How Far is Too Far in a College Sexuality Course?

Middle school and high school sexuality courses frequently become the subject of controversy most often because parents become upset after they learn of something said or done in class that they deem too explicit. By the time young people get to college, however, much of this potential for controversy fades for a number of reasons; parents are less involved, it is more acceptable for college students to be sexually active, and there is an understanding that human sexuality courses are voluntary — students know what they are getting into. Still, every once and awhile, the national media or perhaps worse a state politician gets wind of something that has happened in a college classroom and we start to debate again how far is too far in college sex education.

We may remember last year when a professor at Northwestern held a supplemental session after his human sexuality class in which a woman was stimulated with a motorized dildo referred to as a “fucksaw” by a man who operated sex-toy tours in Chicago (neither were students) in front of about 120 students. Some people on campus — and around the country once the news broke — were outraged by this presentation which they felt was completely inappropriate for an academic setting. Others felt that no one had the right to complain since attendance was not mandatory, nothing in the session would be covered on the exam, and all students had been warned multiple times about the explicit nature of the presentation. The professor and other educators also argued that the presentation had education value as it taught students about sexual arousal and sexual diversity.   

This event sparked some interesting dialogue about where we draw the line when it comes to educating college students about sexuality. (See what some RHRC contributors had to say about this controversy here.) Most sexuality educators I spoke with came down on the side of the professor and of more information. They felt that explicit presentations — be they live action or videos — do help educate young people. Though I’m always wary of anything that casts sexuality educators as too extreme because I think it can hurt the field over time, in this case I agreed. While I never hosted a live presentation, the first time I taught a college-level human sexuality course I remember showing a somewhat explicit video in class. A young woman came up to me afterward and thanked me. She said she was engaged to be married but, “I had no idea that people did that. I’m so glad I know now.”

A new controversy coming from a community college in Nevada has sexuality educators and others asking these questions once again. In this case, a student has filed a law suit claiming that the instructor in her human sexuality class created a “sexually hostile class environment.” One of the main issues in her complaint is an assignment called, “A Sexual Case Study … You!” which according to the student required her “to divulge personal information including past sexual abuse, homosexual behavior, and sexual preferences.” The student filing the complaint (who is described as over 60 years of age) had been abused as a child and was terrified of discussing this in the assignment but when she asked for an alternate assignment the professor refused and told her the “project would be cathartic.”

Other assignments were also of a personal nature including three journal entries in which students were to write about their own body image, turn ons, and orgasms. The professor said he would not read the journals in their entirety because they were so personal but that he would scan them to make sure students covered all of the topics. 

I did not use these kinds of personal assignments when I taught college courses preferring instead to ask students analyze characters in movies or books so that we could talk about the issues without the disclosure of actual experiences. That said, many of my colleagues who I respect immensely do use these assignments and find them very valuable. When I read of this story, I reached out to them to ask why they had students complete such projects and if they offered alternatives to students who were uncomfortable. Here are some of the answers I received.

I have had a “Sexual Self-Analysis” as a “required” part of my undergrad sexuality class for eight years. Students often dread it. We talk about it A LOT before it is due half way through the semester. They have lots of latitude about what they address as long as at least five to six topics are addressed and they must be both descriptive and reflective about the impact of their experience in their life as a sexual being to date on who they are now…I tell them I won’t know if they make it all up, and that I won’t comment on the contents generally, it is an activity they do for themselves essentially…. I encourage them to take care of themselves for all aspects of the class and invite them to pass on anything asked of them, if it’s for a percent of the grade we can talk about it….I have consistently had nearly across the board gratitude that it was done afterwards. We know what can be learned from examined experience. Without examination experience can be more confusing than necessary.   

I do use assignments (reflection papers) that generally involve self-disclosure, but the students are always in control of how much and what they reveal, which I think is essential. I encourage that students reflect on how the course materials impact them personally, but I also encourage them to respect their own boundaries.  

The first assignment in my Women’s Sexualities class is a sexual autobiography. This helps set the tone that the course will not be just a series of lectures in which they take notes, but an opportunity to apply (and test) theories about sexuality in personally meaningful ways. There are specific guidelines for the assignment, generally asking students to address Carrera’s “cornerstones” of sexuality. I also delineate the steps I will take to protect their papers from being seen by anyone other than me.  The assignment sheet explicitly says that no one need reveal uncomfortable personal experiences if they do not want to, and includes referral information for counseling services. In addition, students have the option of completing the assignment as a sexual biography, rather than autobiography. In other words, they can find and interview someone else, which frees them from having to address their own sexual life stories. In almost 15 years of doing this assignment, I have only had one student exercise that option…but I’m glad it’s there.

My students journal but they control what they disclose. I have them reflect on their learning each week and offer specific prompts like, “how would you feel if a person you were dating disclosed a transgender identity?” they always have an option to answer in a more de-personalized way. 

While many of my colleagues use personal assignments and defended the value of such work, all of them thought this particular professor went too far by forcing students to disclose specific personal information.  Here is some of what they said about this.

As a professor, if I was to “force” them to disclose, I feel that I would be violating their trust in me and their trust in themselves, and would be losing an opportunity to role model respect.   In the end, many of my students do disclose highly personal information, but it is my hope that they find it empowering and therapeutic.  

The essence of the darker sides of sexuality usually revolves around the inability to exercise choice and control. By forcing someone to do an assignment with no other option, one is replicating that very essence of abusive sexuality.

I believe that the professor is WAY off base.  NOBODY has a right to DEMAND self-disclosure, particularly of an intimate nature.  PERIOD.  EXCLAMATION POINT!!

Though most of my colleagues agree that this particular professor crossed a line, thus far all of the student’s complaints have been dismissed. Her initial complaint to the professor was dismissed with him saying that she had signed an acknowledgement of the course content at the beginning of the semester. He also suggested that she drop out of the course saying that “he didn’t think she was able to fully commit to the course experience.”  The administration was similarly dismissive though it claims to have investigated the situation by talking to students and reviewing the syllabi going a back a few years. 

The school’s investigator concluded: “…since the course was an elective and all students were informed about the nature of course material and had signed a waiver, there was no evidence of unwelcome sexual harassment.” The student went on to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, “alleging that the college discriminated against her on the basis of sex by subjecting her to sexual harassment.” This was also dismissed with the department saying it would defer to the college’s decision.  On June 25th the student filed suit against the school and the professor asking for over $75,000 in damages.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of the lawsuit.  In the meantime, however, there seems to be a general consensus that this professor went too far and I would hope that come this fall he modifies his curriculum so that no other students are forced to divulge traumatic information.

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  • robert-ludwig

    Why didn’t she simply drop the class.  Unless this is some kind of major for her these classes are optional.  If it was her major, I question her ability to complete the curriculum.

  • bytheway

    I’d be very interested in hearing the professor’s side of the story – all we have is what the student says the professor/ administration did.  I suspect there is more to the story, and wouldn’t condemn the professor as having crossed the line until he has had a chance to explain his side. 


  • j-rae

    **when she for an alternate assignment the professor refused and told her the “project would be cathartic.”**


    Unless the professor was her personal psychologist he would have no way of knowing if doing this assignment would be cathartic for her or trigger a major meltdown.

    Demanding that a student reveal such personal and painful details in writing and turn it in to a stranger, which is what the professor is, is unreasonable and seems to me to be abusive.

    I applaud her for sueing.

  • lisac

    I don’t like the instructor’s pedagogy, but “sexual harassment” and “discrimination” have specific definitions, and it doesn’t seem to me that this case falls within those definitions.  To make an imperfect analogy: if you sign up for weight training or martial arts classes at a gym (and I’m assuming a university phys ed class works the same way), you sign a contract stating that you accept that the instruction may include someone touching or moving your body.  If turning in a journal of sexual self-discovery is a pedagogically valid exercise, students are told about it up front, and the instructor isn’t reading it, I don’t think it’s sexual harassment any more than it is harassment for a fitness instructor to grasp your shoulders and guide them into the correct position.  Which doesn’t mean that I agree with it.


    It looks to me like this is closer to an ADA violation than sexual discrimination.  For example, if a student had a medically-documented anxiety disorder, s/he would have a case against a university if it did not allow her or him a reasonable alternative to taking a timed in-class test.  I think this is in principle the same thing, but it probably isn’t according to the letter of the law.

  • marlowe28

    This is the most reasonable article that I’ve read on this story. Many of the comments in the story which was posted on a feminist site were distressing. Few of the commenters understood how abusive this professor was to demand that students reveal their sexual history for a grade. It also is clear that no one is listening to her and that this kind of abuse is likely to continue at this institution.


    She did drop the class, Robert Ludwig, and was denigrated to the rest of the class when she made that choice.


    Lisa C, this is clearly sexual harassment. Forcing students to discuss their own sex lives is harassment. Telling them that they will fail the class if they refuse to do so is sexual discrimination.


    I hope the student makes enough money to force the school to get rid of that sexually abusive professor and impact the salaries of the two administrators who defended him.

  • johann7

    I’ve taken a degree’s worth of classes in Women’s Studies and human sexuality (cross-listed in any number of disciplines including biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political theory, English literature, and global studies), and I’ve NEVER had a class that required disclosure of one’s own sexual history. In fact, most of my professors went well out of their way to make it clear that people should only share what they felt comfortable with. Using a power relationship (professor-student, for example) to coerce disclosure of sexual history is absolutely sexual harassment – the fact that the professor (in the case the potential harasser) thinks that there’s a good reason for the disclosure doesn’t matter. While I would hope that students apply what they learn in classes to their own lives and behavior, studying human sexuality in no way requires holding one’s own sexual history up for scrutiny (until we come to doing research oneself, in which case explicitly defining one’s positionalities is necessary to contextualize one’s work and allow for the reader to account for potentila researcher biases). The professor isn’t running a group therapy session – whether the exercise is cathartic or not doesn’t matter in the least.