Beyond the Birds and the Bees

U-Md. public health professor Robin Sawyer finds a surprising lack of knowledge among students.
U-Md. public health professor Robin Sawyer finds a surprising lack of knowledge among students. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

"If we taught driver's ed the way we teach sex education," says the professor, his voice assuming a deep, mocking tone, "we'd be saying things like, 'Stay away from the car. Don't stand next to the car.' Yeah, right."

So it's a perfect time to teach sex these days if you're on a college campus, says Robin Sawyer, a public health professor at the University of Maryland.

At 55, the former soccer striker from Yorkshire, England, has been lecturing students on the perils and payoffs of sex for 22 years. He teaches human sexuality to five sections a year; four of them have more than 200 students. This means about 16,000 students have heard him lecture on everything from crocodile dung (an early recipe for female contraception) to foot fetishes, with anatomy, childbirth, infections and lots of other practical details thrown in.

Students raised on a tell-all media diet are eager to talk about everything, have done a good bit of it, but don't know very much. How strange: They have walked the walk, but they can't talk the talk.

So great is student interest in learning how to talk intelligently about such matters that each semester, Sawyer's course has a waiting list of 100 students or more. This means most of the students are seniors, who get first pick, rather than freshmen, who might benefit more from the course.

The class topic last Tuesday was contraception. Sawyer arrived at the College Park auditorium in khakis and a navy polo shirt and carrying a bag of birth control pills, patches and other props. He scribbled types of contraception on the giant blackboard in order of effectiveness -- Norplant, Depo Provera, oral conception and condoms among them -- knowing that three-fourths of the students there were probably sexually active, half of them since they were 17, and probably fewer than half were using condoms to prevent pregnancy or reduce the possibility of disease.

"The most common form of contraceptive device is prayer," Sawyer says, with the accent that ruled a worldwide empire by its tone of utter authority. Picking up on the students' puzzled faces he adds: "You make a bargain with God. 'Just this once,' you say."

And: "Fifty percent of you aren't using any birth control method except withdrawal. Here's what you say: Sex just happened, it wasn't planned. Or, you broke up with your boyfriend and went off the pill. Or you were so drunk you don't know what happened."

After running through the methods of birth control, he encourages the questions to fly.

Does going off the pill, then on again, affect how well it works? a young man asks. (Short answer: "Yes.")

Some women who have been on the pill say they ended up having trouble getting pregnant later. Is that true? ("There's no scientific evidence to prove that.")

I have these incredibly heavy periods. Will the pill help that? ("Perhaps.")

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