that we could talk about the issues without the disclosure of actual experiences. That said, many of my colleagues who I respect immensely do use these assignments and find them very valuable. When I read of this story, I reached out to them to ask why they had students complete such projects and if they offered alternatives to students who were uncomfortable. Here are some of the answers I received.

I have had a “Sexual Self-Analysis” as a “required” part of my undergrad sexuality class for eight years. Students often dread it. We talk about it A LOT before it is due half way through the semester. They have lots of latitude about what they address as long as at least five to six topics are addressed and they must be both descriptive and reflective about the impact of their experience in their life as a sexual being to date on who they are now…I tell them I won’t know if they make it all up, and that I won’t comment on the contents generally, it is an activity they do for themselves essentially…. I encourage them to take care of themselves for all aspects of the class and invite them to pass on anything asked of them, if it’s for a percent of the grade we can talk about it….I have consistently had nearly across the board gratitude that it was done afterwards. We know what can be learned from examined experience. Without examination experience can be more confusing than necessary.   

I do use assignments (reflection papers) that generally involve self-disclosure, but the students are always in control of how much and what they reveal, which I think is essential. I encourage that students reflect on how the course materials impact them personally, but I also encourage them to respect their own boundaries.  

The first assignment in my Women’s Sexualities class is a sexual autobiography. This helps set the tone that the course will not be just a series of lectures in which they take notes, but an opportunity to apply (and test) theories about sexuality in personally meaningful ways. There are specific guidelines for the assignment, generally asking students to address Carrera’s “cornerstones” of sexuality. I also delineate the steps I will take to protect their papers from being seen by anyone other than me.  The assignment sheet explicitly says that no one need reveal uncomfortable personal experiences if they do not want to, and includes referral information for counseling services. In addition, students have the option of completing the assignment as a sexual biography, rather than autobiography. In other words, they can find and interview someone else, which frees them from having to address their own sexual life stories. In almost 15 years of doing this assignment, I have only had one student exercise that option…but I’m glad it’s there.

My students journal but they control what they disclose. I have them reflect on their learning each week and offer specific prompts like, “how would you feel if a person you were dating disclosed a transgender identity?” they always have an option to answer in a more de-personalized way. 

While many of my colleagues use personal assignments and defended the value of such work, all of them thought this particular professor went too far by forcing students to disclose specific personal information.  Here is some of what they said about this.

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