Sex and Balances
Retiring Sex Ed Professor Explored Changing Norms With Humorby Sala Levin ’10 | Photo by John T. Consoli | lettering by Jared O. Snavely
Robin Sawyer didn’t set out to be the Steven Spielberg of College Park, but during 33 years at UMD, he’s directed five educational videos about sex, making him about as close to a Hollywood star as you’d find on campus. Sawyer, associate professor of behavioral and community health, has taught the immensely popular course “Human Sexuality” to tens of thousands of Terps and became a national pioneer in sex education, bringing into the open once-taboo topics such as date rape, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases through his research and appearances on TV programs like “The Today Show.” Now, as he approaches retirement in August, Sawyer reflects on students’ changing perspectives, the impact of Internet porn and the uncommon dinnertime conversations at his house.
TERP: Do you think that the popularity of the course is attributable just to the fact that people are interested in sex?
Sawyer: I think in any course, whether it’s this, history, English, physics—if you can’t make things relevant to your students and make them understand why they’re listening to it, you’re going to have a problem. Obviously I’ve got it easy—everybody’s interested in sex at some level. I’m not teaching physics.
TERP: You’re known for incorporating humor into your class. Do you think that’s an important tool when it comes to this topic?
Sawyer: Absolutely. I think a good number of students are relatively uncomfortable about sex and sexuality. They live in a hypersexualized world, but they really don’t know much about sex and sexuality. It’s kind of like the Nike ads—they just do it. So when they come into class, there’s a nervousness. I think humor is absolutely essential to break that down and make people feel that they can ask whatever they want and that it’s okay not to know.
TERP: How do you see technology affecting students’ dating or sex lives?
Sawyer: What’s ironic is that phones are devices of communication, and yet I don’t think communication has improved. When I was in college, you had to actually pick up a phone and say words. It was humiliating and embarrassing and difficult. Now you just text, and it doesn’t matter what you get back because it’s not face-to-face. There’s an addictive quality to it that I don’t think has helped communication.
TERP: How are gay and transgender issues different now than 10 or 15 years ago?
Sawyer: I had one guest speaker for a long time who was a young man who worked in admissions. And when he left campus, he said, “I’m not sure why you need to do this anymore. I don’t think anybody cares about whether people are gay or straight.” I think partly he’s right. I admire this generation so much because they’re way more accepting of difference than any previous generation.
TERP: Do you see heightened awareness about sexual assault having an effect on your students?
Sawyer: I’ve been doing date rape stuff since the 1980s. The bad thing is it’s still here. The good thing is we’re paying attention now. I think what we called seduction in the ’80s is called date rape today, which is probably a positive thing. I spend time in class talking about this quite a bit. And I come back to sexuality and communication. How do you communicate? Two people get together, they “hook up.” What the hell does that mean? Usually they’re drunk, but usually they like each other. In my research there’s no discussion before sex. It’s hard to say, “Is this what you want? Oh yes, no.” If there’s any hesitation, there should be some discussion, but if you’re drunk can you have that discussion?
TERP: Do you think easy access to and ubiquity of pornography online has had an influence on students?
Sawyer: I think it opens the door to a not necessarily very accurate depiction of what intimate sexuality might be between two people who actually care about each other. I think there’s a normalizing effect that porn’s typical, this kind of sex is normal, this is what everybody does, why wouldn’t a woman want to do this? I’ll talk to my students and I’ll say, “Do you understand that you live in a totally hypersexualized society?” And they say, “Not really.” Why would they? That’s all they’ve known.
TERP: How do your four daughters feel about having a dad who talks about sex for a living?
Sawyer: Two of them went to school here, and they were cool about it. All their friends would ask, “Can you get me in your dad’s class?” My wife also taught women’s health, so the discussions we’d have at mealtimes were pretty crazy. Then one of them would bring a boyfriend around, and over the roast potatoes, all of a sudden the subject of masturbation pops up. They’re going, “Only in the Sawyer household.”
TERP: Why retire now?
Sawyer: I think it’s like an athlete—you’ve got to know when to stop before you get silly. Who wants to hear about sex from the old man? I think it’s time. I did the math—I’ve taught something like 22,000 students. That’s a lot of minds to pollute.
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