Early morning classes are a tough sell for college students, but if you’re one of the 25 Johns Hopkins University seniors who beat out the wait list for Human Sexuality, you’re up early talking about sex toys, analyzing BDSM practices, and debating new female-arousal medications like Flibanserin. Perhaps for this reason, at Hopkins—where I’m currently a senior—Human Sexuality is so popular it’s almost impossible to enroll, despite being a two-and-a-half-hour class that begins at 9 a.m.
The course description says the class focuses on sexual attraction, sexuality across the lifespan, and pornography, among other topics— comprehensive enough to pique the interest of most students. The professor regularly brings in guest speakers, such as the married couple who came in last semester to speak about their experiences with polyamory and “swinging.”
“I had tried to get into the class junior year, but honestly, only seniors can get in,” says senior Courtney Kelly, who got to enroll in the class last semester. Like many students, Kelly’s interest arose, in part, from the “phenomenal reviews” she heard about the instructor.
Dr. Chris Kraft—who is also a clinical psychologist and sex therapist—has taught the course for the past 14 years. He works at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, co-directing clinical services for the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit in Lutherville. As a part-time adjunct professor, his courses at Hopkins mark his first time teaching undergraduates.
“I did wonder a little bit when I very first started teaching, if I would get any parents of students contacting me or objecting to the course,” he says. “It’s never happened.”
The popular social science class is capped at 25 students for each of its two sections and is limited to upperclassmen studying behavioral biology, biology, neuroscience, psychology, public health, and women, gender, and sexuality. Still, both sections fill “usually immediately,” according to Kraft. This semester was no exception, with the class accumulating a wait list of 27 students, and the later class at noon acquiring three more than that.
“I would get students from different disciplines, where I really got the feeling that this was something that was sort of an entertainment for them, rather than something that was related to their future career,” Kraft says. “When I got it more focused into biology, and the sciences, and public health, and pre-med, and that kind of a population, I just found the style of students was different—much more focused.”
Public health major Brianna Saunders, who enrolled in the class after initially being wait-listed, found the course dovetailed nicely with her studies. Saunders had spent the past summer as a research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, studying HIV prevalence in black bisexual teens in Baltimore. Along with thinking human sexuality was an interesting topic, she hoped the class would contextualize the research she was doing. “With other classes, especially with science classes, it’s just talking about the biology behind something,” Saunders says, adding that Human Sexuality gave her a more in-depth look at bisexuality and homosexuality from a social perspective, for example, considering how legislation has affected its perception. “The class added to a more complete understanding.”
For other students, the desire to take Human Sexuality was more basic. Kelly asserted that the course is not only useful, but also important for students to have: “It is literally sex education.”
Senior Randy Cruz also stressed the importance of the class as essential sex education. “I found it surprising that our sexual education is disturbingly lacking,” Cruz, a biology major with a minor in women, gender, and sexuality studies, writes via email. “I took the class because I always believed sexuality is something that we should learn.”
Hopkins students are not alone in their hunger for more sexuality education. Less than half of U.S. states require high school sexual education to be factually accurate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures—meaning that many students enrolled in college have never had comprehensive, medically accurate sex ed. Even at Hopkins—an institution known for its medically and public-health-minded student body—there are limited resources for those who didn’t learn about sex in high school. Students can make appointments at the Student Health and Wellness Center to discuss specific concerns, or can look for displays by the health center’s “health promotion arm” for information about basic sexual health tools, such as contraception and STI testing.
However, for Saunders, it’s Human Sexuality’s open discussions–even about controversial topics—that make the class so beneficial. “You get a lot of options in what you want to discuss,” Saunders says. “You don’t really have to be afraid of asking questions.”
Many students credit Kraft’s classes for making them more open-minded and helping them unpack often-misunderstood concepts like gender identity and sexual orientation. Class assignments tackle this mission head-on: One asks students to write an analysis of a movie with sexual themes, for example, by investigating the stereotypes or meaning of sexuality in a film like “The Crying Game” or “Brokeback Mountain.”
Students appreciate the environment he creates in his class citing his willingness to embrace controversial topics, his encouragement of open dialogue, and his presentation of materials with personal applications.
“We are 21- to 22-year-olds who shouldn’t have to sugarcoat things such as sex, and in this class, absolutely nothing was off the table,” Kelly says. “It was one of those classes that I actually feel like I grew from—for the better.”