Northwestern University's recent implementation of an online sex education course has highlighted campus issues surrounding students’ sexual health and knowledge. 

Northwestern recently released a class called “Sex 101” to help students learn more about sex and reproduction. The online course—created by Teresa Woodruff, Thomas J. Watkins professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Feinburg School of Medicine at Northwestern—launched Sept. 28 and is available for Northwestern students and the general public through Coursera, the massive open online course platform. Megan Castle, program coordinator for Northwestern’s Women’s Health Research Institute who worked with Woodruff on the MOOC, said that the class aims to fill in the knowledge gaps of students who may have received inadequate sex education in middle school and high school.

“Dr. Woodruff saw a need for sexual health education, especially for college age students,” Castle said. “The goal is to arm people with tools to make better decisions about their reproductive health.”

The class is structured into four modules focusing on different topics—including anatomy, development and hormones; menstruation and sperm activation; sex, sexuality and contraception; and reproductive health concerns, Castle said.

She explained that the course differs from the traditional lecture series featured on Coursera by including a three-dimensional animation component. 

The course’s focus on reproductive health—including sexually transmitted diseases—is especially relevant because of the prevalence of STDs among college students, Castle said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people ages 15-24 account for nearly half of the 20 million new STDs diagnosed each year. 

Janie Long—Duke's associate vice provost for undergraduate education who previously served as director of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity—said that the sex education students receive before college is often limited.

“Sometimes in high school or middle school [students] get a little sex education but it’s usually just related to the menstrual cycle or how to not get someone pregnant,” she said. “There’s much more than that.”

Duke’s sex education programs include workshops provided by the Wellness Center addressing topics such as protection, consent, pleasure, relationships and communication in addition to house courses created by students, wrote Maralis Mercado, program coordinator for health and wellness at the Wellness Center, in an email.

Mercado explained that she believes it is important for all universities to address sexual health in a positive and medically accurate manner.

“It’s imperative that students have access to the education,” she said. “The more you know, the better decisions you make.”

Long noted that sex education is one of the best ways to reduce sexual assault on college campuses. Teaching people how to talk about sex makes them more likely to have the language and confidence to stop unwanted sexual advances, she explained.

Mercado added that she thinks the stigma surrounding discussions of sex is one of the biggest sexual health issues on Duke’s campus, and that students' knowledge of sex could be improved by having honest, open conversations on the subject. 

“People are afraid to even bring it up unless they are talking to their friends about something they heard or the latest ‘Netflix and chill’ meme,” she said. “It takes everybody talking about it to make it less taboo and stigmatized."

Some students noted that taking a sex education class like the one offered at Northwestern could make for awkward conversations.

“If my friend asked me what class I was taking, it’d be embarrassing,” said sophomore Han Nguyen.

However, several said that they believe sex education is useful for college students.

Freshman Kris Elbert noted that the sex education she received in high school mostly involved discouraging students from having sex, adding that she believes addressing the topic from a more academic approach would be more efficient.

“It’s really necessary to teach kids what actually happens,” said junior Pooja Mehta. “There should be more campuses that adopt [sex education classes].”