Only one class at UB sends students to a strip club, discusses dinosaur pornography and has students talk to parents about “the talk”: COM 492, “The Science of Attraction.”
Taught by Communication professor Lance Rintamaki, the course covers the wide world of human sexuality and the communication that surrounds it. Students are often lured in by the enticing subject matter, but stay for the academic experience, Rintamaki said. Despite the course’s title, it’s not “how to pick up chicks 101.” It’s hardcore science.
“There are those who look at it and think maybe it’ll be a joke, or maybe it’ll be trashy, maybe it’ll be fluff,” Rintamaki said. “But at the end of the day, most of the students told me that they really enjoyed the content, were surprised by how academic and scientific it is, and are really grateful for the experience.”
The class is divided into three segments. The first covers biophysiological variables that drive sexual beliefs and behaviors. Topics include sexual hormones, the menstrual cycle and how the lips are connected to the brain.
The next segment is about socio-cultural variables and covers the science behind “the talk,” how schools, healthcare and different cultures approach sexuality, and sex in the media, with a special focus on porn.
“A lot of [younger people] have actually learned about sex based on what they’ve seen in porn,” Rintamaki said. “But porn is not real... that’s fantasy and designed for entertainment… that’s not necessarily what is normal. It’s not necessarily what people actually like.”
The final section discusses social attraction and the interpersonal factors that drive it. Skills taught in this section — active listening, proper posture and eye contact — are applicable to dating, but also to the job market or any social situation.
“Sometimes it helps people understand mistakes they’ve been making interpersonally,” Rintamaki said. “I often have people talk about how it has changed them for the better.”
The idea for COM 492 was born at the University of Illinois in 2009. Rintamaki attended a conference with his former Ph.D. advisor, U of I Communication Department Head Dale Brashers. Since Rintamaki was “very tight” with Brashers, the two went out for drinks afterward. While exchanging stories over drinks, Brashers shared an idea: writing a book about sexual communication.
“I was like, ‘What the heck? Why would we do that?’” Rintamaki said.
Brashers believed it was an interesting topic, but one with no broad compilations of science behind it. Still skeptical, Rintamaki’s thoughts wandered to his “bright” former roommate, Wesley.
“He wrestled for Illinois for four straight years,” Rintamaki said. “He was super buff… and not hard to look at. He also has two businesses. He’s, I think at this point, a multimillionaire… you put all this together, this is someone who’s gonna do really well in social situations. But if you put Wesley in front of a woman he finds attractive, he cannot string words together to form a sentence.”
Rintamaki says Wesley would ask about dubious methods to attract women.
“He’d be like, ‘Lance, I just read this book and it’s called “Pimpology.” It says if I be mean to her, then she’ll like me. Is that right?’ And I’d always be like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Through Wesley, Rintamaki observed a market that targeted men interested in attracting women — but none of the material being sold was based on scientific evidence.
“What people were writing about in this popular press stuff was just garbage,” Rintamaki said. “They were just making stuff up, but they could tell really good stories… and when you have a huge audience of people like Wes, they were making a ton of money.”
With Wesley in mind, Rintamaki agreed to write the book with Brasher. The duo searched Amazon and ordered the top 50 books on dating and attraction. The top five books contained just 20 citations altogether.
“What that tells you is that the stuff wasn’t based on science, it was just people making stuff up and pulling it straight out of their asses,” Rintamaki said.
Rintamaki and Brasher needed backup. They brought in two dozen undergrads who scoured Google Scholar and far corners of academia, compiling 16,000 studies on sexual communication.
“Every day, I was reading stuff where I was like, ‘Holy s—t, I cannot believe this is a thing,’” Rintamaki said. ”I would find new stuff that just blew my mind.”
Through this research, Brashers formed the “Sexual Communication” class at the University of Illinois. Originally, it had the tongue-in-cheek label COM 469, but administration forced a change to COM 468. Brashers joked that the new label meant “you do me, and I owe you one.”
What they expected to be a class of 50 quickly filled to 500 students within three days.
But before the class could begin, Brashers died of a heart attack. The fate of the class hung in the balance.
“It had 500 students for a brand new class that no one had ever taught before. It’s a fairly conservative faculty over there, and none of them wanted to touch it with a 10-foot pole. I was afraid they were going to [cancel the class],” Rintamaki said. “I didn’t want that because I felt like it was Dale’s baby,” Rintamaki said.
Rintamaki was determined to carry the “Sexual Communication” torch onward. He teamed up with post-doctoral student Liz Karis, who specialized in health communication, and forged ahead.
More than 500 people attended the class. The lecture hall, with a capacity of 1,000, had days when every seat was full, with more students standing in the back.
“People were stopping in between classes if they had free time, just to sit in on it,” Rintamaki said.
The class was well-received, and Rintamaki gave Sex-Com a shot at UB, where he’s been teaching it since 2011. The class filled to 200 students almost instantly that first year.
Perhaps the most distinctive assignment is the “strip club ethnography.” This optional assignment instructs students to read about the experiences of sex workers and then, armed with new knowledge, visit a local strip club and interview entertainers.
Rintamaki says this is a positive experience for students, who learn about entertainers’ experiences inside and outside the club, including customer interactions, others’ perceptions and the pros and cons of their line of work. The entertainers tend to have positive experiences as well.
“They realize right off the bat that these are people who are talking to them as people,” Rintamaki said. “Their job when working in these clubs is to titillate and provide fantasy and sexual entertainment for the clientele, which often doesn’t translate into them feeling like they’re being seen or treated fully like a person.”
Rintamaki takes pride in the fact that the class improved the lives of his students.
“[The class] often leads people to feel more self confident, carry themselves better, go into social situations willing to take a risk and reach out to people and connect with others,” Rintamaki said. “It often leads to the start of new relationships of various types.”
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