University FAQs About the World of S-E-X

Photo and project by Kate Dollarhyde

Note – the content in this post is consistent with a PG-13 rating.  Thanks.

I’ve been teaching “Human Sexuality and the Family” for four years and I still find myself surprised about what seems to surprise my students.

Thinking back to my predisposed assumptions regarding what students would, or would not, think through out loud in the classroom now seems ridiculous to me.

For some reason, I honestly believed college students were more sexually savvy than what I now know them to be.  Perhaps this was because of the overt and raucous behavior I would occasionally witness among groups hanging out together on campus, cracking jokes and making continuous, “That’s what she said” interjections.

Perhaps, my misconceptions were because of insecurities on my own part.  It could be that I was intimidated by their attempts to be intimidating…attempts to set up defenses so strongly reinforced that my own fears would keep me at bay from helping them learn what they were afraid to discover.

This group behavior I mentioned, however, tended toward simply masking the struggles and insecurities of thousands of young academics finding their way to adulthood – the majority of whom have little ease or comfort when it comes to really processing their own learning about human sexuality.

I thought it might be helpful to pass along some of the most tangential questions students tend to dwell on over and over.  Understanding what students in their early 20s think about, find curious to discover, or debate about in the classroom could be helpful for our society to continue a dialogue that students seem willing to have.  Therefore, I’ve prepared a few points drawn only from my single perspective in one classroom about who, what, and how sexuality is deconstructed and then reconstructed throughout a semester.

Students are highly curious about the “next life stage” and what that might mean for them and an intimate partner.

The idea of being in a committed relationship and what that might mean sexually is a curious thing for students.  They wonder how they will negotiate long-term birth control decisions.  They wonder what is fair and not fair about the birth control process.

Within one classroom where there might be 10-20 virgins sitting next to 10-20 people who have had multiple sexual partners, they are fairly open about sharing their own successes and failures with birth control methods.  They share information about how they “might use one type of birth control when they’re dating, but might settle down for a different method if they cohabit or get married.”  In other words, they have future plans and birth control objectives for their lives.

For females, it’s extremely interesting for them to watch a vasectomy being conducted while for males, they grimace with sympathy pains.  Some males can’t even watch.  For males, viewing a video about the insertion of an IUD is brand new information and their eyes are glued to the screen; the females, on the other hand, have difficulty watching the IUD process and have many questions for those who have actually gone through it as to “exactly how much does it hurt” when being inserted.

Although students are generally introduced to the pregnancy and birthing process in high school biology classes, this information takes on entirely new meanings when these types of events could only be a couple of years away.  They want to know about having sex while pregnant.  They’re extremely curious about the actual childbirth process and the subsequent lactation processes for the mother.  They’re appalled and amazed to find out that breasts are extremely tender and may leak milk quite a bit when a mother’s milk first comes in.  And, the notion of nursing pads or leaking breasts when having sex is reacted to as if the information came from an alien being.  These are facts that have simply not been processed in their minds and are fraught with questions.

Finally, the next life stage is always unclear when it comes to sexual boundaries and communication.  It’s difficult for male students to know when an overt question about having sex is okay to have with a new romantic partner.  It’s difficult for women to feel comfortable about negotiating various sexual experiences.  And, it’s fairly common to break up because these types of discussions are “just too hard to have.”  In other words, sometimes if sex doesn’t “work out very well,” then “the relationship probably won’t either.”

I think it’s satisfying for students to be able to open up with each other about these types of questions on their minds, and it’s fairly common that I have to say, “I’m not sure.  I think I’ll call an expert.”  To wrap up this section, I’ll give you an example of a highly frequent question within this topic area.  That is: “If I take birth control the whole time I’m in college, then through a few years while at my first job and after I’m married, am I ruining my chances of getting pregnant once I get OFF birth control?”  This is a classic cost/benefits type discussion and evidently it weighs heavily on the minds of our female students.

The first time I was posed this question, I wasn’t quite sure of the complete physiological answer so I called an OB-GYN friend of mine and she gave them a beautiful response, complete with family planning history and cool examples.  But for this post, the short answer is “No.”  In fact, you might be saving your eggs so you’ll have a little bit better chance of getting pregnant once you go off the pill.

The relief on the faces of the students when they heard this information was a really cool moment.

Overall, students are more than a little frustrated with their own sexual education experience during their formative years.

For the most part, the majority of my students report an extremely substandard sexual education while growing up.  They report their families (both father and mothers) were ill-equipped to teach them about sex and tended to avoid it or frame it punitively.  They report that the schools tread lightly when it comes to human sexuality and frequently only taught abstinence or used fear-based slides of genital warts to “scare the Bajeezus out of us.”

They criticize legislators, school administrators, health and human service professionals and anyone else who has some degree of culpability or decision making power over how and when human sexuality is taught in schools.  A few even get so caught up in the “social wrongs” being dealt to young children across America that they decide to become sex educators, or at the very least, “do better for their own children some day.”

That said, there is still debate over what lessons and subject matter is developmentally appropriate.  And while they are willing to research, critique and think through what should be taught to whom and when…by the time they’ve exhausted their investigations, they generally understand the difficulty of the making curriculum decisions better than when they began.

Overall, however, I would like to say to anyone reviewing this post: Students would love for you to be more open, normalizing and developmentally consistent with sex education for your children.  And, they swear they will do the same!

Students are curious about the world of sexual diversity.

I won’t belabor this topic for paragraphs on end, but I will share a few of their questions they’ve wondered out loud:

How do people who are in wheelchairs or are paralyzed have sex?

How do people who have had sex change operations feel satisfied when making love?

How exactly DO sex change operations take place?

How do persons with developmental delays or intellectual disabilities have the freedom (or not) to have sexual partners…and at what point in their life?

When do we intervene into a cultural ritual we feel is wrong when another culture clings to it because it is a social norm? Examples of these issues would be: female circumcision, male circumcision at various ages, cultures whose elders teach young boys how to have sex with men so they can then go satisfy their women [or visa versa], cultures who teach children to masturbate, cultures whose sexual norms are to have sex several times each day, etc.

Should prostitution be legislatively regulated and normalized as a profession.

Are nudist colonies acts of perpetration upon the children of those who inhabit them?

And on, and on, and on…

And finally, students are curious about life stages they’ve not yet reached.

Every year we have several guest speakers come in and talk about the way they navigate or negotiate their own sexuality within (or in absence of) a relationship.  The highest rated lecture is always a 70 year-old couple who talks about their own sex education experiences back in the 40s and 50s, what norms were when they were in high school, what dating standards were like in college, etc.

The students listen with rapt attention as the male quotes his only sex education from his father.  It was, “KIP-IYP.” In other words, “Keep your penis in your pants!”  They also get very reflective of standards they set for themselves when it comes to dating and partner choices. This happens when the female shares recounts a time when she said to her daughter, “You wouldn’t breed a show horse with a donkey, would you?”

The straight-forward nature of an elder generation is extremely refreshing for students.  They are surprised by the absolutes and standards provided to them in such a grey and non-absolute world of academia.

I also think, however, seeing a couple who has been married for 50 years gives many hope in long-term relationships that doesn’t come naturally for a good number of them.

What I learn from students.

I think the best lesson I learn every year is that my comfort with the subject matter is directly related to their comfort about learning the subject matter.  I remember feeling slightly flushed when talking about orgasms and ejaculations my first semester.  I’m a therapist and while I’d had many years of working with couples having sexual challenges, standing in front of a large lecture hall full of students felt very different to me.  The more comfortable I became, the more they were willing to verbalize options, ask questions, and interact with each other.

In other words…my students were real people with real feelings and weren’t just sex-joke machines who were at college to party.

I value that lesson learned every day.  And, I try to hold very close the trust they have granted me with their willingness to learn about human sexuality in my classroom.

And…I’m STILL learning many lessons from them every time I teach.  My latest?  Well, I’ll leave it with you.  Perhaps you can help me…

“Hey, I have a question.  Last week I was watching that zombie show on TV.  You know about that show? (No, I’ve never heard of it.)  Anyway, there was this girl that got pregnant but then she went to several locations to buy a morning-after pill.  She had been pregnant for a while but was going to make herself have a spontaneous abortion by overdosing on those morning-after pills.  Can you do that??  And if not, WHY would a TV show be so incredibly irresponsible to have that in the script with so many young people watching?  And – by the way, she ended up not doing it…but now young kids might get pregnant and TRY THAT.  What is WRONG with that TV company??”

Um.  Can you help me with that answer?