Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality

Teaching Content and Encouraging Acceptance in a Human Sexuality Course

Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality

Teaching Content and Encouraging Acceptance in a Human Sexuality Course

Article excerpt

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. …

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