Bolder Sex-Ed Classes Unsettle Some Colleges

Various posters warn of risky behavior. In the 1800s, sex-education teachers linked lust to consumption of spiced foods, too much meat or alcohol.
Various posters warn of risky behavior. In the 1800s, sex-education teachers linked lust to consumption of spiced foods, too much meat or alcohol. (University Of Minnesota)
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Nineteen-year-old McKenzie Parrack was surprised when she took a human sexuality course at George Washington University last year as a freshman.

Parrack learned a lot more than she expected, she said, and she believes the knowledge will help her make informed decisions. And, she said, she realized that many classmates entered the course knowing far less than she did.

Her conclusion: When it comes to sex education, "some people are just living under a rock."

Sex education is hardly a new subject in the United States, said Jeffrey P. Moran, whose 2000 book, "Teaching Sex," chronicles its history. In the 1800s, sex education ran along the lines of warnings that lust could be stirred if people ate highly spiced foods or too much meat or, of course, drank alcohol.

The subject developed in schools in fits and starts, and although the details have changed, remarkably similar patterns can be seen. Look back to 1912, and this is what was happening: With sexually transmitted diseases rampant and nothing but arguments abounding on how to teach young people about sex, a group of prominent educators -- including former Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot -- assembled at a conference in Washington to see if they could find the right approach to settle the matter.

Flash-forward nearly a century and it is clear that they didn't. Newspapers are filled with articles about public school systems' battles over K-12 sex education, even in so-called politically liberal areas including Montgomery County, whose school system is revising its sex-ed curriculum because its old program -- which included such materials as a videotape that uses a cucumber to instruct 10th-graders on condom use -- was challenged as inappropriate.

The issue of what is appropriate has also rattled some colleges and universities, where sex-education classes use far more graphic materials than do high schools and take students through doors their parents never entered when they went to school.

"Over the last few years, there has been an increasing attack on sexuality education in the college classroom," said Gilbert Herdt, director of the National Sexuality Resource Center, based at San Francisco State University, and director of the Program in Human Sexuality Studies. "The result is that college professors are more careful about what they teach," he said.

At George Washington University, a debate among students that was sparked by this summer's dismissal of a popular adjunct professor highlights part of the national discussion.

Michael Schaffer had been teaching human sexuality for 17 years until this past summer, when, he said, he received an e-mail from an administrator telling him that he was being let go.

Schaffer said he is not sure why he lost his job. He was told to look at his student evaluations, but he said they were mostly positive. One unidentified female student, however, blasted his class, he said, saying he "shows naked pictures and videos" and assigned papers that were only an excuse to delve into students' personal lives. Schaffer intends to meet with administrators to learn the full reason for his dismissal, he said.

Patricia Sullivan, acting chairman of the exercise science department and the administrator Schaffer said notified him of his dismissal, did not return phone calls.

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