What College Students Should Learn About Sex (Dec, 1967)
What College Students Should Learn About Sex
A leading sex educator attacks the hypocrisy that keeps college students ignorant
By WARREN R. JOHNSON, Ed.D.
The college student of today is the intellectual leadership of the future. He will become the professional person of tomorrow: the teacher, physician, counselor, nurse, lawyer or minister to whom our society will turn for guidance. Only when viewed in the light of his enormous social significance in the future can the importance of his sex education, if any, be properly weighed.
What kind of sex education do college students get? The remarkable achievement of our colleges and universities in participating in the great leap forward of modern science should not blind them to their failure to move in other areas of human welfare. Depressingly, the area of sex education is one in which they can lay claim to creeping rather than leaping.
The college graduate is likely to be no better informed than the high school drop out. As a matter of fact, I recently heard a New York City taxi driver give a young woman more useful advice than she had just received from her physician and minister. I believe that this is a very dangerous state of affairs, considering who the college student is to become.
Is it not strange that sex is of maximum importance to us—individually and collectively—but we are apparently more willing to face the cold emptiness of outer space than the implications of an inquiry into our sexuality, particularly with the young? True, some professors are willing to discuss venereal disease and the structures and functions of the sexual organs; but how many are willing to go beyond this to an exploration of the meaning of being a sexual creature in our contradictory, sex-centered, sex-rejecting society?
This is dangerous territory guarded by some of our most awesome taboos. The investigator or teacher who ventures forth into this no man’s land does so at the risk of provoking and bringing down upon himself a wrath that most teachers do not care to contend with. A professor may safely state his belief in war—which is to say unspeakable suffering and death. But what happens to the professor who advocates sexual happiness for the young or even raises questions about sexuality in the young?
It is not by chance that few of today’s leading sex educators are college or university professors. In this regard, perhaps more than in any other, we are functioning today at intellectual levels which sit grotesquely side by side with the modern social, behavioral and medical sciences. It seems scarcely possible that there can be room in one head for such contrasting rationality and irrationality. But such is the case at this point in our history.
How is this strange situation to be accounted for and what implications are there for college sex education?
The context into which modern sex education at all levels must be fitted is derived from Western man’s long, awkward association with sex. Let us review some of the major features of our sex tradition which derives from early Hebrew and Christian attitudes.
The early tribal Jews were obsessed with the need to increase their numbers; and their religion and laws were structured in such a way as to expand or if possible explode the population. Wives and concubines were enjoined to be fruitful. To waste male seed was to violate the divine law. Death was the penalty for doing so. Woman was to be possessed and respected as valuable property in a starkly patriarchal society. Sex was not rejected or repudiated, but it was strictly regulated.
Centuries later, Christianity was born in Rome; and although it was a “new religion,” its regulations concerning sexual behavior were borrowed directly from those of the ancient Jews. Christianity was transported northward into Europe and with it went the Jewish regulations and taboos against homosexuality, bestiality and other intentional wastages of the seed of life—but a very important something new was added.
The church fathers added to the Jewish regulations that were aimed generally at channeling sexuality toward procreation a new dimension: hatred of sex and womanhood. The association of sex, sin, dirt and guilt were permanently fixed in western man’s mind.
In time, the Judeo-Christian tradition moved on to America, carrying with it the ancient rules governing the expression of sexuality, the ancient taboos concerning non-reproductive sex plus the anti-sexualism, anti-feminism of the early church fathers. These rules became and in essence still are our sex laws; and the ancient prescriptions and taboos about sex as something dirty and nasty are our traditional sex attitudes and ideals of sexual behavior.
Modern society has persisted in pledging its allegiance to these laws and this morality; but it could not, of course, actually live in terms of them. The young and otherwise unmarried know themselves to be sexual creatures even though they must pretend otherwise in the face of continual sex stimulation from advertisements and entertainment and from the biology which has kept the race alive to date by its irresistible demands.
The essential shock of the Kinsey reports was that they showed the fantastic disparity between how people are “supposed” to behave and how they actually behave. The hypocrisy was unveiled in statistical terms. Our sex laws and sexual morality have little relationship to the real world in which we live.
And so we dangle peculiarly and grotesquely from the tattered end of a sexual tradition molded by circumstances astronomically distant from our own.
Strange to say, many ministers have stepped into the “real” world, have found it a highly sexual world and are showing a greater willingness to face up to, admit facing up to, and undertake to do something about this situation than are most professors. I know this to be true because of my many contacts with ministers.
They are willing to face up to an excruciating examination of our sexual morality tradition. Professors, like many physicians, are in a better position to restrict their powers of disciplined thought to their own specialties and to avoid the implications of sex and sex problems.
In broad terms, what should college level sex education include? I think that it should include a number of aspects. The first is what I call “remedial” sex education. This has to do especially with clearing up misconceptions about sex and talking about things that should have been talked about long before. College students as human beings, as prospective professional people, as the most “educated” of our future citizenry, as husbands, wives and parents—and as the intellectual leadership of the future—should not be carriers of the poisonous humbug still commonly associated with sexual intercourse, male and female sex roles, menstruation, masturbation, homosexuality, menopause, and so on. The fact is that they frequently are such carriers, as studies of even medical students, nursing students, and teachers in training have indicated.
Secondly, for their own good and that of others they may influence in the present or future, college students should be encouraged to examine, coolly and rationally, some choices confronting them. Two such sets of choices that virtually all young women must make are as follows.
First, there is the choice as to whether or not to engage in premarital sexual intercourse. If the answer is yes, there is the further question of whether or not to insist upon the use of an effective contraceptive. If the answer to this question is no, there is the further question of what is to be done about the pregnancy that is likely to occur. And so on to the further choices in what is so often the tragically inevitable sequence. Clearly, these are and will continue to be choices that the individual must make.
Another set of choices for each young woman is as follows. Should I marry? In spite of enormous cultural and social pressure to do so. is this really my own wisest choice, considering the hard fact that marriage no longer means what it always used to mean—and I do not really need a husband as the women who went before me did?
Once married, should I have children? That is, am I qualified by interest, training, etc., for parenthood? After all, children too have lost much of their historical significance, as marriage has. What would they mean to me—and what would my having them mean to them and my society? Again, the individual must decide.
Another aspect of college level sex education has to do with examining our present patterns of sexual behavior in the light of the best available scientific information. College students should discuss such questions as: How in the world did we get this way? What alternate possibilities are there? How might we best move from here educationally and in our child rearing practices? What changes are needed in the comic book sex laws we flounder in?
Finally, whatever else a college sex education should do for young men and women, it should educate them in terms of some sex-related matters of fundamental importance to human relations.
That is, it should help them to understand and accept themselves and each other as sexual creatures, physically and psychologically, and it should help them to understand human sexuality as a major factor in the dynamics of human personality functioning from infancy to death.
It should also help them to perceive their responsibilities as sexual human beings, particularly if they are to become parents and/or professional persons; it should help them to realize they have more in common as human beings than differences as sexes. And it should help them to better understand the circumstances lying behind our traditional sexual morality, attitudes, practices, laws and sex education— to the end that the existing incredible mess receive rational attention.
What I am saying is that our sex attitudes, practices and laws have application to a world and to a human nature that do not exist; that traditional attitudes toward sex have crippled modern man in so far as his understanding of and coming to terms with his sexual self is concerned; and that as a result, the intellectual leadership of the future, our college students of today, are simply not being systematically qualified to assume that leadership in molding a new and realistic pattern of sexual behavior.
Dr. Johnson is head of the Department of Health Education at the University of Maryland and the author of Human Sex and Sex Education.