Is introductory psychology asexual?

The authors argue that the topic of human sexuality should be included in introductory college psychology courses.

By Marssa A. Harrison, Jennifer E. Zobler, MA, Gina M. Brelsford, PhD, and Melanie S. Koser, BA


Since psychology as a discipline aims to understand human behavior and mental processes, what could be a more fundamental behavior to understand than that which ultimately serves to perpetuate the species — sex? Indeed, sex is very important to most people, and for some, sexuality is a dominant force in their lives (Bancroft, 2009). Although some may be uncomfortable with sexuality and feel that discussing sex reflects evil or immorality, and some may backlash against any form of sexual progressiveness (Hyde & DeLamater, 2011), the fact is that sex is here to stay.

In their textbook Understanding Human Sexuality, Hyde and DeLamater (2011) eloquently underscored the importance of the study of sexuality for college students. Exposure to human sexuality research can facilitate self-understanding, minimize embarrassment about a fundamentally important topic, influence judgment and decision-making with respect to physical and emotional well-being, and foster tolerance of sexuality regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and culture. Further advantages of human sexuality education include arming students with the skills to maximize their own sexual health and minimize sexual exploitation of one's self and others (Baber & Murray, 2001). Thus, a college course in the psychology of human sexuality can be of tremendous developmental value with respect to promoting well-being and self and societal understanding. Given such importance, however, it seems logically indefensible that the dissemination of such essential information should be limited to students enrolled only in sexuality-specific courses. While it is likely impossible to infuse sexuality into every college course, the discipline of psychology offers a viable outlet tailored to disseminating such information to a widespread audience — Introductory or General Psychology. In the present work we make the argument that Introductory Psychology should not be asexual — that is, as behavioral scientists we should endeavor to include human sexuality in our most basic college psychology course.

The majority of college students are typically 18 to 25 years old (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2002). Referred to as emerging adults (Arnett, 2007), this age group is coming into their own, exploring various identities, taking strides in developing world views separate than that of their parents and caregivers, and focusing on their own lives without yet committing to adult roles (Arnett, 2004; DeHaan, Yonker, & Affholter, 2011). Since both men and women engage in a myriad of partnered and solo sexual behaviors from early adolescence to late adulthood, emerging adults and society as a whole can benefit from programs that seek to improve upon sexual knowledge and healthy choices (Herbenick, Reece, Schick, Sanders, Dodge, & Fortenberry, 2010). Further, as Rutledge, Siebert, Chonody, and Killian (2011) pointed out, many U.S. adolescents do not receive sufficient sex education in high schools and therefore come to college in need of information at this precarious juncture of development. During this crucial period of role exploration, one can argue the dire need for sexuality education.

Introductory Psychology is a core requirement in the psychology major, psychology minor, and in many other majors and minors; it is also an elective sought by numerous college students. The American Psychological Association (2013) endorses Cush and Buskist's (1997) estimate that 1.5 million students complete an introductory psychology course each year. To wit, Bowker PubTrack (personal communication) documented that 413,464 students were enrolled in Introductory Psychology in the United States in the spring of 2011. As such, the material contained in Introductory Psychology textbooks reaches a vast audience. Indeed, the information in college textbooks can also impact others besides college students. For example, Advanced Placement Psychology is a college-level course taught to high school students, and current college-level textbooks are used in its instruction (College Board, 2010). Herein, then, lies the opportunity to deliver sexuality content to an even younger audience in their developmental prime. Even non-student individuals seeking knowledge or understanding of human behavior and mental processes may turn to an introductory psychology textbook online, from a friend, etc. Thus, Introductory Psychology offers a valuable opportunity to promote the understanding of human sexual behavior, and the presentation thereof can inform sexual decision-making and tolerance of self and others.

As such, the present study sought to document coverage of human sexuality topics in Introductory Psychology textbooks. We had no a priori prediction of degree of representation; rather, we aimed to document the presence and extent of coverage of various sexuality topics. Well over a decade ago, Griggs, Jackson, Christopher, and Marek (2000) noted that less than a third of all introductory books on the market at the time devoted full-chapter coverage to diversity and sex/gender. The present study parses this effort focusing on sexuality (and diversity therein), extends this effort by elaborating on specific themes for analyses, and offers a more recent glimpse of representation to determine whether contemporary introductory psychology is, indeed, asexual.

Method

Two long-time instructors (combined 20 plus years of experience) of college-level Psychology of Human Sexuality courses consulted several human sexuality textbooks (e.g., Hyde & DeLamater, 2011; Kelly, 2010; Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2010) and generated a list of 81 concepts typically covered in the class. This list of concepts appears in Table 1. Whereas it was not expected that every topic from a subdiscipline-specific course would be covered in an introductory-level course, we used themes typically covered in sexuality courses as a basis to gauge representation.

A major textbook publisher kindly provided us with lists of the most required (i.e., the total number of students enrolled in courses requiring each book) introductory-level psychology textbooks in the United States from Spring 2011. The list was not publisher-specific (i.e., it did not solely list the publisher's own books).

We aimed to analyze the 15 most required introductory psychology texts. We obtained hard copies of 14 of the 15 books on the list for review. These 14 texts were published between the years of 2006 and 2009 by Pearson (n = 6), Worth (n = 6), Cengage (n = 1), and Wiley & Sons (n = 1) Publishers. We were unable to secure a copy of the 12th most required book on the list and therefore could not analyze it. Of note, we first attempted our analysis with online/e-book copies of the target textbooks but we found search features did not function with high accuracy. We thus conducted all analyses with hard copies.

In a departure from previous introductory textbook content analyses (cf. Habarth, Hansell, & Grove, 2011), we included full, brief, and modular editions of textbooks in our analysis. Our rationale is that the data show that these titles contain the information being disseminated to the most students, and therefore the sexuality information they include or exclude is essential to our analyses. For example, the third most required book (n = 25,919 students) was written by the author of the second most required book, and this number represented >30 percent more students than the fourth most required book. We would be remiss if we excluded the impact simply because the same person wrote more than one title. These 14 titles together accounted for 244, 038 enrolled students' required texts (Bowker PubTrack, personal communication), or 59 percent of the total introductory psychology books required in the United States during that semester. Stated another way, the majority of introductory psychology students in the United States were required to be consumers of these 14 book titles in spring 2011.

Because our goal was to present evidence of systemic trends of sexuality coverage and not to comment upon or "call out" individual text authors, we opt not to list book titles; this follows the presentation method of Harbath et al. (2011) in their content analysis of psychoanalytic themes in introductory textbooks.

We read first the Index of each book searching for terms, and if the terms were not found, we read through each chapter of each book, paying close attention to areas in which sexuality might be mentioned but perhaps not indexed (e.g., puberty in Developmental Psychology chapters; sexual attraction in Social Psychology chapters). We noted whether each term or concept was identified (named only), defined (meaning was conveyed), or discussed (author provided context in two or more sentences).

Results

Results are presented in Table 1; 86 percent of terms and concepts were mentioned, 84 percent were defined, and 67 percent were discussed in at least one book. Of the 14 books reviewed, 5 (36 percent) featured a chapter devoted to human sexuality and gender.


Table 1

Percentage of Most Required (N = 14) Introductory Psychology Textbooks

Mentioning, Defining and Discussing Selected Sexuality-related Concepts

Concept/Term

% Mentioning

% Defining

% Discussing

Sexual Acts

Masturbation/ one-person sex

36

7

0

Extramarital sex/ cheating/ adultery/infidelity

21

14

14

Premarital sex

57

50

43

Sexual intercourse

100

100

100

Oral sex

29

0

0

Sexual techniques

0

0

0

Sexual Cognitions

Sexual desire

57

50

29

Sexual curiosity

14

14

0

Sexual decisions

0

0

0

Sexual fantasies

50

43

36

Physical attractiveness/ sexual attractiveness

100

100

86

Theories of Sexuality

Biological

100

100

100

Evolutionary

100

100

100

Freudian

100

100

93

Sociological

86

86

86

Feminist

0

0

0

Researchers

Masters and Johnson

100

93

79

Alfred Kinsey (Kinsey Report)

79

71

64

Physiology of Sexual Response

Sexual response cycle

100

100

100

Penile erection

100

43

0

External sex organs

100

79

43

Internal sex organs

100

79

43

Sex hormones

100

100

50

Pheromones

21

14

0

Erogenous zones

43

21

0

Brain and sex

79

79

71

Sexual Development

Sexual differentiation

93

86

64

Menstruation/ menarche

100

93

14

Puberty

100

100

64

Menopause

100

79

14

Sexuality during childhood

93

86

64

Sexuality during adolescence

100

100

100

Sexuality during adulthood

93

93

71

Sexual Orientation

Heterosexual

100

100

86

Homosexuality

100

100

100

Gay

100

79

7

Lesbian

93

71

7

Transgender

57

57

21

LGBTQ

0

0

0

Intersex

36

36

7

Same-sex marriage

14

7

0

Gay prejudice

43

36

29

Gender Roles

Gender stereotypes

64

64

36

Sexual scripts

64

64

43

Sex differences in personality

100

100

86

Sex differences in cognition

100

100

93

Sex differences in behavior

100

100

86

Reproduction

Conception

93

86

29

Pregnancy

93

86

79

Childbirth

79

57

14

Infertility

0

0

0

Reproductive technology

0

0

0

Contraception/ pregnancy prevention

36

36

7

Abortion

21

7

0

Condoms

79

43

14

Diaphragm

7

7

0

Withdrawal

0

0

0

IUD

0

0

0

Rhythm method

0

0

0

Sexual Relationships

Love

100

100

93

Sexual communication

14

7

14

Multicultural sexuality

57

57

57

Sexual Variation

Paraphilias

36

57

7

Hypersexuality and asexuality

0

0

0

Cybersex

21

7

0

Sexual Coercion

Rape

43

43

36

Incest

7

7

7

Sexual abuse

36

29

0

Sexual harassment

7

7

0

Sex Laws

Sex-related laws

0

0

0

Selling Sex

Prostitution

14

0

0

Pornography

14

14

7

Sexual Disorders (any type)

Sex therapy

21

14

7

Sexually transmitted infections or diseases

HIV/AIDS

93

93

79

HPV

36

29

14

Herpes

57

43

7

Gonorrhea

21

21

0

Syphilis

36

36

7

Pubic Lice

7

7

0

Hepatitis

7

7

0

Safe sex

71

50

43


Discussion

The question at hand is, "Is Introductory Psychology asexual?" Almost all the human sexuality terms and concepts for which we searched (nearly 9 out of 10) were at least mentioned, and two-thirds did receive discussion in at least one of the most required introductory textbooks. Further, over a third of books featured a human sexuality chapter. We thus interpret this as a cautiously positive "no" to our question and commend the efforts of our textbook-writing colleagues to infuse this important topic into the psychology curriculum. We would like to note for our esteemed text author colleagues, however, some areas in which a discussion of such might promote sexually wise choices and inclusion.

Most books had some coverage of the usual suspects — sexual development (e.g., menarche, puberty), love, physical attraction, sexual intercourse, conception, pregnancy, and childbirth — with various discussion thereof. Curiously, however, no books mentioned the related topics infertility and reproductive technology. With about one out of six couples affected by infertility issues world-wide (World Health Organization, 2002), and with artificial reproductive technology evolving over the past 30 years affecting individuals, families, and societies around the world with social, cultural, and ethical implications (Inhorn & Birenbaum-Carmeli, 2008), this topic may warrant inclusion in future editions of introductory psychology textbooks.

A majority of textbooks we analyzed mentioned safe sex; however, less than half discussed it. Only two of the books discussed condoms, two discussed human papillomavirus (HPV; a virus that causes genital warts) and one discussed herpes. Although we understand textbook space is a premium, we implore our textbook author colleagues to introduce and elaborate upon safe sexual practices, even if this means a mere page of discussion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the United States, people between the ages of 15 and 24 account for almost half of the 19 million new sexually transmitted infections reported each year, (CDC, 2012a), making this the highest rate of any age group (CDC, 2012b). Moreover, about 43 percent of women aged 14 to 59 years have HPV (CDC, 2010), and 16 percent of people in the US between age 14 to 49 have genital herpes (CDC, 2012c). Although one might rationalize that a safe sex discussion is better reserved for a biology or health class, the counterargument is that with its cognitive, social, and developmental correlates and consequences, this topic is inherently linked to the science of behavior and mental processes. Some coverage in an Introductory Psychology textbook — even one chart of diseases and risks — may help the college student population, typically emerging adults in the aforementioned at-risk age groups, make educated decisions about their and health and psychological well-being, and arguably, the health and well-being of others.

Further, only about a quarter of the most required Introductory Psychology texts discussed rape, and none discussed sexual harassment. The U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey (2012) showed that nearly a quarter of a million people in the US were raped or sexually assaulted in 2011. That is, as underscored by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (2013), every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. Perhaps even two to three sentences describing the how, why, when, and who of such in a developmental or social chapter could promote awareness and decrease risk, providing an immeasurable service to textbook readers. Similarly, sexual harassment may appear to be a topic that should be dealt with in the workforce, but again, a few lines regarding the inappropriateness of sexual commentary, jokes, and advances in the workforce can promote awareness and responsibility.

Whereas 100 percent of the books analyzed discussed homosexuality, interestingly, none discussed gay marriage — a hot topic in the United States at the present time. A discussion of such in an Introductory Psychology course would make steps toward cultural literacy and social tolerance, promoting students' ability to recognize and respect diversity — a goal supported by the American Psychological Association (2007).

Given that Goal 8 of the APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major (2007) is to promote student understanding of sociocultural and international diversity (p. 10), and the APA stresses the learning outcome of recognizing and respecting diversity (p. 17), we found it surprising that only about half of the books we examined touched upon multicultural sexuality. If textbooks are to mention sexuality at all, we stress the necessity for textbooks to elaborate upon sexuality in this regard.

Of note, the word "sex" is not mentioned in the APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major, nor is the topic of sexual orientation, even though the Guidelines were reviewed by the APA Committee on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Concerns (p. 6). We respectfully urge our colleagues to include this information in future iterations of the Guidelines.

Again, one cannot expect all material from a subdiscipline course to be represented in an introductory course; however, we were interested in learning the extent to which human sexuality is represented in introductory textbooks. Introductory texts aim to impart knowledge of nomoethetic and idiographic findings about the causes, correlates, and consequences of human behavior, but in doing so they can also promote skills and values that, per the aim of the Psychology major curriculum, aid students, particularly emerging adults, in the development of lifelong learning skills and competencies (APA, 2007, p. 3). We therefore argue strongly that knowledge of human sexuality is essential to include therein.

To summarize our analyses, we found that Introductory Psychology textbooks did indeed provide a commendable breadth and depth of human sexuality coverage. However, although the long length of textbooks is a concern to professors (Griggs, Proctor, & Cook, 2004; Griggs et al., 2000), we do offer the above suggestions for additional topics that merit inclusion in future iterations of texts.

Controversy

The fact remains that some people, even college professors, are just not comfortable discussing human sexuality (see Hyde & DeLamater, 2011, for discussion). As an example, fairly recently, a colleague at a large college in a major city in the northeast US offered to teach a course on the psychology of human sexuality and was met with great resistance — one faculty member actually asked, "Where are you going to teach that, in the gym?" Although Introductory Psychology by definition and purpose is not a Human Sexuality course, by infusing sexual themes into Introductory Psychology courses, we can eliminate some of the embarrassment over human sexuality — a repertoire of behavior and mental processes fundamental to human existence. That is, we are likely making students more comfortable with the causes, correlates, and consequences of human sexuality through direct education or perhaps even via the mechanisms of mere exposure (Zajonc, 1968).

Limitations and Future Directions

Our analyses focused on books required in spring 2011. It is possible that some material analyzed above has been or will be added, changed, or subtracted in subsequent editions of the textbooks. It would be interesting to compare coverage of specific sexuality themes in newer iterations of the most required introductory psychology textbooks with the present findings. Further, we could not ascertain how much coverage has grown or changed from previous editions to our targeted books because of a lack of access to these older books. Moreover, it would be prudent to follow the approach of Harbath and colleagues (2011) and check for accuracy of sexual content in introductory psychology texts. Misinformation in this regard can lead to life-altering or even deadly consequences.

Of course, we note that even when information is included in a textbook, this does not guarantee an instructor will cover the material or require its reading for class. We thus urge our teaching colleagues to present at least some of the basics of human sexuality to our Introductory Psychology students to promote the self-understanding, diversity inclusion, and healthy choices that can be informed from exposure to this most fundamental of human behaviors.

There are definitive reasons the 14 books analyzed herein are the most frequently required in the United States. Reviewers have noted their clarity, thoroughness, thoughtfulness of presentation, and insightful applications of psychology to the real world, as well as the texts' self-study tools and vivid imagery that help keep students engaged (see College Board, 2013, for various reviews). The purpose of the present work was not to critique these invaluable resources, but rather, to note existing textbook coverage, and to urge our respected textbook authors, teachers of psychology, and other APA authors (e.g., Guideline developers) to promote an even deeper understanding of sexuality within our curriculum, beginning with the introductory course.

Some psychology instructors may argue that it is not our job to teach students "everything." In fact, one textbook author told us quite emphatically that if Introductory Psychology instructors wanted more human sexuality coverage in textbooks, it would be there. That being said, but for sexual behavior, humanity would not exist. As long as people are here and wish to remain here, sexuality will be here. Sexual behavior serves not only to propagate the species, but also as a prominent social force. If psychology aims to encourage an understanding of the human psyche, the psychology of sexuality must be a core curricular feature. Most people are curious about sexual behavior (Hyde & DeLamater, 2011), and with Introductory Psychology, we have a golden opportunity to impart knowledge of human sexual behavior and mental processes to arm students with the knowledge and power to be compassionate, understanding, safe, inclusive, and themselves.

Acknowledgements

We are indebted to Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Worth, and Wiley & Sons Publishers and to R. Arila, S. Hughes, and B. Lear for their generous help with this project.

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