Teaching content and encouraging acceptance in a human sexuality course.

Author:Baugh, Stacey-Ann

The undergraduate experience is a time of learning, exploration, and growth for students, in part due to the exposure to large amounts of new information from a variety of sources. In addition to the knowledge gains inherent in an undergraduate education, there is also an important reference group effect (Kelley, 1952; Singer, 1981). Well supported by empirical data, the reference group effect refers to the influence that belonging to a group can have on an individual's attitudes and behaviors (Singer, 1981). Consequently, colleges and universities act as socializing institutions and as a result, students are likely to graduate with changed attitudes and values (Feldman and Newcomb, 1969). This effect can occur via the influence of peer groups as well as faculty reference groups and therefore can occur either in or out of the classroom. Furthermore, there is evidence that these effects are robust and long lasting. Newcomb's classic study of the attitudes of women at Bennington College in the late 1940's demonstrated not only a fundamental shift in their political attitudes but also that these new attitudes remained consistent for at least 25 years after graduation (Newcomb, 1943; Newcomb, Koenig, Flacks, & Warwick, 1967).

In addition to the broader reference group effect that might occur in undergraduate courses, experiences in particular classrooms might offer their own unique opportunities for change. Certain courses often have important secondary objectives in addition to their content specific goals. Diversity courses, for example, frequently have a goal of improving students' understanding of privilege, inequality, and prejudice with the aim of producing socially conscious citizens (hooks, 1994). Case and Stewart (2010) found that students in a diversity course expressed an increase in awareness of heterosexual privilege as well as greater support for same-sex marriage compared to their colleagues in other psychology or women's studies courses, suggesting that specific content may result in specific attitudinal changes.

A course in human sexuality has the potential to provide valuable information about the function of the sexual anatomy, pregnancy and childbirth, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual dysfunctions as well as to expose students to the range of sexual behaviors enjoyed by humans. Secondary goals might include increasing students' appreciation of sexual diversity, exposing them to different perspectives, increasing acceptance for other peoples' behaviors, and/or changing their attitudes regarding their own behaviors. Story (1979) was among the first to empirically examine the impact of a course on human sexuality on students' attitudes by asking students to rate how they felt about themselves and other people engaging in a variety of sexual behaviors (masturbation, oral sex, group-sex, sex during menstrual flow, etc.). Story (1979) found that students who took the human sexuality course developed attitudes that were more accepting and that this acceptance persisted far beyond the end of the semester. These results were in keeping with other researchers at the time who likewise found significant changes in general attitudes following human sexuality courses (Diamond, 1976; Garrard, Vaitkus, Held, & Chilgren, 1976; Gunderson & McCary, 1980; Rees & Zimmerman, 1974; Schnarch & Jones, 1981; Wanlass, Kilmann, Bella & Tarnowski, 1983).

Much of the initial research examining the impact of human sexuality courses was conducted in the 1970's and 80s. Since then, society has changed significantly in a number of ways that might diminish the impact of an undergraduate course focusing on sex and sexuality. The increase in sexuality education classes available at the middle and high school levels might make the knowledge gains of an undergraduate human sexuality course less compelling. In addition, compared to the 1970's and 80's, young people are exposed to more sexual content outside of the classroom. In particular, the widespread use of the internet has made a variety of sexual content and information more readily available (Doring, 2009). These changes result in a generation of students who likely know much more about sex than the generation of students that Story (1979) and other researchers examined. Therefore, this research aims to provide an up-to-date assessment of whether an undergraduate course on human sexuality can still significantly increase students' knowledge and whether it can influence their attitudes.

A variety of other social and cultural changes have taken place since the initial research in the 1970's and 80's. Notably, society has become more accepting of gays and lesbians (Newport, 2001) resulting in an increased number of openly homosexual individuals, increasing number of states allowing same sex marriage, and a push for greater acceptance of gays and lesbians serving in the US military. Despite these changes, the issue of equality for gays and lesbians remains a hotly debated and sensitive social topic. Consequently, many of the more recent studies examining the effect of human sexuality courses focus more exclusively on student attitudes towards this specific issue. Chonody, Siebert, and Rutledge (2009) found that participants reported more acceptance in their attitudes toward gays and lesbians following a prepared educational unit on sexual orientation. Likewise, Rogers, McRee, and Antz (2009) found that levels of sexual prejudice were significantly reduced following an undergraduate human sexuality course, which the authors suggest is at least partly due to the factual knowledge provided in the course curriculum. Certainly, sexual orientation is an important and socially relevant topic for a sexuality course to focus on. However, sexual orientation is not the only potentially controversial sexual behavior for which we might want to increase students' acceptance. Therefore, this research is focused on attitudes related to a wide range of sexual behaviors including masturbation, oral sex, and group sex in addition to attitudes related to homosexuality.

Although the majority of studies have found a significant effect of a human sexuality course on participants' attitudes, some research suggests that this influence is more apparent for specific groups. Weis, Rabinowitz, and Ruckstuhl (1992) found that females and younger students were more likely to experience shifts in their sexual attitudes to become more accepting, a finding they explain as due to the more restricted social norms of their younger, female, and religious participants. The link between students' attitudes towards specific sexual behaviors and their overall social norms is also suggested by Wright and Cullen (2001) who extended the assessment of a human sexuality course's impact and demonstrated that it influenced not only homophobia but also sexual conservatism and erotophobia--the learned tendency to respond negatively to sexual cues (Fischer, Byrne, White, & Kelley, 1988). This suggests that perhaps young women with more traditional social norms are the most likely to have their attitudes changed by a human sexuality course.

This research returns to a broader consideration of sexual attitudes and asks about the kinds of behaviors that Story (1979) and others asked about, for example oral sex, masturbation, and group sex. In addition, we included other behaviors such as using sex toys and watching porn, as well as more modern behaviors, such as "sexting." This study aimed to investigate whether an upper level seminar in human sexuality would increase students' content related knowledge and whether it would promote acceptance and a greater appreciation for the varieties of typical human sexual behavior in women.


Like most undergraduate courses, the main purpose of our human sexuality course was to...

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