Longform

Wild Thing 101

The white-haired old man the kids call O.M. stands next to a slide projector, flipping through the day's lesson. From clothes-dropping preliminaries through beatific postcoital grins, the subject of this day's class is the heterosexual sex act (acts, actually) as practiced by two young lovers. O.M. describes the action, pausing here to expound on oral nipple stimulation, pausing there to provide wry commentary on a particularly exuberant performance of fellatio. When the show ends and the classroom lights come up, the couple's technique is briefly analyzed, and the class watches O.M. diagram various arousal patterns on the chalkboard. Several times during the class period, all discussion ceases while one student or another thinks to ask, "Is this going to be on the test?"

O.M. is Dr. Owen Morgan, age 67, professor of FAS 332-Human Sexuality, the most popular class on the Arizona State University campus. There are other large, sort-of-famous lecture classes at ASU--Jazz in America and Introduction to Human Communication also post high enrollment totals--but Morgan's Human Sexuality classes are the stuff of legend. Every semester Morgan shows slides and lectures to more than 1,000 students in as many as three class sections. Morgan estimates that more than 20,000 students have come under his instruction since he started teaching Human Sexuality, an upper-division general-studies credit, to undergraduates in the early 1970s. Last spring the final grades for all of O.M.'s classes, including another large lecture class about parent-child relationships, covered fifty single-spaced pages. "Owen's classes in Human Sexuality are kind of a major logistical operation that dominates a lot of the office time," says Gary Peterson, department chairman of Family Resources and Human Development, which is where Human Sexuality is listed in the catalogue. "When test time rolls around, it's like Patton's Third Army going into battle." At ASU, a school whose reputation as an epicenter for party maniacs continues to be amplified, Morgan's class--you could call it Wild Thing 101--may be the ultimate classroom experience. At registration time, some students reportedly sell their spots in the class, which, aside from its obvious attraction based on subject matter, is widely regarded as an easy A or B. "I've heard that it's really interesting to go to a football game with Owen," says department chair Peterson, "because he walks in and he's a very recognizable person, and I guess they start chanting `O.M., O.M.,' and they forget the game for a while. He's known by that many students."

Morgan came to ASU in 1968 from the Merrill-Palmer Institute of Human Development and Family Life. Originally from Iowa, the professor had accumulated degrees from Grinnell College, the University of Omaha and the University of Nebraska, as well as lots of practical counseling experience at Merrill-Palmer in Detroit. His role at ASU was to take charge of the school's new Center for Family Life Studies. "Dr. Morgan is concerned primarily with the human equation," said a press release circulated by ASU at the time of Morgan's transfer. "He believes people need to learn how to live and work more effectively with themselves and with each other. `Our goal is to extend the frontiers of creative thinking about human relations and the family in today's and tomorrow's society,' Morgan says."

By the late 1960s the sexual revolution had begun to considerably alter the human equation. In many universities, sex had become a legitimate academic pursuit. Honest. One of the new prof's first creative thoughts was to install a graduate-level course on human sexuality. Morgan doesn't seem to be a person who wallows in nostalgia. His early memories of the now hugely popular class are matter-of-fact. Morgan believed that it was time for ASU to join the rest of the world, sexually speaking, and that's all there was to it. "You could tell dirty jokes about it, you could snicker about it, you could whisper about it, but you couldn't talk about it openly or learn about it or live in an acceptable, prideful way," he says. Within just a few semesters, the class had gone undergraduate and started its climb to mass popularity. The class today covers the full spectrum of sexual experience.

O.M.'s teaching style can't be described as professorial. He often dresses in tennis clothes. Wandering the stage of the huge Murdock lecture hall, Morgan's delivery is ever so casual. (He's been teaching so long that during an after-class interview he leaps up several times to illustrate conversation points at the chalkboard.) During each semester O.M. delivers the standard sex-ed lectures on physiology, but the class goes well beyond dry plumbing talk. Morgan talks quite a bit about the significance of kindness and love in relationships and all of life. Having raised a family and now in his second marriage, Morgan has some experience in these matters. And a lot of class time is spent discussing state-of-the-art topics such as AIDS, homosexuality and abortion.

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Dave Walker