Looks like our annual checkups could be a lot more interesting in the future.
Getting enough sleep? Exercise?
It’s odd, isn’t it, that sexuality — that potent driver of our thoughts and actions for most of our lives — rarely is acknowledged in the doctor’s office.
If and when that changes, we’ll have the University of Minnesota to thank.
This week the U’s Program in Human Sexuality (PHS) inaugurates the nation’s first Chair in Sexual Health Education.
Four of the 10 living U.S. surgeons general were scheduled to attend the event at the U’s Weisman Art Museum, including the venerable Dr. Joycelyn Elders, for whom the chair is named.
The vision for the chair, in the works for more than four years, includes improving sex education for doctors, nurses and other health care professionals, so that they can teach, comfort and guide us more effectively.
“So much sexual health education is devoted to adolescents but, in my experience, adults are simply large adolescents,” said Dr. Michael Ross, who has been named as the first Elders Chair.
“In many cases,” Ross added, “they’ve had less sexual health education than adolescents have.”
In his new position, Ross will promote science-based sex research, and remind everybody that sex is a lifelong proposition, a theory heartily supported by Elders.
“I’m always out there saying that sex is from birth to death,” said Elders, professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. “Sexuality and intimacy go on forever. It takes up such a huge part of our lives. We want it to be healthy.”
Ross isn’t surprised that many health professionals are uneasy talking about sex with their patients, be it intimacy issues, sexual abuse, STD prevention or differences in desire between partners over time.
“Only half of medical schools in the United States have courses on sexual health education for physicians,” Ross said. “That is a disturbing figure. There’s a groundswell of opinion that this is something we’re falling short on.”
Four years to fund
Ross was drawn to the U’s Program in Human Sexuality because of its deep, progressive and lifelong approach to sexual health.
For example, all first-year medical students at the U are required to take a course in human sexuality, noted PHS director Eli Coleman.
“We don’t just talk about contraception or HIV or sexual dysfunction,” Coleman said. “Students learn about all sexual health issues they will encounter as physicians, from pregnancy to the impact of chronic illness and medications on sexual functioning, to sexual violence and assault, which often get overlooked.”
Still, Coleman said, the Elders Chair took four years to fund. “There are not a lot of individual donors ready to attach their name to sexual health,” Coleman said, “It is still a stigmatized area.
“Dr. Elders was willing to lend her name, and we could honor her.”
Elders embodies the department’s mission, Coleman said. She interned in pediatrics at the U of M Medical School in 1960, then served as director of the Arkansas Health Department, where she worked to reduce teen pregnancy, HIV infections and infant mortality, and to increase the number of women receiving prenatal care and mammograms.
With Ross in place, the program will revitalize sex education in medical schools across the country, Coleman said.
Porn vs. reality?
Ross came to the Twin Cities from Austin, Texas, where he was a behavioral science professor at the University of Texas. He was born in New Zealand and educated in Australia, England and Sweden.
His primary research focus is HIV and STD prevention. He’s currently studying sexual practices and risk behaviors on the Internet — also known as That Other Sexuality Educator if we don’t step in.
“One of the things that surprised me from some research a few years ago,” Ross said, “is that for adolescent males, the average age at which they saw porno on the Internet was 11. That’s a really important finding.
“We don’t have the choice between sexuality education or no sexuality education. The choice is between responsible education or sexuality learned from pornography.”
Among his concerns about pornography is that it offers “a very edited view of what happens in sexuality. They never have sexual dysfunctions. Things happen without social interaction.”
Real life is far more complicated, interconnected and evolving. “There is huge diversity in sexual expression, and it changes over the life span and from partner to partner,” Ross said.
“There is not a single norm.”
That makes his work in this first-of-its-kind position all the more appealing.
And, as we schedule our annual medical exam a year or two down the road, we might want to ask for a few more minutes with the doctor.