MC senior leads a “Sexology Revolution” on campus

MC senior leads a “Sexology Revolution” on campus

Nov. 22, 2019

Maryville College senior Cheryl French ’20 wants to talk to you about sex. In doing so, she hopes to break down the barriers surrounding sex education and debunk some common misconceptions about sex, once and for all.

“Opening the floor for a conversation, I think, is the first step in getting people to destroy the stigma surrounding sex education,” said French, who is from Alcoa, Tenn.

For her Senior Study, French aims to combat abstinence-only sexual education through campus-wide sex education classes. Her research indicates that abstinence-only based curriculum is not only ineffective at preventing sex before marriage, but it also leads to higher sexually transmitted infections (STI) and teen pregnancy rates.

One of the distinctive features of a Maryville education, the Senior Study requirement calls for students to complete a two-semester research and writing project that is guided by a faculty supervisor. According to the College’s catalog, the Senior Study program “facilitates the scholarship of discovery within the major field and integrates those methods with the educational goals fostered through the Maryville Curriculum.”

French said that STI and teen pregnancy rates in Tennessee alone have nearly doubled since the early 2000s.

“Right off the bat, I recognized an underlying need in my area for a combative approach to abstinence-only education,” French said. “I wanted to develop a program that was comprehensive that could kind of fill in the gap to abstinence-only sex ed.”

Beginning on Jan. 15, 2020, French will teach six on-campus sex ed classes with topics ranging from contraceptives to LGBTQ issues. Each course will be accompanied by an online video that addresses some of the questions that came up in class. However, hosting these classes won’t be free – French will require funding for supplies and educational materials, so she decided to apply for a healthcare grant through Be Interactive.

Be Interactive is a nonprofit “inspiring the empathic to make an impact through radical kindness, respectful creativity, volunteering, and charity.” It was founded by French’s favorite musical artist, Lorin Ashton - better known by his stage name Bassnectar.

Every six months, Be Interactive selects a specific theme for its grant program and awards $10,000 to one applicant whose mission pertains to the theme. French was the recipient of the fall 2019 healthcare grant, and her project with Be Interactive has since been titled “Sexology Revolution.”  

It’s impressive for an undergraduate student to obtain this type of grant, said Dr. Karen Beale, associate professor of psychology at MC and French’s Senior Study advisor.

“This is the first time in my 14 years [of teaching] that a student has written a grant to obtain funding outside of MC for their Senior Study,” said Beale. “I am so impressed by this, and it is a great skill that she can then take into the world.”

French, a child development major with a double minor in sociology and women’s studies, became interested in sexology early in her Maryville College career. She credits her First Year Seminar (FYS) class, “Sex in the Modern Society,” as the catalyst. The class, she said, really opened her eyes to how society interacts with sex and sexuality.

Beale was French’s professor for that FYS class and has continued to teach her throughout her college career. She said it’s been an honor to watch French grow – both as a student and a person – since that first class.

“I had the great privilege of being Cheryl’s FYS advisor from day one, when she stepped on campus,” said Beale. “Since then, she has taken nearly every class I have taught, as well as having me as her Senior Study advisor. I am so happy to watch her grow and to be part of her journey.”

Having entered MC after nine years of Catholic schooling, French felt a class about sex in society was a breath of fresh air.

“In my high school, you were sent to detention if they caught you with a condom in your backpack,” French said, adding that the sex education provided was more abstinence-based.

Today, French’s outlook on sex couldn’t be more different than what she was taught in high school. She feels that she’s more open than ever about sex; however, she understands that not everyone has the same level of comfort she does with the topic and hopes to be a resource to others with questions or concerns.

“I feel that I’m very open about sex and sexuality,” said French. “I can have conversations about it, and I find myself to be a resource for a lot of people in my life. What’s so great about it is that I will never stop learning, because this topic will always be adapting and changing with the times.”

French believes that comprehensive sex education is necessary and that it should begin from a young age. She implores others to look at the negative consequences of incomprehensive or inaccurate sex ed – such as rising STI and teen pregnancy rates. Right now, she said, most young adults and kids under the age of 18 learn about sex from pornography.

“I think people are going to get the answers one way or another, and if it’s accurate, safe and informative the first time they’re given the information, that opens the door for correct sex education to be spread,” French said.

Beale said that French is one of three students working on a Senior Study centered around sexual health and is pleased to see this amount of advocacy and interest in the topic. She hopes that French’s project will help spread the sexual health conversation throughout the entire MC campus.

“I hope this will set students up to make healthy decisions about sex and also to create a climate where people share their thoughts and desires about sex with their partner – whether they are choosing to wait till marriage or they want to engage in sex behaviors currently,” Beale said.

When asked what she’d like to do after college, French said that, if she had to title it, she’d like to be a sexual advocate. She thinks the best place for her would be a position at her local health department.

In French’s opinion, the entire population has a long way to go before fully embracing sex and sexuality, but she feels the U.S. is particularly behind in attitudes toward sex and sexuality. Because of this, she hopes that the MC community will approach her program with an open mind, and, with any success, her project can be a small part of a larger societal shift in sexual acceptance and understanding, beginning on the Maryville College campus.

“I hope that people come away from these courses with a comfort and an understanding that everyone is sexual in one way or another, and it’s not wrong to feel that way,” French said.

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”