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‘Sex 101’ Greets First-Year Students at Northwestern

Online class features 3-D animation, demystifies sex organs, contraception, fertility, STD’s
  • Many freshman don’t know much about their sexual health or reproductive system   
  • How alcohol impairs sex, why women may miscalculate their pregnancy risk
  • Body part mysteries are solved without unsavory web sites
  • STD’s and unintended pregnancies could be avoided with reproductive education

CHICAGO --- Incoming first-year men may not realize drinking a few beers can cause erectile dysfunction. And first-year women may not know their menstrual cycles can change radically when they go to college, affecting when they are fertile and at risk of getting pregnant. 

In fact, there is so much freshman don’t know, a new animated online class is being launched Sept. 28 for incoming Northwestern University first-year students to teach them about their sexual and reproductive health. The class, a MOOC on sexual health and reproduction, is free to students anywhere, anytime once it launches.

“Most students entering college don’t have a good understanding of their own reproductive or sexual health,” said Teresa Woodruff, vice chair for research in obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who created the class. “Having sex is not the same thing as knowing how it all works. And most students have issues beyond sex, like changing menstrual cycle lengths and questions about exercise and testosterone levels. They need to know because it impacts their health. This class fills a huge gap. 

“This is everything first-year students need to know about sex and reproduction, and didn’t know to ask,” Woodruff said.

Most first-year students arrive on campus -- a pivotal time in their sexual lives -- with only a cursory middle school or high school sex ed class in their background. And whatever they learned back then was abstract, a bit embarrassing, and, perhaps, the subject of jokes. Now that knowledge is intimately important to their lives, Woodruff said.

For example, alcohol can have a profound effect on erectile dysfunction, which can be perplexing to a young man if he’s not aware of the cause of this issue. Women’s menstrual cycles, which may have been a regular 28 days when they lived at home, can range from 14 to 40 days when they move to college because of the change in environment. This affects when they are fertile, as well as when they may have pain associated with their cycle -- all crucial information. 

Lack of knowledge also contributes to the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as well as unintended pregnancies among college students, Woodruff said. One in four college students has an STD.

In a series of short (two to five minutes) videos, students will learn about rise and fall of hormones, fallopian tubes, STDs and how to avoid them, fertility after cancer, the workings of the penis, nodules on testicles as a possible sign of testicular cancer (which occurs in young men) and much more. Women and men will learn about each other’s reproductive biology as well as their own, demystifying themselves and the opposite sex.

Woodruff compared the class to watching popular TV scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson as he explores the cosmos. “But our cosmos is sex and reproduction,” she said.

Five years ago, Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Feinberg, launched Repropedia, a site that defines reproductive terms in 180 words or less.

“If you Google the words ‘penis’ or ‘fallopian tube’ or ‘vagina’, you get to places on the web that can be confusing at best or unsavory at worst -- when all you are trying to find out is, ‘what does this mean?’ The Repropedia gives you the confidence to understand a term someone might say is ‘dirty’ like ‘urethra’ (a tube that connects semen and urine in the male) or ‘cervix’ (the connection between the female uterus and vagina). None of this should be a mystery.”