Tell the Teacher We're Cruisin'
Teacher, teacher, I declare--I see Monica Lewinsky's underwear!
Actually, the panties in question don't belong to Lewinsky; they're owned by drag queen Celia Putty, a performer at Wink's, a Valley gay bar. But that doesn't stop 30 Glendale Community College students and their instructor from roaring as the "semen"-caked intern impersonator waddles across the stage on kneepads, extracting stogies from her skivvies while lip-synching to an old Edie Adams cigar commercial.
Your typical classroom outing, it ain't.
"Does your Mommy know how you're spending your lunch money?" scolds bewigged faux fatale Barbra Seville as she accepts a one-dollar tip offered by a student. Then, after sliding the bill into her artificially enhanced cleavage, "This isn't part of your scholarship fund, is it?"
If it is, the young psychology student will probably admit it's money well spent. After all, how often do underage junior-college students get to see a raucous drag show staged especially for them, all under the mantle of higher education?
The revue, a no-alcohol matinee performed at Wink's one weekend last month, is an attendance-optional event offered to students enrolled in three human-sexuality courses at Glendale Community College. Although it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to the drag queens either (gasps one incredulous doll: "You're not gettin' extra credit for this?!"), students are neither rewarded nor penalized scholastically for their decision to attend the show.
So why does anyone bother?
Apparently for the same reason that, over the past few years, dozens of GCC students have joined teachers on similar voluntary treks to an adult bookstore, a nudist camp and even a private swingers' club.
Call it "progressive education." Call it "liberal teaching." Call it "a classroom without walls."
But whatever you do, don't call it a "field trip"--a term GCC instructors avoid like an STD for fear that it indicates these eyebrow-raising excursions are officially sanctioned by the college. They're not.
Although a "Psychology of Human Sexuality" course is part of the curriculum at several of the Maricopa Community College District's 10 schools, GCC is the only one whose instructors currently offer students the opportunity to accompany them on off-campus forays to Valley flesh pits and other outposts of alternative sexuality. (All students who take the class, whether they attend the side trips or not, must be at least 18 and sign a waiver acknowledging they know they will be exposed to sexually explicit material.) While no secret in local psychology-class circles, the West Valley college outings still come as news to many, and elicit a broad range of reactions from community-college professionals, students and national sex-education experts. (Asked to comment on the student/teacher outings, an instructor at another college offers a succinct "scary.") And even the outings' most vehement supporters couch their comments carefully.
"This is something completely separate from the school," explains Audrey Mouser, a GCC sociology teacher who arranged the visit to the gay cabaret on Seventh Street. "Nobody was forced to attend. This is just a way for those students who are interested to experience something that they might not otherwise see, and do so in a nonthreatening way. If they see something they like, they're free to explore it. If not, we're providing a safe way for them to experience it, then safely retreat."
No harm, no foul, no Brownie points.
That said, what exactly is to be learned about human sexuality from drag performers whose campy theatrics and raunchy topical jokes (Q: "Why did President Clinton name his dog Buddy?" A: "Because he didn't want to run around the White House hollering, 'Come, Spot!'") would appear to hold more educational value for students of drama or poli-sci? Is it really worth anyone's time to discover, for instance, that--as one performer points out--"the first thing you're going to learn is that drag shows never start on time"?
Psychology professor Oscar "Oz" Hardin, a GCC human-sexuality teacher since 1985, frankly admits, "We don't know what's going to be learned there until we go out and do it." Unable to attend the drag outing because of an illness in his family, Hardin can't say precisely what lessons were learned at Wink's. But he does point out that, because students were given a chance to question performers at the end of the show, they had to come away with something they didn't know when they entered.
So now, 30 junior-college students know where to buy size 11 high heels--Payless ShoeSource.
Like most other Maricopa County Community College instructors who teach the sophomore-level class, Hardin supplements a traditional human-sexuality text with guest speakers whose experiences are as varied as the scope of the subject being taught. Depending on teacher and speaker availability (Hardin himself is currently beating the bushes for a convicted sex offender who's willing to talk), junior-college human-sexuality classes around the Valley typically play host to a guest list that might include gays, clergymen, health-department employees, law officers, AIDS patients, postoperative transsexuals and various sex-industry workers.
"The philosophy behind this is that people learn a lot better when they're actually exposed to something," says Hardin, one of three teachers conducting the class at GCC. "When it comes to transgender issues, you can talk until the cows come home. But if you can find one transgendered person who's brave enough to come in and speak, the students learn so much more."
Unfortunately, says Hardin, "Some of these things can't be addressed in a classroom." In the case of the drag show, for instance, "it's much easier to go to a club that's willing to have us in than it is to get these people to come in and put on a show."
Because none of the outings is mandatory, Hardin claims the community college system has been "very supportive" of his extracurricular efforts.
"GCC's position is that individual faculty members at all of our campuses are given a certain degree of latitude to enhance their classes in ways that'll give students a greater understanding of the subject," reports college spokesman Mike Murphy. He acknowledges that the controversial sex-ed outings have drawn questions in the past. "GCC has a long history of utilizing this academic freedom to the benefit of their students."
Like Murphy, Oscar Hardin stresses the voluntary nature of the junkets. "I'm not taking the students out," he reiterates. "Instead, I'm offering them the opportunity to join me."
One student who's repeatedly RSVP'ed is psych major Judy Benson. The unofficial "class mom" (at 35, she's nearly twice as old as most of her fellow students), she was so stoked by all four outings offered this semester that she even struck out on her own to scope out a lesbian bar.
"Some of the younger, more immature kids in class have never been near any of these places," says Benson. "How many people relate being human with being gay, with being a lesbian, with being a transsexual or any of this stuff? Just because they're gay or whatever, they're also people. They're human, they have emotions, and this class basically helps teach people not to be homophobic."
Benson says the class outings have also been invaluable in ridding students of preconceived sexual notions. One such prefab illusion was shot to hell during a recent visit to Sociables, one of the private sex clubs currently under fire from the Phoenix City Council.
"All these [students] thought they were going to go in and see people screwing all over the place," says Benson. "Well, yeah, some people were doing it--but not right there on the tables where we were sitting."
To view club members actually engaging in sex acts, Benson and several other collegiate adventurers checked out the action in the club's back rooms. "Some of us went back there," she admits. "But all we did was look. Mostly we just danced and played pool. It wasn't what I thought it was going to be at all."
Another of Hardin's students, 20-year-old Kristy Ross, experienced a similar epiphany when she joined classmates for a visit to the Shangri La nudist camp in New River.
"I took a friend with me, and she was so nervous she was nauseous to her stomach," says Ross, who'd initially envisioned a "group orgy." "But when we got out there, she was just fine. After the owner talked to us, we realized it was no big deal, just a bunch of people with no clothes."
An eye-opener in more ways than one, the experience changed Ross' outlook on the nudist lifestyle. "It's nothing I would do myself, though," she hastens to add. "Honestly, I'd get bored out there."
The Shangri La outing proved to be considerably more liberating to classmate Maryann Backus. Although she claims to suffer low self-esteem over what she calls "body dismorphic development issues," Backus and a male classmate stayed behind after the rest of the students left and spent several hours wandering the grounds in the nude.
"After walking around for a while, we realized it's not about your body," concludes Backus. "It's about your mind and spirituality. We both totally enjoyed it, and I just wish I had enough time in my schedule to go back."
Backus' companion, meanwhile, definitely plans to return--but next time he'll take his wife.
"It was really a nice experience, something I'd like to share with her," says Michael McMahan, 28.
After the store's manager briefed students on the ins and outs of the sex retail business, students were encouraged by Hardin to make a list of personal "turn-ons" and "turn-offs" as they browsed through racks of porno flicks, fetish magazines, bondage-and-discipline gear and sex toys.
"Myself, I didn't even bother going down the bondage aisle because I know I don't like that," reports McMahan. "Same with the movies; they just don't do it for me. I personally liked the lotions because it kind of adds romance to your sex life. I've been married three years, and sometimes I need to add a little excitement."
It was during this voluntary assignment (later discussed in class) that McMahan began to realize that not everyone shared his enthusiasm for the course.
"There are a couple of people taking the class who really don't have any business being there," he says. "I heard one individual say something about not liking anything in the entire store. That's just ridiculous, because the store carries lingerie, candles and other normal stuff you can buy at Victoria's Secret or even Kmart. Everything we do, they hate."
These student malcontents aren't the only ones who question GCC's unofficial safaris through fringe subcultures that were once the fodder of exploitative 1960s "mondo" movies.
"I have to wonder about the educational value of all this," says Joseph Feldman, a Phoenix College psychology professor who's been teaching human sexuality for eight years. "I think the area of human sexuality is an area for academic study if, and only if, we're trying to learn something about the human condition. If all we're trying to do is shock and desensitize people, it's not clear to me that a community college is the right place for that. I know the people who teach human sexuality on other campuses, and they don't do the types of things that [are happening at GCC]."
The human-sexuality instructor at Scottsdale Community College expresses similar qualms about the GCC curriculum, which in past years, former students say, included an anal sex how-to video, a bondage demonstration and a presentation from a student model who displayed nude photos of himself to the class.
"At the beginning of the year, several students were real excited because they thought we'd be doing all these things they'd heard were going on at GCC," says counselor Edry Goot. "I told them, 'No way.'
"Certainly, we cover some of this [alternative sexuality] in class, but I can't imagine taking students out to any of these places." Instead of touring drag clubs, for instance, Goot would suggest that students watch Priscilla, Queen of the Desert--"a really wonderful exploration of the relationships between transsexuals and cross-dressers."
Ellen Williams, a human-sexuality teacher at Mesa Community College, says students should feel fortunate that the class is even being taught in the influential Mormon community. Even were she in a looser environment, she says she wouldn't follow GCC's lead. Says Williams, "I would be very uncomfortable--and I'm sure the chairman of my department would be very uncomfortable--doing anything that left of center."
Even some of the people who hosted student visits are left wondering exactly how they figure into a human-sexuality curriculum.
Horst Kraus, owner of Shangri La nudist resort, says he was happy to have the sex class visit the facility, but didn't quite understand why the students were there. "We always make it a point that nudity really has nothing to do with sex," says Kraus. "We do everything that other people do, except we do it without the handicap of artificial fur. After I made my initial presentation, there wasn't much more for them to ask." Most of the questions, he says, revolved around nudist camp dilemmas like menstruation and erections.
Drag queen Celia Putty (a.k.a. Richard Black) was similarly underwhelmed by the Q&A session following his performance at Wink's.
"The questions weren't as penetrating as they could have been," says Black, classified ads manager for Echo, a local gay publication. "The kids seemed more interested in the aesthetics rather than what might have been more helpful to the class. Instead of asking about the psychology, they wanted to know all about the costumes. I think they've seen too many episodes of Jenny Jones."
According to supporters of Oscar Hardin and his colleagues, that's precisely why GCC's instructors should be lauded for their hands-on approach to broadening students' human-sexuality awareness.
"I swear by anything that actually gets the students out of their narrow suburban little worlds and opens their eyes," says Los Angeles-based sociologist Janet Lever, a veteran human-sexuality instructor whose research has appeared in the national press. "Students so rarely get out the classrooms that I am personally a longtime believer in 'classrooms without walls.'"
And if these bizarre shrines of learning happen to encompass swing clubs, transvestite bars and porno shops? Well, that's life.
"Fetishes, people exposing themselves, adult bookstores, prostitution--all of these things are legitimately covered in any human-sexuality class," contends Lever. "To expose people who are typically sheltered and would never see that in person, has, I believe, definite educational value. The world of public sex is, by definition a little 'fringe'. . . . You can't take students into a private bedroom and show them a couple engaging in oral sex."
The popularity of the no-credit trips also speaks volumes about the deskside manner of GCC's human-sexuality instructors, suggests Lever. "In my experience you can't get a student to cross the street if you don't give the [credit]," says Lever, who, at her students' behest, once arranged a screening of a female masturbation video--only to play to an empty house when all of the kids opted to leave class 10 minutes early instead.
Oscar Hardin, meanwhile, slaves away over next semester's slate of optional outings, a schedule of off-campus carnality that might--but probably won't--include a shlep through a gay bathhouse.
"I'd never arrange a visit to a place that didn't know that a group of class members was coming in," explains Hardin, who says he has difficulty imagining a bathhouse owner who'd welcome a mixed-sex crowd of collegiate lookie-loos.
Still, that doesn't rule out a tour of an S&M torture dungeon--if he can find one.
"I don't know of any S&M places here in town but if you'd turn me on to one, I'd probably check it out," says Hardin. "I'm here so the kids are educated. For good or bad, we learn that not every place is cool."
Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: email@example.com
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.