The mystery of sexual nomenclature

I have been cleaning frantically as I try to get ready for my last day of work. This means I have uncovered a huge array of strange and fascinating items, which I will now share for your edification (or horror).  Today’s exhibit: the collection of misspellings and mistakes on a freshman biology human sexuality exam I gave in 1998.

I taught freshman biology for about 17 years before I completely burned out. (I started having dreams about photosynthesis where chloroplasts were threatening to knee-cap me. I took that as a sign it was time for a job change.)

Each semester we would drag the kids through a human sexuality unit in hopes of encouraging them to practice safe sex, as well as understand their hormone-raddled bodies better.

It was actually a lot of fun; I demonstrated that you can actually put over 2 liters of fluid inside a condom, so complaints they were ‘too tight’ was suspect.  I made up “body fluids” which they could then exchange with other students (in paper cups!) to model sexually transmitted diseases.  I explained that oral herpes could become genital herpes.

Yep, they liked those classes. And each year, that exam was consistently the one on which students would score the worst.

Was it because they thought they knew it all? Was it because the topic was too mortifying? I don’t know.

The question on the exam that destroyed them was the same each year: Here’s a diagram of the human male and female reproductive tract. Label some parts.  The answers were just as hilarious as they were tragic:

Name two parts of the female external genitalia:  clavicle and clitorium.

This gave rise to a behind-the-scenes plans among the instructors to start a sex shop called the Clitorium Emporium, BTW. If anyone registers that domain name, I expect a cut of the action.

Some of the other answers were a bit disturbing; the scrotum was labled as “sodom” fairly often.

Someone labeled the bladder on the male diagram as the uterus, even though there was a rather conspicuous dangly bit in front!  It also was called the “Bilbo gland” once, which made me wonder if hobbits also had hairy…no, never mind about that.

I suspect that this is simply a symptom of our uptight high school system and fear of teen sexuality. I know that I would not have passed this exam as a freshman. Hell, I didn’t learn that hermaphrodite, bisexual, and homosexual were not the same until I was at least a sophomore in college.  Thanks Texas.

Was forcing these students to learn the names for the parts of their body worthwhile?  Does using the proper names really matter?

I think so, even if it made some students very uncomfortable. I feel like we should at least give students an owner’s manual to their body, and make them learn the parts.

When did you learn all this stuff? How did you learn it?

11 thoughts on “The mystery of sexual nomenclature

  1. Haha, hilararious, but tragic. Yes, they DO need to learn the proper name for human sexual anatomy. I learned some in HS class, some by going to the library and doing research (in HS, because I didn’t believe the BS my classmates were trying to tell me…turns out they were all wrong!). I finished my education by purchasing a book from PLANNED PARENTHOOD called “My body, my self” which I would recommend to anyone! I was smart enough not to become a teen pregnancy statistic. One of my classmates in HS STILL didn’t know what she’d done to get pregnant, even after having a child…and apparently, no one told her…sad.

  2. Some of it I learned in high school biology (esp. stuff like meiosis and how pregnancy happens) and sex ed class (mainly the varieties of STDs). Some things I learned in college voluntary sex ed sessions. Other things I learned through my own, um, research.

  3. Wow. Just wow. I learned all this stuff from my mom in something like 3rd or 4th grade, so I was way ahead of nearly everyone else I went to high school with. However, I did have one student, a senior in a biology program, a while back who had obviously never talked about sexuality with anyone who probably would have turned in an exam like the ones you describe. She was married at something like 17 and she and her husband were trying to have kids when I had her as a student, so I assume she had some clue about what she was trying to do. However, when it came time to do her presentation on odonate mating habits (a topic she CHOSE mind you), she could barely get through it. Every time she thought she might have to say the word penis in front of everyone else, she’d pause, turn flaming red, and figure out some other way to say it that was less graphic. She did an entire 20 minute presentation on dragonfly sex without ever using a single anatomical word! I’ve never seen anyone so mortified in my life. Everyone else teased her a bit for it later and that oddly helped her get over it, but I felt so very bad for her trying to talk about odonate penises when she’d clearly never said this word aloud, and certainly not in front of a whole group of classmates.

  4. hmm… funny, sad or both? Though honestly, I am not sure I would have done any better than your students. I graduated from high school in Los Angeles in the mid-seventies. The only thing I can recall is sessions where they divided us up by gender and then had the PE coaches talk to us. It was so memorable, I don’t recall anything that was said. What I do recall is my first girlfriend in college had a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” that we read together. That was far more educational.

  5. I think I learned all this from a biology class when I was 11 or 12 years old (no idea what that is in school years over there) taught by a wonderful old man who drilled into us that “excrement” != “excretions” and “testes” was what we should be writing down where we’d previously put our more inventive labels.
    I never took biology any further but those memories are actually making me regret it now. And it’s shocking to think that there are adults walking around who don’t know this stuff.

  6. While I have some issues with the science education I got (seriously, high school biology should include a least some labs) I will be forever grateful that Maine has had comprehensive sex ed at least since I was in middle school in the mid-90s. I had a health class every year that covered anatomy, sexual health, contraception, and plenty of non-sex ed stuff like nutrition, first aid, and CPR. The fact that this isn’t a normal part of public education everywhere in the US is depressing and honestly makes me angry.

  7. Moopet–you would not believe some of the conversations I had. (Like the kid that didn’t know you UNROLL the condoms. He just wore them like a jaunty little beret, I guess.)

    I forgot to mention the film that I was hauled off to the gym to watch with all the other girls in 5th grade. It…mostly was confusing, and convinced me I was going to develop a debilitating disease. It was produced by Tampax, and conspicuously branded. I do remember that part.

  8. I hope you don’t mind, but I forwarded this to a few teachers I know with a recommendation that they follow your blog. This is both sad and hysterically funny…

  9. “I forgot to mention the film that I was hauled off to the gym to watch with all the other girls in 5th grade. It…mostly was confusing, and convinced me I was going to develop a debilitating disease. It was produced by Tampax, and conspicuously branded. I do remember that part.”

    …oh, Texas. I think it was 4th grade when boys were shuffled into one room, girls to another. We left with brown paper bags of ‘feminine products’ and the understanding that puberty was, in fact, THE END OF THE WORLD. Also, sex = DEATH. Not babies, mind you, I don’t remember discussion of babies as a result of sex, just… SLOW, PAINFUL, OOZING DEATH. Texas school system for the fail!

  10. Also? Anatomy? That was taught by neighborhood parents trying to explain how/why the dog is humping your leg. If anything was mentioned in school, I’ve successfully blocked it out.

  11. you would not believe some of the conversations I had. (Like the kid that didn’t know you UNROLL the condoms. He just wore them like a jaunty little beret, I guess.)

    I shouldn’t laugh (but I am.) My mom told me that when she was in high school in San Diego (circa 1940) she had a classmate that was convinced she was pregnant after kissing a boy for the first time.

    Which leads me to a slightly off-topic pet peeve. Its freaking obvious that a lack of knowledge only leads to misinformation and erroneous conclusions on any pretty much any subject. Sex education is a necessity, but there are still knuckleheads that fantasize that if they don’t teach their kids and they stop the schools from teaching their kids, that their kids will magically not be interested, instead of very interested and very ill-informed.

    Back on topic, good and entertaining post. And the wolf spider pics from a few days back, beautiful and scary. (I studied computers instead of my fave biology for a reason.)

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