Not your average health class

By Andrea Parr

In a class on how to talk to children about sex, students discuss stages of sexual development and what parents should teach their children. So, should parents teach sexual skills?

“What if they aren’t skilled?” responds one student.

Human Sexuality is more than the typical sex-ed class as it delves past anatomy and into everything from relationships and having “the talk” with kids, to fetishes and porn.

“It changed my perspective because it made me feel so much more comfortable talking about sex,” said Christy Petillo, senior and communication major. “I’m able to talk to my younger sister, who’s 13, and I’m able to answer her questions in a very honest, but not vulgar way.”

The class provides less of the health class perspective and more of a real-life practical one. HED 3400, Human Sexuality, is designed to analyze the role of sex in society and its influence on relationships, including dating and parenting. The class can be explicit in content, but it gives students time for open discussion.

“When you are a little uncomfortable, that’s good because that’s when you learn,” said Dr. Shannon Bertha, who is a sexuality counselor and has been teaching the course at Kean since 2006. She starts the semester with a disclaimer, understanding that some students will be too uncomfortable to continue in the class.

“It’s not a math class and, if it was, this would be inappropriate,” said Bertha.

Students are given options for out-of-class activities and assignments. One option is to keep a journal for the semester in which they pick a sexual behaviour and do it. Students have tried new positions, accessories or even have gone without sex for the semester.

She says students are usually already thinking about it, and the project is “an excuse to do it.” The impact of the assignment often goes beyond the classroom.

“You did this. I just gave the assignment,” Bertha tells students that inform her of the positive affect the assignment had.

An activity option is to visit a sex store. The experience is often a first for students, who will report that the store differs from expectations.

“They realize it’s normal, and see that it’s not just old men,” said Bertha. “It’s just a regular place.”

Often students will say that they had to sit in their car before going in, or will go with their partner or friends.

“It’s not so much about going, but about starting the conversation,” Bertha said. She finds that most students don’t feel that they have someone they can talk with. Sometimes students will stay after class to talk to her.

“Surprisingly, I was about 15 when I knew I wanted to teach people about sex,” said Bertha. She recalls a teacher she had in high school for human sexuality, and the information just stuck. She received her bachelor’s degree in public health from Rutgers.

Bertha initially started with the intention of teaching high school. However, as she continued through school, that changed.

“In college you can say what you like,” said Bertha. “I can construct the lesson plan how I want. There’s a different freedom.”

For example, at the high school level you can show diseased genitalia, but not healthy. Despite the belief that younger people need it more, Bertha says college students still need to know because there are so many myths.

“More than half of every class will think that birth control leads to infertility,” she said as an example of one such myth.

Pursuing the path to teach college required more school than she had initially planned. She went on to NYU for health education with a focus in human sexuality, and a summer abroad in Amsterdam for a course on sexuality and diverse cultures, before getting her Ph.D. in human sexuality in San Francisco.

“I am a sex doctor,” said Bertha, who also helps doctors and nurses become more comfortable with talking to patients about sex. Just seeing her talk about it as a normal subject in a professional manner can help.

“I really like this, I am doing what I wanted to do when I grew up,” said Bertha. The class and assignments can be life changing to some, and she often hears from students about the impact on their lives.

“It’s great to see the end result,” said Bertha. “To see that you’ve made a big impact on someone.”

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