Nearly every seat in Stoddard Hall is taken on a Wednesday evening as instructor Emily Nagoski begins her PowerPoint presentation. Her new class on women’s sexuality was such an immediate hit when it was introduced last fall that its enrollment more than tripled in its first week.
Nagoski describes the two-credit, interdepartmental course as “a sampling platter of sexuality.” Over the course of two hours every Wednesday night, 187 students discussed relationship dynamics, sexual orientation, and even orgasms. Despite the large class size, students didn’t shy away from frank questions. On this night, for example, students bombarded her with questions about the precise differences between transsexual and transgender. They shared their knowledge of inter-sex babies, and asked critical questions about Nagoski’s use of statistical data. “This would only happen when teaching Smithies,” she said in amazement.
Nagoski, whose primary role on campus is director of wellness education, had been giving talks about sex at house teas when she realized that students were starving for information about sexual health. That’s when she hit on the idea of creating a course. When classes began in September, sixty students were enrolled; the number spiked to 198 after the first week. The numbers may have been a surprise, but the intensity of student interest was not. “College students are always interested in sex,” she said. “Students talk about sex a lot on this campus.”
The course covers everything from sexual anatomy and reproduction to how to have an orgasm, while the reading list ranges from books like Paul Joannides’ Guide to Getting it On! to the Boston Women’s Health Collective classic, Our Bodies, Ourselves. For evaluation, students take two exams and write four response papers.
Students say they enjoy Nagoski’s down-to-earth approach to the subject matter. “I like how she’s just so real,” said Katherine Trudeau ’14. “There’s no sugarcoating it, she just tells you how it is.” Seneca Gray ’13 concurs. “It would be like any other health class, but she really loves the subject and it shows,” Gray said.
Nagoski will teach the class again in spring 2012 and continue teaching it every spring. To facilitate classroom discussion, she intends to cap the class at 100. “I’ve taught this to 300 people before at state schools,” Nagoski explained, “but those students weren’t asking me what the evolutionary origin of the hymen was.”
Her goal is for students to feel that they have ownership over their own bodies, to become smarter consumers of popular sexuality in the mainstream media, and to feel empowered to have conversations with medical professionals. “The most important outcomes can’t be measured in the classroom,” Nagoski said, “but will happen in their lives for the next ten years.”
Spring ’11 SAQ