Sex with 700 students

March 17, 2000

Manuel Lopez Dona's quick humour and vast knowledge make his sexology course a huge draw and him a media star. Paul Rigg reports

On a hot, sunny day in Cadiz in February, the students could easily choose to spend the afternoon on the beach. Instead they are packed in a lecture theatre at the University of Cadiz's medical faculty, where a different kind of heat is being generated: it is Thursday afternoon and Manuel Lopez Dona is teaching sexology.

The popularity of Dr Lopez's lectures have made him a media personality in Spain. He is planning a series of 40 books, each based on a theme from his course. Nearly 700 students from degree courses have chosen it as an option. It is a far cry from the repression at the start of his career. "In 1973," he says, "when the Spanish Society of Psychosomatic Medicine organised the first Congress of Sexology in Granada, Arias Navarro (the minister for home affairs) ordered a police charge against us because we were meeting to talk about sex."

Even in the 1990s, it was a slow start. "In 1994, I had eight students. The following year there were 12. By 1998, the number had grown to 150, and last year 240 registered. I thought we would probably have about 300 this year."

Maybe it is the blunt way Dr Lopez gets straight down to business that is the attraction. "I think 25cm is excessive," he reads from a student feedback sheet of the previous week's lecture, "why should a woman unnecessarily complicate her life?" The class bursts into laughter.

Dr Lopez starts to read from another sheet. This time a student has written that he understood from the previous lecture that his morning erections are often caused by "compression of the erectile nerves when my bladder is full" but that he does not always want to seem so eager each time he is with his new girlfriend in the morning. "It's very simple," Dr Lopez responds, "set your alarm clock for five in the morning, empty your bladder and you'll be sorted."

With the class engaged, Dr Lopez moves on to mix anecdotes with explanations, clearing up doubts and discussing points from the previous week. Many of the more serious questions are ones that the students have been too shy to ask in front of the class. In a direct and interactive way, Dr Lopez moves between playground humour, basic sex education and detailed scientific explanation.

Each week, students must write a critical summary of the previous class and add comments or questions. If they attend classes and fulfil this weekly task, they get a pass mark. For most students, studying for degrees as diverse as marketing, literature or law, this is sufficient. But those studying medicine are seeking a deeper understanding and a higher grade. They submit themselves to an exam. Here again, the doctor's methods are unusual.

For those students seeking one of the three higher grades available, Dr Lopez organises a series of discussion groups. He poses questions that allow students to demonstrate their academic knowledge. Later they discuss with other students and gradually decide whether or not they merit the grade they are trying to achieve.

The selection methods, the subject matter and the case studies - drawn from Dr Lopez's private gynaecology clinic - combined with his delivery and dry sense of humour, are an irresistible combination. Yet Dr Lopez, a single parent bringing up three children since the death of his wife six years ago, is very serious about his subject. "For me sex is sacred and very strongly linked to the family," he says. "People should not be frightened of learning about sex because studying sexology does not make it lose any of its charm or mystery. In fact, it only brings greater happiness."

Attendance levels stay high throughout the year as Dr Lopez takes students through 40 two-hour classes. The themes range from the pathology of sexual diseases to pornography, from the biochemistry of feelings to cyber-sex on the internet.

Today Dr Lopez compares the chemistry of sexual attraction to thirst. "When we feel very thirsty, we want to satisfy that thirst straight away," he says. "Animals go to the water straight away, but humans have a frontal lobe that is more greatly developed and that acts to restrain that primal urge. With its critical capacity, it analyses the consequences of the action and, for the most part, blocks the drive that is seeking immediate 'consumption'. At this moment of repression, human beings lose spontaneity."

"Dr Lopez, I have a long-term boyfriend I am happy with," interjects one student, "but I have recently become very attracted to another guy. The trouble is I can't do anything about it. Are you saying my frontal lobe is to blame?" As the possibility of resolving the problem by banging one's head against the wall is briefly considered, Dr Lopez moves on to the subject of copulation.

He displays a diagrammatic slide of a couple in the missionary position. After a discussion, he shows a slide of a man behind a woman, which is greeted with smiles. The class then erupts as Dr Lopez produces a slide featuring the 64 positions of the Kama Sutra, which he soon follows with comparative images from Robert L. Dickinson's Atlas of Sexual Anatomy to explain how sexual traumas occur. The students leave the class as they arrived - smiling.

'WE NEED INFORMATION MORE THAN EVER'

While the 1960s heralded the sexual revolution in most of the western world, Spain lived under a dictatorship closely linked to the Catholic church.

It was only with dictator General Franco's death in 1975 that Spain adopted a democratic structure. Today, students in Dr Lopez's class are happy to talk about the benefits of a more open society.

"This course has more than fulfilled my expectations," says Fernando Mendez de Paz, 22. "I am studying medicine, and I have found the quality of information is very high."

Carlos Manuel Leon Llerena, 22, agrees. "In Spain in the past there was no real sex education, we had a very traditional school system and people had to rely on stories or gossip. Even talking about sex was taboo."

"Our parent's generation suffered from a lack of information, so they were unable to pass on informed sex education," Mr Leon continues. "Today people are much more promiscuous, but also there is a greater risk from sexually transmitted diseases. That's why we need this information now more than ever."

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