Why I Teach Human Sexuality

HSX Fall 2013 Newsletter Item

Gilbert Herdt, PhD - HSX Department Chair and Professor

Over the course of a long career we academics get asked and ask each other so many questions about research and teaching that the question, “Why do you teach sexuality?” may not seem odd until it comes from your dean, or department chair, or the colleague charged with evaluating promotion. It stopped happening until a few months ago at the time of an announcement of a new PhD program in human sexuality.[i]  I used to say, “Because we need an open and honest conversation about sexuality in this country!”[ii] Teaching sexuality for my generation started as much by accident as intention, not only, as some scholars argue, that we never had a course in sexuality ourselves, and like the biologist Kinsey, had to overcome the folk belief that “sex is natural—leave it to the biologists.”[iii] It was a convenient fiction because the topic was taboo, best left to the doctors. Later however, this became the subject of liberation, of identity politics—whether by sexual orientation, race, gender or social class, and then of HIV activism, or transgender activism.

I’d always wanted to create a program in human sexuality at the PhD level, but until recently, it was impossible to imagine such a thing in the US, but why? Ironically, however, when some scholars “taught” sexuality in the US, they tended toward theory in advancing rights, which was often criticized by international colleagues as being too far removed from the messy marketplace of society. Today I believe that these topics are merging in interesting ways that bode well for sexual literacy in all its myriad forms, and I have tried to put into practice what I preach through creation of a new doctoral program in holistic sexuality.

I never gave up my dream to help create a doctorate in human sexuality that would enable a new generation of people to teach and learn sexual literacy and to become the agents of change in their own society. In 2013 the California Institute for Integral Studies created such a new doctoral program in human sexuality. Today I teach sexuality to graduate and undergraduate students because they desperately want this education, are hungry for an open, honest dialogue about such issues, and like many of their peers among Generation Y, and the Millennium Generation, want to holistically combine all aspects of their lives with sexual literacy to achieve well-being. We have known for years that this training was generally lacking in clinical programs, whether medical or psychological, and there has never been a greater need to integrate all of these aspects of teaching into comprehensive training programs that can bridge clinical practice and policy leadership. As one colleague from the American Psychological Association put it, there has never been a continuing context through which clinicians could learn from policy-makers about how laws and policies, such as same sex marriage laws, impact on individual lives, or a program in which policy makers would learn from clinicians the problems in people’s psyches, relationships, families or communities that require training and then policy solutions in the real world. CIIS was uniquely situated because of its ongoing annual conference (Expanding the Circle) that embraces LGBTQ studies in Higher Education, in partnership with major professional associations.

I teach human sexuality in 2013 because I believe it is part of the foundation and future of all positive selfhood, embodiment, relationships, health and human rights in our shrinking world. Colleagues of my own age sometimes grasp this and sometimes scratch their heads because frankly, it is not obvious still, despite some years of significant research and global advocacy. But young people get it almost immediately and are often eager to engage in dialogue about it, even when they disagree with the issue, such as whether contraceptives should be provided free by the government or insurance companies. Increasingly there is a sense that one day in the not too distant future sexual literacy will be as basic to all education, from kindergarten through university, as learning language or government or music and how to balance a check book. Teaching human sexuality is not only for promotion of these constituents of democracy, it honors the sense of helping people to achieve the kind of life satisfaction across the course of life that distinguishes human existence in our world.
            *Gilbert Herdt, PhD, is professor and director of the new Graduate Program in Human Sexuality at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

[i] California Institute for Integral Studies, http://www.ciis.edu/News_and_Events/CIIS_Launches_New_Program_in_Human_Sexuality_Studies.html
[ii] G. Herdt and C. Howe, Twenty-first Century Sexualities, New York: Routledge, 2007.
[iii] J. J. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life, New York: Norton, 1998.