Awkward. Uncomfortable. Embarrassed. That’s how most of us feel when we talk about sex. But in Katrina Pariera’s new course on Sexual Communications, there are no taboo subjects. All topics are on the table, and what’s said in class, stays in class.
By John DiConsiglio
On Day One of her new course on Sexual Communications, Katrina Pariera, assistant professor of communication, opened with an icebreaker. With students still filing into the classroom, uncertain what to expect from a course that promised frank talk on sex, Pariera invited the class to call out words they’d heard for male and female genitalia. “Come on, don’t be shy,” she said. One by one, voices murmured a clinical term or two. Pariera wrote each new word on the board, encouraging the class to speak up. Soon, students were loudly contributing an array of slang, jargon and even scatological speech.
“That’s when I knew this was going to be a good class,” said Aasha Holmes, a senior communications major. “You don’t expect to hear those words in a class. But here, we have an absolutely honest dialogue.”
Pariera's exercise wasn’t meant to shock or embarrass or even induce stifled snickers. Instead, she was making a point that students will spend the rest of the semester investigating: Why do we have so much trouble talking about sex?
“As a society, we are pretty poor sexual communicators,” said Pariera, who is also an assistant professor of sociology. “We treat it as shameful. We can be jokey or ultra-serious about it. But candid, honest discussions are rare.”
Pariera's 26 undergraduate students—all female—examine the ways we do (and don’t) talk about sex, along with the effects these patterns have on our sexual health, attitudes and knowledge. Her syllabus features articles on sexual vocabulary, sex on TV and coming out discussions with parents. She invites a roster of guest speakers to class, including advocates for sex workers, representatives from a national sexual assault hotline and a feminist pornography star.
And while the free-for-all class discussions can hit on everything from abstinence to herpes, Pariera has some ground rules. First, no one is under any obligation to talk about their personal experiences. Second, what’s said in the classroom stays in the classroom.
“What’s learned here leaves here,” Pariera explained. “But what’s said here stays.”
A Class From Scratch
With a research background in health and interpersonal communication, and a focus on parent-child dynamics, Pariera set out to design a course that tackled sex talk head on. But she soon realized there were few existing academic examples to draw from. Textbooks on the subject, not to mention standardized frameworks, simply didn’t exist. “Sexual communication as a field of inquiry is new and remains somewhat undefined,” she explained.
Pariera had to create the class from scratch. She combined elements of human sexuality with gender studies and crafted a syllabus that challenged students’ notions of how sex is discussed in society and among their family, friends and even themselves. Her curriculum is intentionally broad-based; the class divides roughly into three units, covering parent-child sexual communication, including the awkward birds-and-bees talk; sexual negotiations with partners, such as safe-sex appeals and expressing interests and desires; and portrayals of sex in the media.
“The only place we really see sexual communication modeled is on television,” she noted. “And television doesn’t typically do an excellent job, particularly when it comes to condom use or STI status or pleasure or boundaries. It all stays hidden, and that makes it difficult to know how to have these conversations in a candid way.”
Pariera's guest speakers are chosen not just for their expertise but also for their ability to model honest and frank sexual communication in a professional tone. When a spokesperson from the sex worker advocacy group HIPS described the life of D.C. prostitutes, or when the adult filmmaker Tristan Taormino addressed sex-positive pornography, they dispelled myths and corrected stereotypes while simultaneously showing students how to speak frankly and maturely about sex, Pariera said.
The key to the class dynamic, according to junior communication major Lauren Shear, is Pariera's skill at creating a safe, inviting atmosphere where everyone’s views can be shared without judgment. The name-that-genital exercise was initially embarrassing, Shear recalled, but it set the tone for further conversations. “We grew to respect each other and trust one another. We learned that it’s OK to talk about anything in here,” she said.
That trust is especially valuable when the class turns its attention to potentially upsetting topics. During one activity, Pariera asked students to anonymously jot down on Post-It notes any sex messages they may have received over the course of their lives. As she stuck the notes on the white board, the class quickly realized that the positive and educational comments were overwhelmed by critical and disparaging statements. “It was hard to hear,” said Mary Heath, a junior double majoring in dance and communication. “There were a lot of offensive comments. Some were coercive and body-shaming. Others were blatantly racist.”
Pariera’s goal is for her students to leave the class as effective communicators on topics relating to sex. She also hopes that men will begin enrolling in her course when it returns next fall. While many students said that having only women in class facilitated no-holds-barred discussions, Pariera bemoaned a missing perspective—and an opportunity. “Yes, it would be a challenge,” she said. “But this a class that takes on challenges.”