Zooming into Sex Ed

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Nancy Joseph 10/19/2020 October 2020 Perspectives

Nicole McNichols’ mastery of sex education began with an injury.

McNichols, now an associate teaching professor in the UW Department of Psychology, was a new hire when the professor teaching a course on human sexuality suffered a leg injury. It was just weeks before the start of a new quarter, and McNichols was asked to fill in.

“I’ve always been able to talk easily about things that other people find embarrassing,” says Nicole McNichols. “My goal is to put students at ease and make them relax.” 

“I had a PhD in social psychology and had been a teaching assistant for the course for several years as a graduate student. I was also pregnant at the time, so I think they figured I at least had rudimentary knowledge,” McNichols jokes. “Still, I suffered daily from imposter syndrome the first time I taught the class.”

The night before each lecture, McNichols spent hours talking with Professor Lois McDermott — who had taught the course for decades — to prepare. “Without her shoulders to stand on I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says McNichols.  When McDermott retired the following year, McNichols officially inherited the class, PSYCH 210: The Diversity of Human Sexuality — and grew it into the largest course in the University’s history.

UW’s Most Popular Course

In McNichols’ first few years teaching PSYCH 210, enrollment nearly doubled until the course regularly filled the University’s largest lecture hall, 720-seat Roethke Auditorium in Kane Hall. Then UW courses went online in spring 2020 due to COVID-19, and McNichols decided to expand the enrollment to 900 students. It filled almost immediately, so she upped the enrollment to 1,000. When it quickly filled again, she set a final limit of 1,200 students. When the course opened for fall quarter enrollment, the 1,200 seats again went fast.

Part of the course’s appeal is the topic — can any student resist a course about sex? — but McNichols’ teaching style is also a major factor. “I’ve always been able to talk easily about things that other people find embarrassing,” she says. “My goal is to put students at ease and make them relax. I believe this lowers their defensiveness, which helps them challenge their current perspectives.” 

My course aims to be sex-positive and to reject all shame and stigma.

Nicole McNichols Associate Teaching Professor, Psychology

Despite her ease with uncomfortable topics, McNichols’ first few quarters teaching the course were humbling. She used a textbook that frustrated students, who let her know that their own perspectives and experiences were not being represented. “Most human sexuality texts currently on the market contain a lot of bias and stigma," says McNichols. "I chose what seemed to be the ‘best bad’ one available, but I still got a lot of push-back from students, and rightly so.”

McNichols ditched the textbook and revised the course, adding new topics and making many smaller adjustments in response to students’ concerns. (See McNichols’ Tedx Talk, below, about revising the course.) Those changes led McNichols to co-author an online textbook (with Professor Matt Numer of Dalhousie University) that can be easily modified as needed, with links to articles, videos, podcasts and other timely content. Her text has since been adopted by more than 20 colleges and universities across the U.S and Canada.

“I wanted to provide comprehensive and medically accurate information representing a diverse range of perspectives,” says McNichols. “My course aims to be sex-positive and to reject all shame and stigma.”  During class and throughout homework assignments, students complete anonymous open discussion questions and opinion polls, forcing them to consider how the concepts apply to themselves and their classmates.  The most popular feature allows students to ask anonymous questions — everyone’s favorite part of class. 


A Message of Acceptance

PYCH 210 covers a wide range of topics, including anatomy, sex and gender, sexual orientation, sexual relationships, sexual arousal and behavior, sexual harassment and assault, sex work (including pornography) and much more. McNichols views the course as a celebration of diversity and acceptance. Several class sessions feature expert speakers and guest panelists who humanize aspects of sexuality that might be unfamiliar to students. A transgender panel includes guests ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, with vastly different life experiences. Panelists representing polyamory and BDSM (bondage-dominance-sadism-masochism) speak eloquently about their sexual choices and the importance of consent in any sexual encounter.

Consent is a frequent topic throughout the quarter. McNichols stresses that sexual consent is critical and can even lead to more pleasurable sex.  To further encourage students, she offers suggestions for making consent conversations sexy and fun, as opposed to “a buzzkill that ruins the mood.”

Such information is particularly important given that many students come to the class having never had a formal sex education class. (Sex education is not federally mandated and is not currently required in Washington state). “A lot of my students only know about sex from viewing online pornography that shows unrealistic and sometimes dangerous portrayals of sex,” says McNichols. “It’s important for them to see what real bodies and real sex look like in healthy, consenting contexts and relationships.”

This quarter, McNichols is once again communicating these messages on Zoom rather than on campus. While she misses the energy of a packed Kane Hall classroom, she recognizes that some students may be more comfortable taking her course in a more anonymous online format. “An online format may actually be perfect for the student who would otherwise be too shy to take this class in person,” she says. She is now working with her department to explore the possibility of maintaining the 1,200-student enrollment when classes are once again held on campus, by offering an online section in tandem with the in-person course.

Whatever the format, McNichols always looks forward to teaching. Given that sexuality is an integral part of one’s identity and relationships, she believes her course is making a meaningful difference in students’ lives.

“So many students write me emails after the course or tell me in office hours just what a difference the course has made for them, how much it’s opened their eyes and changed how they think about the world as well as themselves,” she says. “I honestly can’t imagine another career that could give me this level of joy and satisfaction.”

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