Beyond the Birds and the Bees
U-Md. Professor Puts the Human Element Into Sex Education

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.")

Sawyer moves on to contraceptive devices. There's a paradox here, he tells the class. As a group, you perform oral sex and other sexual acts more often than past generations, but you still resist using any device that requires touching your genitals.

"A young woman recently told me she liked the idea of a diaphragm; she just didn't want to have to put her hand down there. I said, 'You think it's like a flying saucer? It's just going to go whoosh and fly up there on its own?'

"The best birth control device is the one you're willing to use."

A young man asks Sawyer about timing intercourse around a woman's menstrual cycle, the so-called rhythm method of birth control. Sawyer resists the urge to ask what decade the young man is living in.

"What do you call the woman who uses 'natural' family planning?" he responds. "Mommy."

Sometimes Sawyer learns from the students. Last semester, he split the class into men and women and encouraged them to ask questions of each other. A young man raised his hand wanting to know, "How many of you fake orgasms?"

Sawyer recalls: "Before I could say anything, 90 percent of the women raised their hands. The men's jaws dropped." The women were asked why.

"Didn't want to hurt his feelings," said one young woman.

"Guys just want to go on and on, and we have things to do," said another.

Sawyer is a sandy-haired, reasonably trim married man with four daughters and a cheeky attitude that students love. He has won virtually every teaching award that the 35,000-student university gives.

Apart from student attire, his lecture hall could have been lifted right out of "Kinsey," the 2004 movie about professor and sexual researcher Alfred Kinsey, who stunned America with his frankness and his findings more than half a century ago -- and provoked the sex-education debate that continues to this day.

All eyes are on Sawyer. Many students appear to be writing down everything he says; he actually stops lecturing a couple of times to persuade them to put down their pens and simply listen.

The students will ask or say anything. Frequently they do both.

"Does anal sex cause AIDS?" one young woman recently inquired. "Because my boyfriend wants to have anal sex, and I don't know whether I should let him."

One would think that today's undergraduates might know more. The grade point average of entering students has improved considerably since Sawyer started teaching. "I get a higher intellectual level now," Sawyer says.

But students don't know much more about sex than their parents did, he says. They're somewhat better at preventing pregnancy but continue to acquire life-threatening infections at an alarming rate. He blames this on lousy sex education in the lower grades.

At the beginning of this school year, he asked his class how many had had sex education in middle school or high school. Virtually all listeners raised their hands.

Then he asked how many had had sex ed for at least a semester. Three-quarters of the hands went down. How many had been taught by a certified health professional? A bunch of other hands went down, leaving about five students out of the 200 who had had, in his view, adequate preparation for sexual activity.

Sexuality is a complex psycho-social behavior, he says in an interview, and it takes more than six weeks of lectures by a football coach to understand. Current efforts by political conservatives restricting sex education in the public schools to abstinence-only programs is making a bad situation worse. "There is no scientific evidence showing that dogma works," he says.

Sawyer's ire over political agendas is not confined to the political right. The left, he says, has made it more difficult for his male students to talk about their attitudes toward women. Fearful of being politically incorrect, they're afraid to say, for example, that in certain instances of sexual assault, they believe the women in question bear some responsibility for what happened.

"He's really up-to-date," says student Megan Lhotsky, "and he knows what young people are interested in."

Classmate Matthew Liebman provides an example. He says Sawyer asked him to start a recent class discussion on sexual communication.

"So I asked the girls, 'When a young man comes up to you at a bar and starts dancing, it's natural for his body to, uh, wake up. Is that a compliment or an insult? Do you run away?' "

One thinks of the old line attributed to Mae West, who reached her peak as movie star and scriptwriter in the 1930s: "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"

Some questions keep getting asked, generation after generation. Sawyer plans to keep answering them.

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