|Every January, second-year medical students and other
health care professionals take a 40-hour course on human sexuality. By the
end of the week,they're affectionately known as "sexperts."
By Merry Sue Baum
Sex. It's one of the most powerful forces known. Kings have abdicated thrones, political leaders have fallen and wars have been started, all because of sex. And it's mysterious. Superstitions and myths abound on subjects like masturbation, birth control and AIDS, causing concern and confusion. But it's a difficult subject to talk about. Take a parent stumbling when explaining the "birds and bees" to a child. Or a woman, wondering silently, what sexual changes to expect during pregnancy, menopause and after 50. And rare is the guy who will ask the pharmacist what effect a medication might have on his "manhood," even though it's uppermost in his mind.
Often people turn to their physicians for answers. But many are not equipped - emotionally or intellectually - to discuss this sensitive topic. Students at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS), however, are trained to take on the role of sex educator and advisor. Second-year students take a required 40-hour course on human sexuality, known fondly on campus as "Sex Week." The course prepares them to deal with patients' sexual concerns and teaches them how to take a patient's sexual history.
"We want students to become sensitive health care providers," says Sandra R. Leiblum, PhD, course director and professor of clinical psychiatry and obstetrics/gynecology at the school. "They are encouraged to identify sexist, racist, ageist or homophobic attitudes in themselves that may interfere with their treatment of patients."
Lectures, panel discussions and films are used to teach the course. Students also participate in 15 hours of small group interaction. They do role-playing exercises which give them a chance to "rehearse" clinical situations. To desensitize them to sexually explicit material, several films of couples engaging in sexual activities are shown, and posters, featuring everything from classical nudes to safe sex and pregnancy prevention methods, line the auditorium walls. Shocking at first, the posters become little more than wallpaper by the week's end.
"Some students have never seen sexually explicit material or talked about sex before," says Leiblum. "They need training to initiate sexual inquiry and discussion with patients. This course enables them to feel comfortable doing that."
The material is
somewhat different each year. The following account of Sex Week 1998, however,
is typical of programs offered over the past 25 years.