I feel like I have a good grip on this teaching thing and think I am doing well by my students and well, frankly, I did run into some ridiculousness that I didn't quite expect.
One of the common assignments we assign in our human sexuality class is loosely called "Push Your Boundaries/Explore Sex." Basically students are supposed to come up with an idea to explore some aspect of sexuality that pushes their personal boundaries of comfort. Since everyone is different this means lots of different things. For some people, looking at Playboy is pushing their boundaries. For some people it is something a little racier.
Before they can write their paper they have to turn in their topic selection to me so I can make sure they are on the right track (undergrads often get off track easily). So apparently 2 days before the topic selection was due one of my students decided it was a great idea to send an email out to the class (via our internal messaging system for the class) that said:
hello ladies of [our class],
i was wondering if any 2 or more ladies would like to participate in a 3some for our project. im too young to goto strip club and ive done everything else sexually that i am willing to do besides this. i thought it would be fun :). so if any ladies are intrested just shoot me an email or a text before class tomorrow. my number is [Phone Number]. AGAIN, NO GUYS. SORRY.
[Male in Class]
ps. feel free to look me up onm facebook. my screenname is [Male in Class].
Now, I did not receive this message first hand. I received word of it because another student in the class forwarded it to me with this note:
I am completely insulted and disgusted by this students inappropriate message. I wanted you to be aware of what this individual has sent out, and I am asking you to please talk to him. Not only is this an insult to women, but I feel its also an insult to the class itself. Considering he is asking us to expand his sex history in the name of "education". This class is supposed to expand our minds on sex, not to expand our list of people we have had intercourse with. I apologize, Im ranting. But Im a little upset at this individuals complete immaturity and lack of sensitivity in such a class. Please, talk to him.
[Female in Class]
Okkkkk. What to do? On the one hand, I definitely know why she was upset. I can understand her email and why she wanted action taken. On the other hand, I think that his email was as respectful as possible for propositioning your entire class for a threesome. And his project is NOT wrong; it completely falls within the guidelines of the course.
So I decided to email my fellow PhD students to get their opinions. We have a very diverse group of students so I knew it would be a range of opinions. I got some suggestions to email our supervisor & I did. She replied that it was highly inappropriate and I needed to address it, but she also said "You may want to consider that engaging in sexual activity is not an accepted activity for this project. There are too many issues that can result that you don't want to be responsible for. I know it's a new generation, but there has to be some boundaries set so students feel safe."
Now this is where I have a major disagreement. I think that this is a class that:
A. Explores all aspects of human sexuality; not just those that are more comfortable to discuss.
B. I feel like I have created a safe classroom which is why this student felt it was ok to do this and why one student felt it was ok to let me know it was NOT ok with her.
C. I think it is hypocritical to say "sexual activity" includes only explicit sexual acts between two (or more) actual individuals. I think going to a strip club or watching pornography are also "engaging in sexual activity" and that this is the wrong message to send.
D. Even more hypocritical is that one of the ideas on the list (they get a brainstormed list to help stimulate their thinking) is to get a STD test. SO we can tell them to get tested, but we better not discuss what might have actually gotten them a STD in the first place? Bollocks.
But besides my philosophical reservations I knew I had to take some kind of action (and actually was instructed by my supervisor that I had to as well) so I decided that I would email the student to explain the scenario and let him see what the student he offended said (though not her name) and to let him know what my supervisor said. But I also let him know that I was NOT mad at him and that he wasn't being punished and that he could continue on with his topic, but that he'd need to find another way to solicit partners. I told him it had to be addressed so he decided to send a follow up email to the class:
DEAR MEMBERS OF [class],
IT WAS BROUGHT TO MY ATTENTION BY THE INSTRUCTOR THAT MY PREVIOUS MESSAGE WAS INNAPROPRIATE FOR CLASS AND DISRESPECTFUL TO THOSE WHO FOUND IT OFFENSIVE. I APPOLOGIZE TO THOSE THAT THE MESSAGE EFFECTED NEGATIVELY. I ASSURE ALL OF YOU THAT I MEANT NO HARM OR DISRESPECT TO ANYONE. AND MY PURPOSE WAS NOT TO FORFIL ANY SEXUAL DESIRES. I ONLY THOUGHT IT WOULD BE A GOOD IDEA AND OTHERS WOULD BE BE TOO SHY OR TIMID TO BRING IT UP. AGAIN I AM SORRY TO ANYONE I OFFENDED I DIDNT MEAN TO HARM ANYONE IN ANYWAY AND IT WONT HAPPEN AGAIN.
Whew. I hoped that the crisis was avoided. And turns out, I haven't (yet) heard anything else directly about it. I was a little apprehensive for the next class meeting, but it didn't come up as a class issue, although prior to the start of class I overheard a group of students discussing it and one student added him as a friend on Facebook, another students sent it to all her friends because she thought it was so funny, and another student printed out the message and used it as a conversation starter all day.
All in all, I'm glad it happened even though it was a little sticky for a few days. I think it was a good learning experience for many people (student, me, other PhD students, possibly my class) and it started an interesting conversation around our office.