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Ask anything

New instructor provides safe space to explore healthy sexuality

Dan Dowhower

Dan Dowhower wants to have a conversation.

The topic, however, may make you uncomfortable. You might even lower your eyes or squirm in your seat.

Because Dan wants to talk about sex.

Sort of.

As the new instructor for the undergraduate course Human Sexuality, he wants you to think beyond body parts.

“This class provides a chance to have a safe, adult conversation,” he says. “It’s a place where I create an environment where students feel they can ask any question.”

It’s important, he says, “because there’s great variability in levels of understanding and awareness and certainly comfort levels in talking about these kinds of issues, which is why I love working with undergraduates.”

He particularly enjoys encouraging students to think beyond the course work — and their personal experiences.

“I’m more than a generation removed from these students and learn as much about their world as they learn from mine,” he says. “We engage in a lot of critical thinking and conversation. It’s not so much if there’s a right or wrong answer, but if we have looked at something from multiple perspectives.”

Dan, who earned his PhD in public health from Oregon State University in 2018, approaches sexuality in the context of the broader community, along with an undercurrent of human development across the lifespan.

Diverse perspectives bring to light real-world challenges

Alumni might remember Kathy Greaves, who taught Human Sexuality on campus for about 20 years and was voted best professor/instructor at OSU. She also wrote the popular no-holds-barred “Ask Dr. Sex” column in the Daily Barometer for more than a decade.

So, is Dan the new Dr. Sex?

“I’m not Dr. Sex, but I do want to be the kind of person that anyone can have a conversation with. I want students to know that I’m a safe person,” he says. “I think it’s important to make eye contact and build trust, especially around the topics I teach.”

Transparency and trust are key, he says. And that starts with civil behavior and conversations, as well as confidentiality. “We’re sharing things that are very real and we need to be mindful,” he says. For students who aren’t comfortable sharing or asking a question in class, he offers a confidential mailbox.

His critical charge, as he sees it, is to question ourselves and the messages we’ve received throughout our life, to think about the impact on society as a whole, and most importantly to think about how we would respond when faced with questions from a person younger than ourselves.

As the father of two teenagers, the latter isn’t a stretch.

“When you talk to someone younger, don’t project,” he says. “Just answer their question in an age-appropriate way. Don’t overcomplicate it. It’s more important that you have the conversation.

“Also think of timing. A lot of people wonder about when they should have ‘the talk.’ Look for opportunities. Sex is a behavior, but it’s based on a relationship. Identify positive relationships and have a child reflect on what they think and how they feel. The level of comfort you feel or project is the level of comfort they will have.”

What will make the next generation healthier?

In class, he challenges students to dig deep. He recently showed a video of a woman giving birth. “It isn’t about shock,” he says. “I use it to roll back the conversation to prenatal care, the realities of risk for mom and baby, and the effect of STIs and HIV.” 

Also discussed are topics such as consent, fertility, gender, gay marriage, rape and choice.

When students think of a problem they want to address, he asks: “What would you want to happen if this came home? What’s the collateral damage? Would you make a different decision? Are we being good global citizens?”

Think of the next generation, he says. “It’s not about what will make you happy. It’s what will make the next generation healthier.”

For the generation sitting in his class, Dan sees a disconnect between what his students are learning and what they are practicing. A recent survey found that most students are sexually active, but only 65 percent practice safe birth control every time.

“We’re educated, but we’re not listening to evidence,” he says. “What’s happening? What conversations do we need to have for the next generation?

“I want to empower both men and women and their understanding of themselves and others so that they open themselves up to possibilities by making informed decisions based on facts.”

He admits it’s not easy. “I think it’s interesting no one wants to talk about sex. But thankfully someone did, or we wouldn’t be here!”