Nicole Polen-Petit, Professor of Human Sexuality

Meet Dr. Nicole Polen-Petit, Human Sexuality professor and a fan of investigative journalism podcasts. She covers a variety of topics and works to make her class as inclusive and informative as possible. I caught up with her before her HDE 12 class to discuss her teaching career, the benefits of a sex-positive approach towards teaching sex, and her research.
How long have you been teaching at Davis?
I taught my first class while I was a graduate student here in 2001.
 
How do you think your teaching experience has changed from being a grad student to being a professor?
Students have changed drastically. And I think a huge part of that is technology… I would say that most of the changes I see have been a result of how quick and connected we all are… The subject matter has also changed. The vocabulary that I use to teach this class today is drastically different from ten or fifteen years ago.
 
What do you enjoy the most about teaching HDE 12?
My favorite thing about it is when I can look out and see those “Aha!” moments hit. And I can see them by a twinkle in the eye or someone who drops their pen and sits up and listens, and I can tell that something that I’ve said has gotten to them in some way… if I didn’t feel that I was effective and getting that information across in a way that reaches people in a way that was personable and applicable to their lives, I wouldn’t be doing it.
 
Are there any topics that you think should be emphasized during sex education specifically for female college students?
Discussing gender, gender roles, gender development, and gender identity is so extraordinarily critical… I think we were under a false kind of assumption that things were all playing out equal in terms of women and gender roles and pay and workspace… I think it’s a great time to open that conversation again and start really talking about gender issues and gender roles because everybody thought for a while – you know it’s kind of like the racism conversation, “We’re all good, everybody’s all the same!” And you don’t realize how structural some of these issues are, how structural sexism can be.
 
What would you most like to change about the way girls are typically taught about sex?
I’m tired of women being held responsible for male sexuality… we look to women and go, “Well if you don’t want that attention then you shouldn’t wear this or do that.” And it’s really irritating because it’s not women’s responsibility to be the gatekeepers of male sexuality in heterosexual interactions. And in the same way, I think it really doesn’t give men credit either. It makes them look like they’re powerless and that they have no control over themselves…So there’s this huge imbalance and it drives me nuts.
 
How do you think a sex-positive approach towards teaching sex would benefit college-age women specifically?
If we embrace it with positivity, research shows we use contraception more effectively, we have more fun in relationships, we’re more confident with ourselves, and we’re more proactive in terms of protecting ourselves… I think that we have to take a really positive approach towards sexuality because when we talk a negative approach, we see all of the opposite things start to happen.
 
Tell me about your research.
Sexual literacy has always been where my heart is. It’s really about looking at all aspects of our lives and there’s so much underneath that umbrella of sexuality… My dissertation research was on the identity development of bisexual women… This idea of fluidity in female attractions and relationships is a very different script than what men have typically experienced… I’ve [also] done some work with a colleague who also teaches HDE 12. She became a sorority advisor… the rate of sexual violence is already high for college-age women, and if you’re in a sorority, it’s even worse. And then my newest area is childbirth… We have some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in any developed nation and with some of the best healthcare technologies also available. Why are women dying? Why are women of color dying even more so in childbirth than other women are? I love qualitative research, and so I’m going to case studies. I really love narrative and analyzing discourse and narrative and so that’s where I usually start with things.
 
If you’ve ever been interested in learning more about human sexuality, be sure to take HDE 12
with Professor Polen-Petit! She’s relatable, funny, and makes talking about sex the highlight of
your day.