Sex and Balances

Retiring Sex Ed Professor Explored Changing Norms With Humor
by 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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Tracy Kennedy

RIP, Robin. Sending Anne and the girls strength and love. You will be sorely missed. You had such a positive impact on everyone you met. We love you! -Tracy K.

Sera Hirano

I look forward to the many books you will write in your retirement.

Nikki Waxman

Was fortunate enough to take your class in your last year teaching. Having graduated I've realized how little people actually know about sexuality, safety and proper communication about the subject. Thank you for making the world a healthier, funnier, more educated place! Nikki Waxman, class of 2016

Linda LeNoir

I taught UNIV100 when we first started the course - way back, last century! Having Robin come to my class of freshmen was always a hit with the students -- and me. Thank you for your willingness to always teach outside of the "designated" curriculum. Best to you, Robin.

Dan Thomas

Congratulations Sir Robin! Welcome to the much deserved ranks of the retired. UMD students have had the remarkable good fortune to have had the likes of you (and your predecessor, Doris Sands) nurture a healthy and informed understanding of human sexuality. May that string of extraordinary educators continue at Maryland. And Robin, please forgive me for my decades-long attempts to greet you with a botched English accent.. :-). Best to you and your family.

Elizabeth McGlone

So most people will remember him as the "sex ed." professor, but Dr. Sawyer was an excellent instructor of health education. I am so grateful to him for shaping my education. It was the foundation for my work in community health.

Tom Ruggieri

That's a lot of minds to pollute. Classic Robin. Will miss you, old man!

D Harrison Hyde

Dr. Sawyer is one cool dude... oops... one cool Brit!!!

Dawn Noren

Loved that class - one of my most memorable classes and very educational. I remember being shocked that a professor actually taught a class on this subject.. A nice change from all of the hard-core science classes I had to take. Took it back in 1993 or 1994....

Kristen Noble

I was fortunate enough get into Dr. Sawyer's class in 1993. It was THE class to take, and not easy to get into! I loved this class--it was informative as well as fun, and I often encouraged my friends to sit in on a lecture or two, even if it was not for credit. Even after all these years, hearing of Dr. Sawyer's retirement brings a tear to my eye. UMD, and the educational community as a whole is about to bid farewell to one of the best! Best Wishes, Dr. Sawyer. Kristen Noble, '93

Thomas kauffmann

I never took a class, but I have known Dr Sawyer on the football (soccer)pitch and he clearly has a great communication skill and an ease with people. He was always open and articulate and for this I fully understand his success as a professor and his ability to relate on a very delicate subject. Congratulations, Robbie on your retirement. It's a big loss for UMD.

Dawn Hritz

Took his class back in 1997 or 1998. I still remember the videos he made. They all had phil collins/genesis songs in them. How can you forget that?! ☺

Jan Siarnicki

Robin was health ed director at the health center at one time. He was my boss. I was his secretary. Everyday was a fun day working with him and his humor. I miss those days. Seems like just yesterday. Robin you are and extraordinary person. Great person, boss friend professor and father. You and Anne raised a beautiful family as well! Happy retirement Robin. Congrats!?

Kate Skinker

As an academic advisor at UMD for many years, I will be at a loss as to what my answer will be when students ask, "What's a good elective?" I always respond "HLTH377....but you may have to wait until you are a senior to get in!" Thanks for teaching this important class. You will be missed!

Lisa Carroll

Thank you for your years of enlightenment. I took your class as a Junior in the '70s and things about it have stuck in my mind ever since. You'll be missed from scores of younger student who could use your openness. Enjoy retirement!

Shelly Meintzer

I took Dr.Sawyer's sex ed class in 1992. It was very enlightening. My favorite class was when he divided the lecture hall (nearly 500 students) into two groups - one for women and one for men. It was a free-for-all session of questions. Women could ask the men any sexual question they were curious about and vice versa. He was certainly a leader and very well respected.

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