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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.


Middle school and high school sexuality courses frequently become the subject of controversy most often because parents become upset after they learn of something said or done in class that they deem too explicit. By the time young people get to college, however, much of this potential for controversy fades for a number of reasons; parents are less involved, it is more acceptable for college students to be sexually active, and there is an understanding that human sexuality courses are voluntary — students know what they are getting into. Still, every once in a while, the national media or perhaps worse, a state politician gets wind of something that has happened in a college classroom and we start to debate again how far is too far in college sex education.

We may remember last year when a professor at Northwestern held a supplemental session after his human sexuality class in which a woman was stimulated with a motorized dildo referred to as a “fucksaw” by a man who operated sex-toy tours in Chicago (neither were students) in front of about 120 students. Some people on campus — and around the country once the news broke — were outraged by this presentation which they felt was completely inappropriate for an academic setting. Others felt that no one had the right to complain since attendance was not mandatory, nothing in the session would be covered on the exam, and all students had been warned multiple times about the explicit nature of the presentation. The professor and other educators also argued that the presentation had education value as it taught students about sexual arousal and sexual diversity.   

This event sparked some interesting dialogue about where we draw the line when it comes to educating college students about sexuality. (See what some RHRC contributors had to say about this controversy here.) Most sexuality educators I spoke with came down on the side of the professor and of more information. They felt that explicit presentations — be they live action or videos — do help educate young people. Though I’m always wary of anything that casts sexuality educators as too extreme because I think it can hurt the field over time, in this case I agreed. While I never hosted a live presentation, the first time I taught a college-level human sexuality course I remember showing a somewhat explicit video in class. A young woman came up to me afterward and thanked me. She said she was engaged to be married but, “I had no idea that people did that. I’m so glad I know now.”

A new controversy coming from a community college in Nevada has sexuality educators and others asking these questions once again. In this case, a student has filed a law suit claiming that the instructor in her human sexuality class created a “sexually hostile class environment.” One of the main issues in her complaint is an assignment called, “A Sexual Case Study ... You!” which according to the student required her “to divulge personal information including past sexual abuse, homosexual behavior, and sexual preferences.” The student filing the complaint (who is described as over 60 years of age) had been abused as a child and was terrified of discussing this in the assignment but when she asked for an alternate assignment the professor refused and told her the “project would be cathartic.”

Other assignments were also of a personal nature including three journal entries in which students were to write about their own body image, turn ons, and orgasms. The professor said he would not read the journals in their entirety because they were so personal but that he would scan them to make sure students covered all of the topics. 

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