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Putting the 'Human' Back in 'Human Sexuality'

Professor Michael McGee explains why sex education impacts on student academic success and healthier relationships.
Professor Michael McGee explains why sex education impacts on student academic success and healthier relationships.
February 10, 2015

“I love doing what I do,” says health education professor Michael McGee, “and I’m passionate that everybody should get sexuality education—good sexuality education.”

Students, he says, often carry a number of misconceptions about sexual relationships—misconceptions that can be traced to their earliest exposure to sex and sexuality, which is often through Internet porn.

He adds that the models people get for relationships are often found in romantic comedies or Disney movies, “and are not very good standards to use as far as figuring out how you’re going to find a life partner.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the most prevalent feedback he hears from students is that they are in “bad, unsatisfying or even abusive relationships.”

“It’s important that our students get some grounding in reality,” he says. “They need support for figuring out how to be authentic and have healthy relationships; that is, relationships based in mutual respect and other factors.”

In his human sexuality course at BMCC, “people have opportunities to examine their own values as well as the relationships they have been in—and what they wish had been different in those relationships.”

He emphasizes one point: “When you say ‘human sexuality’, it’s the ‘human’ part that’s the most important part. It’s about being human.”

The impact on academic success

“When you’re a small child,” says Professor McGee, “even questions such as ‘Why is that lady’s tummy so big?’ can cause discomfort for parents, who might say something like, ‘Never mind, we’ll talk about it later’.”

Whether it’s implicit or explicit, oftentimes the message that sex is a problem gets conveyed to kids, he says, and that messages can impact many aspects of a person’s life—including his or her experience in school.

“I’ve had students who were unintentionally pregnant. I have had students who disclosed that they had a sexually transmitted infection and were worried about that, or were treated and weren’t secure about the treatment.”

There are those who might be surprised to hear that many young New Yorkers still aren’t fully capable of managing their sexual health, especially when one considers the city’s rigorous sexual education mandate for public schools.

“Yes, NYC does have a good sexuality education program in place,” says Professor McGee. “Many students get good information, and the courses are often taught by trained and competent teachers.”

On the other hand, he says, “many students get a fractured portion of the required curriculum because the teachers are uncomfortable with the content,” adding that high school sexual education classes primarily focus on avoiding pregnancy and disease, “and while those are fine goals, they’re not enough to help young people figure out how to have healthy, honest, equal, respectful relationships.”
Complicating matters for post-generation “X” individuals is the advent of Internet access, and pornography that is only a click away.

“Many guys start viewing porn regularly around age 14, before most of them have intercourse,” says Professor McGee. “That’s a problem, because their assumptions about being sexual with a partner wind up being based on fantasy.”

In the end, he says, considering the many factors that influence how young people learn about sexuality and relationships, “a couple of semesters of sex ed isn’t enough to ensure that they will grow into sexually healthy adults. Parents, schools, faith communities, peers, other helping professionals, the media, and young people’s own experiences all contribute to shaping their understanding of sexuality.”

Creating a safe space

Human sexuality education also focuses on the experience of students who are LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or questioning).

LGBTQ students “may feel marginalized and wind up carrying their sense of difference around with them—and it becomes a barrier to their being a fully authentic, comfortable and confident student and person,” says Professor McGee.

To address that concern, BMCC created the campus-wide Safe Zone program, led by Women's Resource Center Director Deborah Parker, to help create a more inclusive campus environment.

With the help of Professor McGee, a Safe Zone training component educates staff and faculty volunteers “about the issues that sexual minorities have; definitions of terms; what is offensive to people and what’s not,” he says.

The Safe Zone Allies, he explains, create “a safe space for people to just talk, not necessarily focusing on solving a problem or finding solutions, but a safe place to be who you are, with somebody who’s welcoming.”

In addition, “we have a Counseling Center at BMCC that’s terrific and of course the Women’s Center is a place where students, faculty and staff can go for help and resources.”

Knowledge is power

Joshua Boyle, a BMCC alumnus now attending Hunter College/CUNY, looks back on his experience in Professor McGee’s human sexuality education class.

“I believe proper Sex Education is essential for generations of adults, younger and older, to be able to make informed decisions about themselves and their sexual partners,” he says. 

“People say knowledge is power because it is. Knowledge allows us to be powerful in our choices, powerful in our tastes, and powerful in our rights to chose what is best for us in one of the most intimate and fulfilling tangible acts we as a humans will ever experience. That power base starts with a safe place to express our fears, our curiosity, and to learn a new dialect in the language that is our sexual life.”

He feels strongly that programs such as the Safe Zone are important in today’s college setting.

“I had an experience where Safe Zone became a necessary tool for an issue with a fellow student when he attacked my sexual orientation,” he says.

According to Boyles, “I stopped running from bullies on the playground a long time ago,” and after not being able to resolve the issue on his own, he says he spoke with a staff person at BMCC (no longer with the college), a trained Safe Zone ally who “jumped into action.” 

Long story short, the student apologized to Boyles, and the conflict was resolved peacefully.

Without the kind of insight and knowledge that a class such as human sexuality provides, people might resort to “tools of misinformation, locker room trash talk, and culturally biased rhetoric,” says Professor McGee, when interacting with people whose sexual orientation is different from their own.  

Educating the whole person

Before joining the faculty at BMCC in January 2013, “I had a psychotherapy practice for eight years and saw mostly individuals, but some couples,” says Professor McGee. “Lots and lots of people have relationship issues.”

In his role at BMCC he also draws on a 27-year history with Planned Parenthood, the last eight of which he spent as Vice President for Education in the national office.

There are hundreds of Planned Parenthood Centers around the country, he says, and their community education efforts reach about 1.3 million people every year.

Education is about the whole person, he reiterates.

“We’re concerned about our students’ ability to succeed at BMCC—both as a human being and academically—because we want them not only to lead fulfilled lives but to have the capacity to get a job, to go into a four-year school and go further.”

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  • Professor Michael McGee teaches human sexuality in the health education department
  • Young people often carry misconceptions about relationships and sexual health, he says, due to negative messages in popular culture
  • Addressing those misconceptions can help students engage more fully in their college experience

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