Sex as a matter of course

How well should people know each other before they have sex?

In the biggest classroom at UC Santa Barbara, sociology professors John and Janice Baldwin are reeling off survey results showing that male and female students are almost equally willing to sleep with someone they love. But the hall erupts in knowing laughter as a gender gap emerges: Men, the long-married couple reports, remain eager for sex through descending categories of friendship and casual acquaintance. Women don't.

By the time Janice Baldwin gets to the statistic on sex between strangers, the din from the 600 students is so loud, they can hardly hear her announce that 37% of men would have sex with a person they had just met, compared with only 7% of women.

"So you can see, males are a little more likely to go to bed with somebody they don't know very well," Baldwin says dryly.

"Or at all," she adds, to guffaws.

By turns humorous and deadly serious, "Sociology of Human Sexuality" has been an institution at the beach-side campus for more than two decades. So have the Baldwins, unflappable sixtysomethings who are trusted voices on love and lovemaking for thousands of current and former UC Santa Barbara students.

Today's undergraduates have easy access to X-rated Internet sites, and many have watched television gurus dissect troubled marriages. But there are often gaps in their knowledge of biology and sexual behavior, the result of squeamish parents and less-than-candid high school health teachers.

The Baldwins step in with data about orgasm, birth control and infertility -- and, implicitly, with their own example of a 41-year marriage that seems to work well.

"We don't feel we are the sex king and queen of the world," Janice Baldwin, 63, said recently in the cramped office the couple share, their desks touching. "So this is not about us. It's about the students, and we are privileged to get to teach a class that can help them avoid the downsides of sex and increase the positives."

John Baldwin, 68, said he and his wife do not aim to be role models. "We are not trying to teach them to be like us," he said. "But we are going to be talking about relationships, and a lot of them want relationships. Even though there is a lot of casual sex, they want to find somebody special . . . So we are little hope signals."

Students say the class is fun, eye-opening and altogether useful. Clearly, many of them pay attention: Lectures on sexually transmitted infections can trigger a stampede to the campus health center.

Adam Milholland, 21, a geography major from Lompoc, Calif., said his high school health class stressed abstinence. So he appreciates the candor and scope of the Baldwins' course. "This class teaches you stuff that is important to your life," he said.

The couple's aura of nonjudgmental experience helps. "It's kind of cool to have teachers who know what they're talking about and who have been through it," Milholland said. "They've probably had their problems, but they're still happy together. You can tell by how they interact with each other and support each other."

"Sociology of Human Sexuality" is among the longest-running and most popular classes ever at UC Santa Barbara, according to the registrar. The couple have received various honors, most recently in 2003, when John Baldwin was given the campus award for distinguished teaching; the citation noted his sensitivity in a field that could be a "minefield for the careless." (His wife, a senior part-time lecturer, could not share the award, which is for tenured and tenure-track faculty only.)

Both Baldwins grew up in Ohio families that avoided talking about sex. Janice's mother never told her about menstruation. John's early sex education consisted of his father holding him up to a garage window to watch two dogs mate.

John started at Johns Hopkins University as a pre-med undergraduate and stayed for a doctorate in sociology. Janice earned a bachelor's degree at Ohio State University and, much later, a sociology doctorate from UC Santa Barbara. They met on a blind date in Florida, where he was doing research and she was attending summer school.

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After marrying, they traveled for several years in the jungles of Latin America while he researched the behavior of squirrel monkeys. There, they witnessed the human suffering caused by overpopulation and lack of birth control. The experience influenced Janice to volunteer for Planned Parenthood when they returned to Santa Barbara in the early '70s.

John Baldwin worked his way up the UC academic ladder to full professor of sociology. When a sexuality course taught by graduate students was about to end, the couple picked up the torch, diving into research that concentrated on human, not monkey, behavior.

Martha Kempner, communications vice president of the nonprofit Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, said many colleges offer similar courses, but she knew of no other taught by a married couple. "Having role models is a really interesting addition," Kempner said.

Slim and athletic-looking, the Baldwins often wear jeans and boots to class. Standing on opposite sides of the stage during their three-times-a-week lectures, they take charge of the campus' enormous Campbell Hall like cheery radio announcers.

As large screens display New Yorker magazine cartoons about love alongside scientific charts about birth control, the pair speak without notes, often alternating sentence by sentence.

Occasionally, they converge at center stage for role play. In a class about the life cycles of romance, they impersonate a young couple in an awkward first meeting.

"Hey, aren't you in my history class?" John says, using a trite pickup line that resonates with his audience.

As the discussion turns to keeping love alive after infatuation fades, the professors demonstrate exercises in compliments. Janice tells John how kind and caring he is, and the class lets out a collective "Aaawww." They also act out the kind of bickering they urge couples to avoid, with Janice telling John she is "so sick" of him wearing the same jeans.

Students say they watch for signs of actual discord. If the Baldwins cut each other off, there are worried whispers about a possible tiff.

"They do skits onstage and do little flirty things, so you can obviously tell they have a good relationship. But there is still some kind of mystery behind them," said Serena Winters, 20, a communications major from Huntington Beach who leads study sessions for the class.

The Baldwins are tight-lipped about their own lives, except to say that they have no children, were never married to anyone else and spend their free time hiking. They say it is fine for students to abstain from sex, but they also give off the vibe of supportive parents who think it's all right for young people to be sexually active as long as they keep it safe.

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When students express public -- or more often, private -- befuddlement about anatomy and arousal, John Baldwin, unperturbed, hands out pertinent illustrations the way a geology teacher might distribute seismic fault maps. He and his wife have noted that as newlyweds, they too were uncertain about the proper names and locations of some key parts.

Although their introductory classes are too large to allow much give-and-take with students, the Baldwins hold smaller sections for advanced students, including one this spring with just 16 in a small conference room.

There, the couple led students through topics from assigned readings, including the effect of testosterone on male violence and the popularity of cosmetic surgery. The professors acted as moderators, engaging students in a lively discussion on the morality of outing closeted gay politicians and celebrities.

"When is it right?" John Baldwin asked. "When is it an invasion of privacy?"

The professors are careful to handle controversial topics such as abortion and birth control in an even-handed manner, even though fliers about emergency contraception and referrals to Planned Parenthood are posted on their office walls. Over the years, a handful of students have complained to administrators about topics they found offensive, such as oral sex, but no material has been dropped.

Many topics in the course demand forthrightness as well as sensitivity. In a lecture about abortion dating to ancient Greece, the Baldwins advised students to look away if images were too upsetting. The screens showed photos of aborted fetuses and of the bodies of women who died after botched illegal abortions.

The topic that seems to upset students most, the Baldwins say, is parental sex. Year after year, the class breaks into groans at images of mature couples in nude embraces.

"They . . don't like to think about their parents having sex," Janice Baldwin said.

A public website linked to the course, www.SexInfoOnLine.com, is explicit but not prurient. It answers such questions as "Is masturbation dangerous?" (Answer: No.) and provides information about emergency contraception, along with 50 ideas for great dates.

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The Baldwins' periodic surveys of undergraduates' sex lives generate lively discussions -- and perhaps relief for the celibate at a campus that Playboy magazine often ranks high on its list of top party schools.

In the couple's most recent survey, from 2007, about 75% of respondents said they had engaged in vaginal intercourse. The rest said they were virgins by that definition, although some had had oral sex.

The survey also found that promiscuity on the campus peaked in the late '80s, before awareness of AIDS. In 1988, 38% of the school's sexually active undergraduates said they had had at least one sexual encounter with a person they had known one day or less; by 2007, that figure had dropped to 26%.

Professor Maria Charles, vice chair of UC Santa Barbara's sociology department, said she took the Baldwins' class as an undergraduate and is not surprised that enrollment remains high.

"It's very research-based. It's not their personal opinions and value judgments," Charles said. Yet, she added, students are drawn to the Baldwins as parental figures who speak about sex in the context of "a healthy, loving relationship."

That may explain why the couple, who say they have no thoughts of retirement, keep receiving the ultimate compliment from former students: invitations to weddings.

"We try to transmit an ethos of non-embarrassment, and I think students have felt comfortable around us for a long time, which is nice," John Baldwin said. "They keep us young."

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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