"Draw Your Orgasm" and Other Skeevy College Homework Assignments That Might Be Sexual Harassment

Karen Royce recently filed suit against a Nevada college, claiming that assignments in a human sexuality class constituted sexual harassment.

Jul 2, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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Perhaps this would have been better illustrated with a flowchart.

Today in college classes that were not offered In My Day (before the turn of the millennia, like, in the late 90s), we have Karen Royce, an aspiring social worker, who took an elective class in human sexuality -- and got a lot more than she bargained for.

On June 25, Royce filed suit in U.S. District Court on of Nevada after the class instructor and college allegedly dismissed her complaints that the class assignments constituted sexual harassment.

When I was 15, I continued to take classes at my high school, but I also took a full-time course load at my local community college. Community colleges serve many purposes, but they are often jumping off points for nontraditional students to get a solid foundation before moving on to a four-year university. There weren't a lot of other high school kids when I went, but there were a lot of return-to-college students -- usually older women, which I note only because Royce is 60.

Human sexuality is one of those classes that I'd have signed up for in a heartbeat, if it had been offered at my school. I'd have signed up out of genuine academic interest, of course. But I'd also have secretly hoped for some kinky conversation because, hey, we didn't have the Internet at home. Where else was I going to learn about sex?

In actuality, the majority of human sexuality courses seem to cover a blend of psychology and sociology. With notable exceptions (I'm looking at you, UC Berkeley), the courses take a theoretical approach, looking at important things like historical and cultural perspectives on sex, stages of development as children mature, and the construction of gender and gender roles in social narratives.

I could go on, because I love to roll around in that sort of academicky word pile, but titillating myself with the language of theoretical discourse might not actually be appropriate here.

Because the class Royce found herself in involved assignments like doubling how often she masturbated (which she says she doesn't do -- two times zero is still zero!) and a final paper that serves as a case study of the student's sexual history, including the documentation of things like sexual abuse and fetishes.

That sounds like an awesome sex-positive exploratory workshop. I would totally go to that if, instead of looking at our vaginas with hand-held mirrors, the class would be devoted to documenting personal history so that we could better understand our own patterns and actions and preferences. And -- I think it should go without saying -- we would have to option to keep it private. Sexual abuse stories -- honestly, any personal story about our own sexual history but abuse stories in particular -- are not owed to anyone.

Royce asked for alternate assignments and was denied. She dropped the course after attending four classes; she filed her complaint because she feels the assignments constitute sexual harassment.

I'm torn on that part. On the surface, I'm all "Those assignments are fucked up, man." Especially because an older white dude is teaching and, honestly, experience has taught me that there are often some weird power dynamics in play when older white dudes are at the podium. At the same time, I don't know if I can go as far as Royce's attorney, who has made remarks about how the instructor must be setting up young coeds for later predation.

I'm also not sure that "no one else has complained" is really a valid marker of whether or not the class is designed appropriately. I mean, I'm a huge (heh, pun) believer that the personal is political and the political is personal, but this course seems to explicitly blur those lines, with the emphasis on explicit.

Do these assignments count as sexual harassment when Royce signed up for the class as a voluntary elective? What I want to know before I try to answer that is if she was past the withdrawal period and whether or not the college refunded her money. If she signed up expecting one sort of thing and got another, hey, that's fair enough. That's what the withdrawal period is for.

Beyond that, I really want to see the syllabus.

But I found the course description in the community college class catalog:

I: Catalog Course Description

Covers major topics in human sexuality such as gender, sexual anatomy, sexually-transmitted diseases, sexual response and disorders, sexual orientation, sexual coercion, and commercial sex.

II: Course Objectives

The course objectives have been aligned with the recommended outcomes from the American Psychological Association and the WNC requirements for freshman level general education courses. The outcomes students are expected to attain are:

  • Knowledge of the psychological theories and research for the major topics in human sexuality. 
  • Ability to differentiate variations in normal human sexuality from sexual disorders, including cultural influences.
  • Familiarity with research methods and ethical considerations appropriate for the study of human sexuality.
  • Ability to apply course materials to case studies and their own sexual development.

There's that line about applying course materials to case studies and their own sexual development, but that's the only hint that, uh, self study (if you get my drift) is an important part of the course.

There ARE other courses like this, at major universities around the country. There are also safeguards in place to keep skeevy things from happening, such as your professor knowing about your jerk-off habits. Systems that keep student experiences anonymous seem like a responsible approach to me, especially in a situation where a student is participating of their own free will.

When I think back to my community college days, though, I am reminded that community colleges are often not quite as rigorous when it comes to designing those sorts of courses. I'm not slamming community colleges -- they provide some amazing opportunities. I just think it's important to acknowledge that, even if this isn't considered sexual harassment, the college probably ought to be taking the complaint seriously enough to redesign the way the class is run. I don't get the impression that they are -- and that is seriously bothering me.

The human sexuality class at Western Nevada College is no longer something a dual-enrollment student can take -- that was one of the concerns brought up after Royce's initial complaint. And the instructor -- as well as the other faculty members -- has kept his mouth shut to the press, funneling all inquiries through the college's legal counsel.

There's also, according to said legal counsel, been an outpouring of support from students who took the course and found it valuable.

As I said, I'm not sure that in and of itself means this class is being run in the right way -- but I am willing to believe that students are learning some valuable things about themselves. Sex -- whether we have it or not -- is a big part of the human experience. It's part of our culture and our interactions. We use sex as a weapon (and I'm not talking about the stereotype of women refusing to put out until they get their way) and as a sale technique. We are surrounded by it even as we seem culturally ashamed of it.

Talking about and learning about human sexuality as it pertains to our own individual experiences may very well be a class that results in incredible personal growth (and orgasms) but I don't think you can spring that on someone. And I don't think you can teach that on a college campus without being highly aware of the potential for seriously inappropriate power dynamics. Hot For Teacher isn't just a great Van Halen song, you know?

When I was 15, I'm not sure I'd have been equipped to say, hey, this is crossing some boundaries. I might not have even really recognized that there were boundaries being crossed, honestly. That's not because I was particularly naive. It's because we live in a culture that teaches young girls their sexuality is not actually their own. At 60, it sounds like Royce has the life experience to make that call. 

The class is still being taught and Royce is continuing to pursue her education. And I'm left with an uneasy feeling about the whole thing.