They were talking about using corsets and harnesses, getting the most out of cross-dressing, and getting consent during a risk-seeking fantasy — think cops and robbers — during a class about socially unacceptable fantasies.
The teacher was Kali Morgan, owner of Philly's Sexploratorium. The students were in David Azzolina's English class at the University of Pennsylvania. And they were all participating in the Sexual Intelligence College Outreach Program: The South Street sex shop's two-year-old initiative to educate young adults with course offerings like "The Penis and Beyond: Sexual Wellness," "Pleasure for Penis Owners (and Their Partners)," and "Talk, Don't Run: Decoding Consent and Safer Sex."
Azzolina, an adjunct assistant English professor, believes it's the best way to learn about the subject. "In a university setting, sexuality is spoken of in a very theoretical way," he said. "It needs to be hands-on because that's what sexuality is."
Anonymous evaluations back that up: Students say Morgan's class is the highlight of the semester, Azzolina said.
"The class is provocative, but they do it in such a humane way," he said, like the time student volunteers stood in the corner and were tied up to demonstrate how easy it is to be in control of another person.
That was eye-opening for Jackson Bentley, a Penn junior. "The teacher stressed emotional BDSM, that tying people up and manipulating them physically was one aspect, but the more tricky aspect was not hurting people emotionally or mentally," Bentley said.
Most important, he said, "was just being able to talk about these things. I think that's really valuable, especially in a college environment, where sexual assault is a huge problem."
It may not be your typical sex ed class, but for many students, college is the first time they have the freedom to explore their own sexuality, an opportunity that shouldn't be overlooked, said Renata Arrington-Sanders, a member of the board of directors of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
"Adolescence is the time of identity development, relationship formation, and emerging adulthood," she said. "We often leave out what feels good, including pleasure and satisfaction, and in thinking about intimacy, what feels good is what reinforces behavior in one's mind.
"When we don't arm people appropriately with good, healthy sexual health tools, it makes them vulnerable and puts them at risk."
Having presented workshops at Penn since at least 2000, Sexploratorium created the outreach program two years ago to expand its reach to young adults "who are developing their own sense of personal identities and experiences, often for the first time," said program creator Ashley Netanel, who has a master's degree in human sexuality studies from Widener University. She left Sexploratorium in late June, when she moved out of state.
Sexploratorium charges $300 for the classes, which can be adapted for any college classroom or school group. Since the program officially launched in 2016, close to 100 students have taken part in five workshops at Penn, the College of New Jersey, and Temple University, with more scheduled during the fall semester. Classes are taught by Morgan, other Sexploratorium staff, or outside consultants well-versed in particular topics.
For the student organization Women in Learning and Leadership's Redefining Sex Week in November, about 40 students from TCNJ took part in "Accessibility Sex: Sexuality and Dis/ability." Isabel Kaufman, an educational outreach specialist for the advocacy group Disabled in Action, included a demonstration of sex toys that can be especially useful for people with disabilities.
"Oftentimes, people with disabilities feel invisible, especially when it comes to sexuality and romantic relationships," said Kaufman. "There are a lot of misconceptions about disabilities and a culture of silence around it."
Rachel Smith, vice executive chair of the student organization, who chose the workshop, wanted programming that redefined sex, "not your average sexual education that you get in high school." (It should be noted that although New Jersey requires students to take health education, Pennsylvania doesn't require schools to offer sex education.) "It broadened my ideas as an able-bodied person about people with disabilities," she said.
One of the program's more popular workshops, "Queering up Sex," examines the evolution of the word queer, and its uses in literature and poetry, said Netanel. It also examines what it means to "queer" sex, shattering the idea that sex can look only one way, said Netanel, by adding sex toys, changing positions, or including BDSM or kink.
"We started talking about sex in the form of physical expression, about what the definition of queer actually means," said Magdalena Kurnyta, 22, of Clifton, N.J., who graduated from TCNJ in May. Students were asked to anonymously list their own definitions of what queer sex meant, and how it was portrayed in the dominant media. "It was interesting to see the different nuanced definitions — queer identity is a verb, noun, and adjective. Exposure was the No. 1 thing this gave me and other college students."
Outside the classroom setting, workshops are also presented at community centers and at Sexploratorium.
For Morgan, the program bridges the gap between what students might already know and what they should know, she said — "sex positive" lessons that provide understanding of things like anatomy, physiology, sociology, and psychology, "rather than a focus on entertainment."