I recently had what I like to call my ‘gay week.’ It started on a Friday when I went to attend Gay Pride at Faneuil Hall in Boston, followed by seeing Kathy Griffin (a comedian loved by gays). The following Wednesday I went to see the Indigo Girls (an indie rock group made up of two lesbians, Emily and Amy), and finished it off with my friend’s gay support meeting on the next Friday. I went to the meeting to report on the results of the data I had collected from the gay men in that group about a year before. Although there are many things different about the gay community, one of the most striking differences I noticed at all these different venues was the openness with which the gay community discusses sex.
As teachers of evolution, one of the most common and most sensitive topics we discuss is sex. After seeing how open the gay community is when talking about sex, I wondered how we could make our students more open to talking and thinking about sex. The following are some suggestions I have come up with, but I would encourage other teachers to post more suggestions as well.
- Create an open atmosphere. I think as teachers, we all strive to have a welcome and open atmosphere, where students feel free to discuss their opinions openly. However, when we begin to discuss more sensitive topics, like sex, I think we realize just how tenuous this open atmosphere is. Some common suggestions include talking with students casually before class begins (this means actually entering the classroom 10 minutes before class), calling students by their first names and allowing students to call you by your first name, and encouraging students when they share their opinions, thoughts, and questions by maintaining eye contact and thanking students for their participation.
- Don’t create unnecessary tension. Sometimes we forget that students do always like to share about their lives, especially their sex lives, so I think it best to avoid ‘poll’ type questions like “How many of you have been cheated on, or cheated on someone else.” A better way to get this information is to use index cards, where students can answer or ask questions of a sensitive nature anonymously, and it allows you to edit student answers and questions without students knowing by just passing over an index card.
- Start off slow. I wouldn’t recommend jumping in with the shape of the human penis, or menstrual cycle differences instead start with the innocuous and fun topics of attraction or jealousy, so students have a chance to get comfortable talking about some mild topics before the more personal topics arise.
- Be professional, but not too professional. Unfortunately, for men this seems to be an important point. I have had many students characterize male professors as ‘dirty old men’ because of the way they joked about sex. I think students like somewhat of a professional tone when talking about sex to help them feel comfortable, but they also enjoy some humor too. For example, when I discuss some of the early theories on kamikaze sperm, I act out the sperms with silly voices. The students love seeing me make a fool of myself.
- Be honest and open. Students appreciate when you tell them about being uncomfortable. For example, I tell my students about a conference where I saw Becky Burch discuss the shape of a male penis. I have to admit I was mortified at first, seeing the videos of dildos penetrating condoms, but interested as well. I use this as a way to help the students realize that it is okay to be embarrassed and okay to be interested in sex.
I think it is very important for students of psychology, and particularly evolutionary psychology, to be able to talk about and be knowledgeable about sex. As educators, the responsibility for making these students comfortable is on our shoulders. I would love to hear what other suggestions you have for creating an atmosphere conducive to sensitive discussions, whether related to sex or not.