In “Human Sexuality” Class, We Took Academic Honesty To A Whole New Level

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I looked at my roommate across the common room and saw her staring at her laptop, blankly. I looked down at my own and saw the cursor blinking at me, ready for me to start typing. It was a warm, sunny spring day during my senior year in college and I could hear the rest of my roommates out on the patio, drinking Bud Light with our football-player friends and laughing. And here I was, writing a paper. A typical moment for a college student, maybe, but the paper was anything but.

“So…um…how’s it going?” I asked my roommate. She threw up her hands and widened her eyes.

“I don’t know what the FUCK TO WRITE. And don’t look at my screen. Don’t you dare look at my screen. I think I need a cocktail.”

OR MAYBE TWO

We had every reason to be uncomfortable – that was the point of the paper. To make us as uncomfortable as possible, and base our grade on our ability to be honest with ourselves. It was a novel concept to us, since students often fought tooth and nail at Harvard for percentage points, sometimes sharing factually-faulty information in the hopes of edging out their competition. Even if my friends and I had operated this way (which we didn’t, obviously drinking with our football-player friends was more our speed), that approach wouldn’t have worked here anyway.

It was 2006 and we were taking “Psychology 1703: Human Sexuality.” Human Sexuality was a relatively new course, but one I had been eager to take after my friends who took it the previous semester couldn’t stop talking about it. It had stayed with them, they said, more than any other course they took at Harvard. I wanted to find out why.

The course had been offered for the first time in the fall semester. I heard about it initially while I was lurking around the psychology laboratory where I worked, and where several graduate students were talking about how they thought the course would be really interesting (and easy) to take, but that many other professors weren’t thrilled about its introduction, thinking that the course was too fluffy to be a serious science course at Harvard. I also knew that there was a sense among some of the faculty members that Harvard needed to take itself less seriously as an academic institution and offer more liberal-artsy courses alongside the hard science and rigorous economics courses that most undergraduates usually took. I understood their point: it was always a breath of fresh air to take a lighter course to balance the hours and hours I spent in the chemistry lab or sobbing over a problem set in my calculus class that was so conceptual that it no longer included numbers. Please, give me something else to think about! Plus, there was always the feeling that Harvard undergraduates spent so much of their time working that it might be in their best interest as developing young adults to teach something that might be useful to their social growth and not just their academic growth. Why not talk about sex?

On our first day, the Professor stepped onto the floor of the auditorium (the class couldn’t be held in a smaller venue since so many students had showed up to “shop” it), and said, “Raise your hand if you had sex last night!” Titters and giggles. My roommate sitting next to me glanced up across the room at the boy she had just started hooking up with and wondered if he was feeling as uncomfortable as she was. He was from Alabama and super conservative. We were both wondering how he’d react to all this discussion about sex that would obviously cover some new subjects we knew would be new to him like alternate sexualities and gender identities. To his credit, he sat quietly with his buddies for the whole lecture, listening with rapt attention while the Professor described the course and its objectives. After class, they all signed up.

The course itself covered topics like the social constructs of gender and whether porn constitutes as rape, but also included lectures about what makes for a stable relationship and the orgasmic platform associated with tribadism (oh, we fancy, huh?). One day, several transgender guest speakers spoke about where they stood on the spectrums of gender identification, sexual attraction and outward appearance. On another, a lady in dominatrix gear made us ice cream sundaes to illustrate how “some people like plain vanilla, but sometimes people need sprinkles, or maybe some chocolate sauce.”

Though the class was based on papers and a final exam, these were more tools to encourage participation; most of our grade was determined in our smaller TF (Teaching Fellow) sessions. My TF session happened on Tuesday nights in the basement of one of the freshmen dorms and was led by a gender studies graduate student. She was kind and funny and perfectly nice, but it became immediately clear that in order to get a good grade in this class I would have to be more open and honest with her than I’d been with even my closest friends. Since when had one of them handed me a typed list of questions like, “What’s something you’ve never done in bed but would like to?” and, “If you could kiss anyone at school without your friends finding out, who would it be and why?” And more than that, when had anyone asked me to type this up and submit it to them for a grade!? I suddenly understood the reason why my friends said they went directly to the bar after lectures.

HOW ABOUT THAT COCKTAIL WE TALKED ABOUT?

Our TF started us out slowly, asking us about our past relationships, our friendships, and our experiences in college. To get a sense of who we were as a group, she asked us to anonymously answer a set of general questions, the results of which she tallied and read out loud to us: who had cheated on a significant other, who had had a same-sex experience, who had hidden a romantic attraction from their roommates, and so on. I remember looking around at my fellow students and thinking, “Wow! I’m not in a minority! Everyone else has the same thoughts and fears that I do!” Sometimes it’s nice to know the cheese does not stand alone.

In one TF session, I was partnered with my friend Kate who was a year older than me and endlessly cool. “Sweet!” I thought. “Kate can handle this. We’ll be fine!” Our TF told us that in this session we would be discussing coming out. In our pairs, we had to describe to our partner who we would find it hardest coming out to, if we were gay, and why it would be so hard. Yikes. Okay.

Kate told me about her mother and father, who are Italian and rather strict with her. Kate was gorgeous and cool and popular, and I’d never seen her do anything but rock the pants off any social situation she found herself in. But as she pretended to come out to me (her parents), she couldn’t bring herself to look me in the eye and I saw her hands starting to shake under her desk. When she finally did look up, her eyes were teary and she couldn’t figure out what to say to me. I didn’t fare much better when it was my turn. Since I had seen how this exercise had gone with Kate, I was able to hold myself together a little bit better, but I still felt my palms get sweaty and my voice start to shake. At this point my experience with girls had been limited to “it’s fun to make out with them at parties” and I hadn’t really let myself consider the grander implications of this. I don’t know if I wasn’t ready to or I was just too busy with school to think about myself as a growing-up person, but I tried to be as honest with myself as I could be given the setting and the assignment. In hindsight, this moment was actually more momentous than either of us envisioned: six years later, Kate is living with her girlfriend in California and I with mine in Washington, D.C. I think if we were to chat about it now, we would both point to that moment in class as one which at least started the opening of the door for both of us to come out. I think we both needed something to force ourselves to think about why the fake coming-out was so difficult, and unless someone made us do it, we might have never done it at all.

The paper my roommate and I found ourselves writing on that spring morning was about what we wanted to experience but hadn’t yet. We had a list of questions to address, and in order to get a passing grade all we had to do was answer them – honestly.

What did I want to experience? What had I experienced but didn’t like? What had I experienced and enjoyed? I stared at my roommate across the room and we shrugged. THIS IS SO MUCH HARDER THAN A MATH TEST! When it became clear that the the joint paper-writing party in the common room with my roommate wasn’t going to do us much good toward actually completing the project, I’d gone into my room, popped open a beer, and said to myself, “Okay, self. You have to write this paper and you have to write it today. They want honesty…okay, let’s do honesty.” I wrote about how I faked crushes on boys to fit in. I wrote about making out with girls at parties, and how it meant more to me than it did to them. I wrote that, one day, I wanted to go out a date with a girl. I wrote things I had never said out loud to anyone. When I finished it, I emailed it to my TF and walked outside. Oddly, instead of feeling nervous and embarrassed, I felt nothing but relief. I’d sort of faced my demons, albeit on paper and in private, but it hadn’t been so bad! My demons hadn’t been demonic at all! It was just me, in essay form.

I hope our professor understood the degree of influence his class had over us. That sheer volume of examination of our private lives was disorienting, intrusive and threatening. But it was the only class we talked about. After class, before class and out with our friends, we talked about our TF sessions. I thought about it all the time.

For many of us, “Human Sexuality” was a catalytic experience. Being forced to sit down and ask what we wanted out of a partner, a relationship, or ourselves, we were also forced to confront why we haven’t done the things we wanted to do or been with the people we wanted to be with. What was stopping us? Just as the world hadn’t exploded when I turned in my paper, the world didn’t explode when I finally did talk to my roommates about my feelings, and it didn’t explode when I finally did ask a girl out on a date. All the things I was afraid of happening didn’t happen. It was all okay!

In a misguided fit of “AAAAH DON’T LOOK AT MY LAPTOP” I deleted the aforementioned paper when the semester was over, and I kick myself for it every day. But, I do remember what my TF wrote back to me with my final grade: “Remember to trust in your feelings and yourself and do what you want to do in order to make yourself happy. Remember what this experience was like, and just as you sat yourself down to think about how to answer these questions, do the same with yourself and your happiness and your future. Be brave! You’re going to do great.”

LOOK AT ME NOW


Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

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Keena has written 4 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. Thumb up 9

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    In one of the psychology courses I took in university we discussed sexuality pretty extensively. I remember sitting in class next to my boyfriend at the time, rigid in my seat, freaking out about the fact that almost everything the lecturer was saying about forming a non-heterosexual identity applied to me! Thoughts like “But I have a boyfriend! I can’t be gay!” ran through my head and I wrestled with it for quite a while.

    I have since broken up with said boyfriend, accepted my gayness and have come out to three of my closest friends. I attribute a large part of the realisation and acceptance process to that psychology course and I wish the lecturer knew what an impact he has had on my life!

  2. Thumb up 18

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    Keena,

    Your article is nothing short of magnificent! I took a course in college with the same title, but we were never asked to do anything like you describe, and I wish we had been.

    I never started to examine anything about myself on such a deep level until I became depressed and suicidal, and couldn’t tell you exactly why. Something in me can’t cope anymore and I don’t have a clue what it is?

    Nearly 30 years later, and more of it in therapy than not, I finally know who I am and why I’m depressed.

    I am gay, but this exercise would be invaluable to anyone of any sexual orientation or gender identity. It would also be invaluable to examine other parts of our lives in the same manner.

    Socrates was right, an unexamined life is not worth living. Thank you for discussing how you examined your life so deeply.

  3. Thumb up 4

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    This is fantastic. We have a course at Stanford that is taught by students on human sexuality-it’s awesome. Apparently lots of universities let students teach a one unit course on a topic of their choosing. It would so be cool if every school had one that was as thorough/mind blowing as this one.

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    It sounds like it was an interesting class and a good experience for you. But it kind of drives me nuts to hear about yet another thing that seems to assume that everyone in college is having sex. Hell, I’m a grad student, I’ve been in university for 7 years, and I still haven’t found anyone to have sex with. A class like this would make me feel like a failure as a human being.

    I know that it’s okay to focus on other things (hello, thesis!). I just hate the societal pressure to do relationships and sex in a certain way and on a certain timetable.

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      I didn’t have sex until my last year of my BA… I was nearly 22 years old at the time. And I was pushed into it by my ex. Since that relationship ended I haven’t had sex at all.

      I agree with you about the societal pressure to do things a certain way and on a certain timetable. It’s pointless. I have decided that I am on my own psychological clock and I am not letting anyone else rush me ever again.

  5. Thumb up 4

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    One of my best friends taught a student-taught course at my school about sexuality that seems very similar to this one. Before he started teaching, he asked if he could practice asking some of the questions with me. I was like “ok, you’re my best friend, you know more about my sex life than anyone who isn’t my girlfriend, we can totally do this”. It was unbelievably hard to open myself up to discuss some of the questions he asked. And that was when it was just me and someone who I already trusted and loved, alone.

    I can’t imagine the courage it must have taken you to share yourself with strangers. Thank you so much for having the courage to share with your classmates and again with us.

  6. Thumb up 0

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    Whoa, that class sounds awesome!
    I so much wish I had a class like that back in college. All I did was math and sciences… Which is cool too, but something like that class would have been incredibly useful! Would still be to do it now :)

    I’m impressed by your courage, coming out to a stranger, be it in a written essay, is nerve wracking. And incredibly hard to do. I can’t believe you first came out that way, actually. That’s very impressive, Bravo!

    And thank you for sharing your story with us!

  7. Thumb up 2

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    Oh to take a class on human sexuality in a liberal city. You’re so lucky.

    I took psych of human sexuality while attending a conservative college surrounded by cotton fields in bumfuck Georgia.

    Let me tell you about the time a woman was about to fight me because I was literally the only person in the class who didn’t agree with male circumcision.

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      “Oh to take a class on human sexuality in a liberal city. You’re so lucky”

      Word! I took a human sexuality class at UWyo (a college that somehow manages to be even more conservative than the very conservative town that surrounds it). It was all “neurotransmitters” this and “patterns of behavior” that, very medicalized and scientific to the point where the entire concept of sex felt even more foreign and disconnected from real life (mine and everyone else’s) than it already did. We spent half of one class lecture talking about homosexuality (mainly about the history of the scientific study of and “treatments” for homosexuality up till its removal from the DSM) and it wasn’t mentioned before or after that day in any other context.

      The whole experience with that class actually left me even more confused about and vaguely disgusted with my own sexuality than I was before I took it.

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    Thanks for writing this. Fantastic piece!

    Wow, what a fantastic class. It clearly took a LOT of courage to get through it. I doubt I could have gotten through without bawling every single class.

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    I wish we’d had a class this good at UD. The women’s and gender studies department here is fantastic, in my opinion, and all of the professors work their asses off, but the the university makes it so hard for humanities and social sciences to get any sort of recognition over their precious engineering program or other departments. (I try not to bad mouth other programs for the most part, especially engineering, but in this case, so much truth.) The psych department here would *never* think to do anything like this. Ughh. Your class sounds so fantastic. I’m really glad you and your friends had such an amazing experience and that it gave you the courage that you needed. =) This piece is so incredible.

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    This was such a different experience than what I had in my Human Sexuality course. We had to write a paper about something that pushed our boundaries, but it wasn’t as intense as you’ve described here. I will say the course I took also opened my eyes to maybe having a queer identity at the time. Without it, I probably would have never had the courage to come out to some of my family and friends.

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    Wow, that class sounds intense. I took Human Sexuality during my freshman year of undergrad but there was no small group discussions and I could hide anonymously within the crowd. Our essay was based on our current sexual experiences, and she left it pretty open ended. I didn’t have a problem writing it then, but a year and half later and I probably would’ve had an anxiety attack from all the honest I’d have to deal with in my first relationship with a girl.

    I still don’t know if I’d be able to even pretend to come out to my parents.

  12. Thumb up 1

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    I took a similar class called “Intimacy, Love and Friendship” last semester, offered by the department of gender and culture studies.
    It was just like the title promised – amazing!

    We focused a lot on representation of love and relationship in the media, discussed how people form relationships, questioned the institution of marriage…

    Seriously, take a class like that if you can! It’s fun and you probably gonna take something away for the rest of your life.

    (Also, I kinda developed my first and only teacher’s crush right then and there…)

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    I took this class in 2006 too, and it remains one of my absolute favorite college experiences. (I was so disappointed when they didn’t offer the professor a position to stay on afterwards.) That whole class was my first applied lesson of what a successful safe space could look like.

    My section was in the basement of one of the freshman dorms as well… wonder if we were in the same one!

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    I’m at Vanderbilt, which tries to pretend it’s liberal but really isn’t. The upperclassmen in the GSA warn the newbies about our Human Sexuality class- for a bs psych elective it’s an okay class, but it’s very medical and extremely cis- and hetero-normative. It’s taught by a neuroscience professor who I took neuro 201 with and in that class she taught two slides on the biological basis of homosexuality and only presented data on gay men because “they couldn’t find enough lesbians to study” and apparently that carries into Human Sex, with an extra dose of trans erasure. Your class sounds awesome though!! Maybe if I forward this article to the professor…

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    I’m taking a history of human sexuality course next semester. The professor is very good at pulling historical accounts together with real emotions in my current class with her. I am excited and hope that it turns out to be as influential as the course you described.

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    Oh my god I wish I could have taken that class and had my inevitable breakdown there instead of in the middle of a house party when I realised I was the only girl not in a dress and heels.

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    In that class now! Holy amazing! I love every second of Human Sexuality. It’s one of those classes that honestly changes you as a person and helps you grow more and more everyday. My professor is seriously the best of the bunch and my class always says how we consider ourselves blessed to have gotten the privilege of having him teach us (initially he wasn’t supposed to be our professor, he was a last minute fill in for the semester). Who better to teach a course about Human Sexuality than an actual Sexologist! I have never seen a class so fully engaged in every word a professor says. It’s a discussion based class, and almost like a small little family at this point. He made the environment so comfortable and safe that many people have came out to the class, shared their personal/sexual stories or problems, and our professor even came out to us as a Trans man as well. Needless to say these confessions made us all so much closer to one another and it led us to respect each other 100 times more for everyone’s bravery and honesty, especially our incredible and fearless professor! A great class to end your college career with. I would urge everyone to take a Human Sex course, even if it isn’t a course you need for your major.

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    Keena, I’m glad that you had such a great experience!

    I’m always a bit leery of these classes when they involve being evaluated on this kind of work, though – it’s putting a LOT onto the grad student instructors when grades are enmeshed with exploring new and vulnerable areas of your life.

    These classes are really hard to teach well, in part because each student’s background really shapes their experience in the course – ‘pretending’ to come out is a challenging intellectual exercise for straight students or people who’ve already come out, but (as you wrote) it can be really emotionally charged for closeted or questioning queer folks. When the class is successful at creating truly safe spaces, it can be transformative, but that requires skills that some professors and TAs just don’t have (especially when it comes to things like sexual assault, etc.).

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