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Class is changing the narrative about ‘the birds and the bees’

Lance Rintamaki's sex communication course, COM 492, is a hit with students, usually filling up within minutes of being posted on the Hub. Photo: Douglas Levere

By ANA ALHOUD

Published April 17, 2017

“I wish we were more open and upfront about sex because doing so could eliminate many negative outcomes.”
Lance Rintamaki, associate professor
Department of Communication

We’re all familiar with “the talk” — that often-embarrassing rite of passage that marks the end of puberty and the beginning of something much more confusing. For many, this coming-of-age tradition is remembered with a shudder and the desire to never repeat it.

But one UB faculty member has been changing the traditional narrative about sex and its awkward connotations. For the past six years, Lance Rintamaki has taught COM 492: Sexual Communication, a popular class that focuses on the complex realm of human sexuality, covering everything from why we kiss to the frustrating and baffling world of online dating.

However, there is more to COM 492 than just sex. Rintamaki’s class also includes lessons on how to become more socially attractive through active listening. A typical assignment consists of completing a new personal challenge every day for a month. Students become private investigators of the sexually bizarre for unique extra-credit assignments. One particular task includes “myth-busting” sexual urban legends found in pop culture, such as the age-old question, “Are oysters really aphrodisiacs?”

“If you had asked me 10 years ago if I would teach a sex comm class, I wouldn’t have touched that with a 10-foot pole,” says Rintamaki, associate professor in the Department of Communication who also serves as director of undergraduate studies. “It’s seen as too controversial.”

Rintamaki went from not even remotely considering sexual education to teaching his very own class after helping to develop a highly successful class based on this literature at another university.

“We put together a course for another university, and it was met with ridiculously positive feedback. People loved that class,” he recalls. “I really enjoyed hearing how much people loved it, so I decided to bring it to UB.”

Wearing his ever-present, faded Yankees cap, Rintamaki engages his students with a friendly, yet commanding air. His booming laugh and easygoing attitude keep the atmosphere light whenever the material gets too heavy.

“The atmosphere in Sex Communication is light enough where I feel comfortable, but focused so that I leave every class feeling like I understand a lot more about the field,” says senior Brett Rickles.

If enrollment rates are any indication of interest, COM 492 is a hit. The class fills within minutes of being posted on the Hub and feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Students often are so intrigued by Rintamaki’s material that they bring friends to sit in on lectures.

“Every semester, the class maxes out at 200 students,” Rintamaki says. “Students always come up to me saying they’ve recommended my class to their friends and it makes me happy to see such enthusiasm for this material.”

His clear and direct approach overcomes any embarrassment that is usually associated with sexual topics.

“The material used to be awkward to teach because I was so nervous about how people would respond, I didn’t know what was going ‘too far,’” Rintamaki notes. “What I learned is that if you talk about it in a normal manner, people are comfortable with that. In fact, they want that.”

Indeed, he already has contributed a lot to the field of sex education, given the success of COM 492. Yet, this sage of sex has even more ideas on how to improve sex education in schools and society.

One of these ideas is SexNerds.org, a website meant to educate the masses on sex and sexual health using legitimate, updated scientific evidence. SexNerds is an alternative to the often captivating, but frequently inaccurate information in tabloids. The site aims to make accurate information about sex more enjoyable and accessible for everyone.

“There is so much misinformation about sex currently circulating in many parts of the world,” Rintamaki says. “SexNerds can serve as a clearinghouse, a platform for new information about sex and sexual health that isn’t being reported by the popular press. It’s not a cure-all, but I think it’s something that people can enjoy and learn from at the same time.”

SexNerds.org also offers a unique opportunity to students: the chance to have their investigative work published. Assigned the task of exploring any sexual topic, students have created blogs that explore recent literature and research related to sex and sexual health. An interesting homework assignment to say the least, these blogs contribute not only to the site, but to the resumes of the authors as well.

“The idea behind that was that students could learn, be motivated in the learning process and maybe even have it benefit them on a job search because their scholarly work was published,” Rintamaki says.

He wants to use the lessons he has learned in COM 492 to improve sex education in general; he believes discussing sexual health at an earlier age — both at home and in school — leads to healthier behavior.

“Every semester, people literally tell me that they’re mad that they didn’t know the material we cover beforehand,” he says. “They say, ‘We should have known that stuff a long time ago; why didn’t anyone teach us?’”

Some may be hesitant about broaching these subjects with kids not yet in their teens, but Rintamaki’s course builds on evidence that shows gradually discussing sex and bodily functions with children helps them, building self-efficacy, a sense of power in relationships and comfort with the topic in general.

In addition, teenagers who received more information about sex at younger ages wait longer to have sex and are not as susceptible to peer pressure when losing their virginity.

“I wish we were more open and upfront about sex because doing so could eliminate many negative outcomes,” Rintamaki says. “Kids are going to find sex stuff online, but we can arm them with knowledge so that they can interpret it differently than if they approach it knowing nothing.”

Although there is still much work to be done, COM 492 and SexNerds.org are just some of the ways that Rintamaki is looking to update talking about “the birds and the bees.” With any luck, future generations will be answering the same questions, but this time with open arms instead of crossed ones.