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Whose job is it to teach college students sexual health?

OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

Historically, many stakeholders have been involved and/or created barriers to teaching college students about sexual health. Some of the most critical roles have been student affairs professionals.

In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with Dr. Amber Manning-Ouellette, an Assistant Professor at Oklahoma State University. Her research examines the history of sexual health education in the United States and how we can work to break down the barriers.


Dr. Amber Manning-Ouellette
Dr. Amber Manning-Ouellette

MANNING-OUELLETTE: Only 33% of individuals ages 18 to 25 actually have any form of sexual health education. So what that means is: only 33% of your college students actually are coming in with any type of information. They had comprehensive sex ed, but really that's dependent on the school district. That's dependent on family conversations that were present or not present. That's also dependent on the internet and how they obtain those. So you're having this diverse group of students come in that may or may not have any knowledge. And then we set up this environment [where] they have complete freedom to explore who they are as an individual.

And then these environments that really cultivate their interaction with peers, then you have some of the other fun stuff that comes with that. And so you just have these sort[s] of environments or climates where they can start to really explore that sexuality without any limits or boundaries or regulations and without having accurate knowledge, or any knowledge, they lack information and education to make informed decisions about what they're doing in terms of sexual health.

ROBINSON: Dr. Amber Manning-Ouellette's research stems from Student Affairs and its historical connection to sexual health education. Her focus is on understanding why barriers exist when it comes to teaching the topic.

MANNING-OUELLETTE: It’s uncomfortable. No one wants to talk about sex or sexuality because it's uncomfortable. I think we continue to live in a society where the uncomformability drives the conversations that we see or not see in our home. If our family doesn't talk about it, it's typically pretty taboo

ROBINSON: Dr. Manning-Ouellette says the regulation of sexual education at universities ties back to a law: in loco parentis. That translates to "in place of the parent," which means it was up to the universities to protect their students.

MANNING-OUELLETTE: Students started to rebel against that. They didn't want the regulations. They didn't want women's curfews. They didn't want small classes where we couldn't fit in. They wanted resources for diverse students, right?

And so once the erosion of in loco parentis happened, then that's where you see universities not regulating as much of dating and courtship. But I think a lot of it's rooted in fear what we don't know maintains and kind of influences the decisions that we make just, just by pure fear. But historically institutions were in place of the parents, so it was their job to keep students safe, and they thought by regulating sex and dating, they were keeping students safe.

ROBINSON: What are some of the ways we can break down these barriers?

MANNING-OUELLETTE: Helping parents understand how to talk to your children or how to talk to your family about sexual health, and what that means. It's a part of our healthcare. I think having course offerings like human sexuality as part of general education. I think the more we can cultivate and really center students and everything, that's how you start to break down those barriers. And advocacy is a really big one, right? Like to be vocal, to go to state legislators and say, we need K through 12 sex ed, we need comprehensive education. The same at the institutional level, going to administrators and voicing why this type of work is very important. And I love the historical stuff too, to kind of illustrate like, this is how it used to be and see how far we've come or see how things are still the same and need to change.

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Meghan Robinson is the host of OSU Research Matters and the Multimedia Reporter/ Producer for Inside OSU, the official streaming platform of Oklahoma State University.
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