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Let's talk about Sex

How a UW professor is pushing the boundaries of a modern day sex education

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Professor Nicole McNichols teaches the largest and most popular class at UW. Psych 210, a course about human sexuality, has drawn in hundreds of students each quarter that Professor McNichols has taught it.

Your first week in PSYCH 210, Diversity of Human Sexuality, you might know to expect. Rumors about watching porn in class (which happens around week five) zip around UW social circles but beyond that, most students go in blind. Around week two this quarter, professor Nicole McNichols proclaimed the class was going to watch a documentary that “she absolutely loves,” a 50-minute video on the G-spot (which is actually named after a man).

But McNichols’ bubbly attitude to all things sex is what makes her class what it is.

At 720 students, PSYCH 210 is the largest and most popular undergraduate course at the UW. Packed into Kane 130, it takes a lot for McNichols to stand up in front of that many students every day and talk about sex toys and fetishes.

McNichols has taught this class every quarter for the last five years and loves it.

Her students are an amalgamation of psychology majors, chasers of “easy 4.0s,” diversity credits, and a handful who admit to taking the class purely to get laid (a perfectly valid reason, in McNichols’ opinion).

She first started in the field of human sexuality as a TA for Lois McDermott, who taught the class for 30 years. Eventually, McDermott retired and McNichols was asked to take her place.

Her first quarter teaching, she was told she had gotten the job only two weeks before the quarter started. Thrown into the deep end, she didn’t have any time to prepare and taught the class using McDermott’s textbook, slides, assignments, and syllabus. While this matched a class structure she was familiar with, having been a TA for it in the past, it wasn’t right for her. She didn’t like the textbook and found herself disagreeing with the way things were represented.

“I can’t say my first quarter was really that successful,” McNichols said. “I had a textbook that, like most textbooks, was biased it categorized everything as ‘normal’ or ’gone awry.’”

So, she did what any person would do when they don’t like the textbook in front of them: she wrote her own. McNichols’ textbook is an interactive one. There are embedded videos about everything from female masturbation (complete with actual instructional videos) to episodes of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver explaining sex education.

Just like her textbook, McNichols’ syllabus and class structure began to change as well as she decided to incorporate more videos and speakers. Every quarter she holds a transgender panel where members of the community come to tell their stories and answer students’ questions. She also invites a speaker from Babeland (a sex toy shop in Capitol Hill) every quarter where they go over the basics of sex toys and also hold a raffle for free porn.

She made changes both big and small in her curriculum in an attempt to change how people viewed sex and gender. For example, she chose to teach female anatomy before male anatomy. It was a seemingly insignificant choice but one that contradicted most textbooks.

Universities across the country are slowly incorporating sexuality courses into their curriculums. Some of them are even teaching it with McNichols’ textbook, the most surprising of which, given the state’s current political situation, is the University of Georgia.

“The textbook is definitely pushing boundaries in terms of the topics and ideas and videos,” McNichols said. “I tend to think about it like, ‘Wow, if the University of Georgia is teaching it, who wouldn’t?’”

Sex is stigmatized. People find themselves lowering their voices when they get to the three letter s-word in a sentence before popping back up to their regular volume as if even saying the word out loud is horrible. This reluctance to talk about sex and sexuality makes McNichols’ field a controversial but important one.

While a majority of her friends and family are extremely proud of her and happy to see her bringing attention to issues that see so much political and social backlash, choosing to speak so openly about such a heavily stigmatized issue comes with its fair share of people who disagree with her choices.

“There are people who don’t understand why I teach this course. They see it as a joke,” McNichols said. “Or, some people have really strong attitudes of gender and transgender and LGBT issues and feel that teaching students about these things is ‘poisoning their minds.’”

It is for those exact reasons that she does this. When asked what the most rewarding part of her job was, McNichols answered without missing a beat, the students.

“Students come to me at the end of the quarter and thank me for changing their lives and broadening the way that they think about themselves and the world around them in regards to sexuality, gender, and LGBT issues.”

No matter how many people may disagree with her, McNichols stands by this class and how important it is.

Countries such as the Netherlands have begun incorporating sex-positive education into curriculums. This has been shown to result in lower rates of sexually transmitted infections, lower rates of unplanned pregnancies, and sexual violence.

“Students are at an age where they are starting to question core assumptions,” McNichols said. “I am honored and privileged to be a part of that process.”

Reach reporter Ash Shah at Twitter: @itsashshah

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Editor's Note: The original article stated incorrectly that the amount of students who took the class was 440 when it is 720. The change has been made to reflect that.


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