Inside Higher Ed: Sex and the classroom

By Elise Young for Inside Higher Ed

July 2, 2012

A US community college instructor in Nevada allegedly created a “sexually hostile class environment” for a student – by asking for explicit personal information and by forcing her to relive past sexual abuse – which prompted her to file a federal complaint last week.

Karen Royce, a student at Western Nevada College who is in her sixties, enrolled on Tom Kubistant’s human sexuality course in autumn 2011 with about 30 other students who were mostly of high school and college age, according to the complaint she filed on 25 June against Kubistant, his supervisor and the college’s president.

According to the complaint, Kubistant – who has degrees in philosophy and counselling education – told students that he was a psychologist and private-practice sex therapist and demanded that they call him “Dr Kubistant”. Royce’s complaint alleges that he continuously crossed the boundary of appropriate behaviour for an instructor by asking students to divulge their sexual preferences and history.

Kubistant did not respond to an email asking for an interview.

Royce’s lawyer, Ken McKenna, said Royce was worried that the younger students on the course would not realise the inappropriateness of Kubistant’s behaviour because he was an authority figure. “People don’t complain or don’t know it’s inappropriate because you’ve got 30 people and everyone’s kind of going along with it,” he said.

While questions of inappropriateness in sexuality courses are sometimes hard to solve (instructors argue that students often exaggerate what was said in class), Royce saved handouts from the course – some of which were cited in her complaint and provided to Inside Higher Ed – to support her allegations.

Uncomfortable material

According to the complaint, Kubistant told students on the first day of class that the course might contain language such as “pussy” or “cocks” that would make students uncomfortable, and he passed around an acknowledgement for students to sign. According to Royce’s complaint, Kubistant never indicated that personal sexual disclosure would feature in the course.

Also during the first class, Kubistant allegedly told students that “he will increase their sexual urges to such a height that they won’t be able to think about anything other than sex”.

According to the complaint, Kubistant assigned a project called “A Sexual Case Study…You!” that required students to divulge personal information including past sexual abuse, homosexual behaviour and sexual preferences.

Royce, who was abused as a child and was terrified of having to discuss this in the final assignment, asked Kubistant for a modified case-study assignment. But, according to the complaint, he dismissed her request, saying that she had “sexual issues” that made her uncomfortable with the assignment and that the project would be cathartic.

McKenna said Kubistant is violating professional psychological and psychiatric standards by asking students for personal sexual examples, which is considered counselling, not teaching. “You can’t just demand somebody reveal their sexual abuse when it could be psychologically harming, and it needs to be dealt with in a clinical setting instead of a classroom setting,” he said. “Just because you’re a teacher and you think you can order that is dangerous.”

Royce also felt that some of the course handouts were inappropriate. One that was provided to Inside Higher Ed, called “Prayers from the Sexes”, describes a woman’s prayer as for “a man who is not a creep, one who is handsome, smart and strong” and “one who loves to listen all night long”, while the man’s prayer is for “a deaf-mute nymphomaniac with huge boobs”.

A statement from the college says that Kubistant provides a variety of handouts as teaching tools to offer context to the class, including information about communication, examples of types and levels of sexual harassment and how to respond to it, and jokes. According to the statement, “students who have taken the class say the course teaches them about morality, relationships, and consequences”.

Another handout provided to Inside Higher Ed details three “secret and personal” journal entry assignments. The handout states that Kubistant will not read the entries because they are so personal, but he will scan them to make sure that students have covered all the topics, which include describing body image and turn-ons. The third journal question on the handout is: “Your orgasms: Draw them!” For this entry, students were asked to describe different types of orgasms and to detail how they sexually stimulate themselves, specifically referring to certain parts of the female anatomy.

The complaint process

According to the complaint, Royce emailed Kubistant repeatedly to ask for a copy of the acknowledgement that she had signed during that first class, and he responded to her e-mails on 1 October 2011, saying that he would bring a copy to the next class. He also said that he thought that the class was not appropriate for her, and that he did not think she was able to fully commit to the course experience.

On that same day, Royce emailed college administrators to complain about the alleged discrimination, harassment and hostility in the course. She was referred to the college’s legal counsel, who dismissed her accusations, saying that she had agreed to whatever treatment she was receiving by signing the acknowledgement at the beginning of the course. Royce withdrew from the course shortly thereafter, by 11 October.

According to a statement from Western Nevada College, the institution began an investigation after it received Royce’s complaint. The investigator reviewed the course description, syllabus, assignments and the acknowledgement that students had signed, along with evaluations from students enrolled on the current course and former students who had taken the course in the past six years.

The college’s investigator concluded that since the course was an elective and all students were informed about the nature of course material and had signed a waiver, there was no evidence of unwelcome sexual harassment.

Royce also filed a complaint in early October 2011 with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that Western Nevada College discriminated against her on the basis of sex by subjecting her to sexual harassment. But a few months later, on 25 January 2012, the department informed her that it would take no further action and would defer to the college’s decision – which had dismissed her claims as lacking merit.

Kristen Schilt, chair of the American Sociological Association’s Section on Sexualities and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, said instructors teaching material such as this human sexuality course should be very clear at the beginning of the course about what would be covered. She said that since the students had been asked to sign a waiver, they had had to acknowledge that there was sexually graphic content.

She added that most instructors of courses such as this would offer alternative assignments to students who requested them.

Instructors who teach sexuality courses can be vulnerable, she said, especially as public colleges are coming under fire from taxpayers scrutinising how their money is spent. “I think certainly sociologists who teach sexuality try very much to balance providing very needed information to their students with making sure people are comfortable in the classroom.”

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