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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Let's Talk About Sex : Mona Coates spices her popular Orange Coast College human sexuality class with visits from transvestites and discussions of intimate topics, but in her personal life, she says, 'I'm about as vanilla as you come.'

November 20, 1994|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mona Coates stands in a lecture hall filled with college students and makes a few quick points about compulsions, pornography and "ejaculatory inevitability" before introducing three transvestites who are her guest speakers.

At the break, Coates props a mirror on her handbag and tries out a new mascara, on loan from one of the guests.

"I love transvestites," she says, blinking at her reflection. "They always know the best makeup."

Coates has taught human sexuality at Orange Coast College since 1975, and she has emerged from the sexually tumultuous decades with her colleagues' respect, students' affection and one of the most popular classes on campus.

Her blunt, unembarrassed responses have caused some students to dub her the "younger, West Coast version" of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, after the media personality famous for her frank discussions about sex.

Coates' all-embracing teaching style contrasts sharply with her personal life, which is rooted in durable relationships, including her marriage five years ago to her fourth-grade sweetheart.

"It just happens that my preferences and lifestyle represent mainline, middle-class WASP America," she says. "My life has always been rather conservative; sexual choices, sexual orientation. . . . I'm about as vanilla as you come."

But there is nothing bland on the menu in her human sexuality class, a three-unit extravaganza of sexual potpourri that attracts almost 1,200 hormone-charged students every year.

"Her class is always full to capacity," says Chris O'Hearn, vice president of instruction. "And there is always a waiting list."

David Grant, president of the college since 1962, describes Coates as "a consummate professional" who plays best to a full house.

"She is an extraordinarily non-judgmental person in terms of her presentation, and (she's) very, very popular with students because of that," he says.

A fixture in her class is the Question Box, which is passed through the aisles at the beginning of each class and into which students drop anonymous--and sometimes searingly intimate--queries for Coates to answer.

She says the questions have changed markedly over the past two decades. The shift has been from a sexually experimental '70s, to the more cautious '80s to the worried and health-conscious '90s.

Some questions are timeless. Males fret perpetually: "Is my penis too small?" Females wonder incessantly: "Am I sexy enough?"

Some queries are wary ("Can men tell if females fake orgasm?"), worrisome ("Why do I feel like vomiting every time I have sex?"), playful ("Is there a lab for this class?") and plaintive ("How do you feel about loveless sex?").

"I never get embarrassed answering the questions," she says. "I realize all our body parts are normal. I don't think it's so terrible to separate the knees and the elbows from the vaginas and the penises."

Coates, 50, who is a psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family counselor, certified hypnotherapist and certified sex therapist, began teaching sociology at the Costa Mesa college Sept. 5, 1967, when she was just 22. She launched her human sexuality class about eight years later at the urging of her students.

To prepare, she spent a year attending training workshops throughout the state, including Masters and Johnson seminars and the National Sex Forum in San Francisco.

It was an era of "sensual razzmatazz," she remembers, the "if it feels good, do it" decade.

"In the '70s, it was, 'What all can we think of to do? What can we think of to experiment (with) sexually?' " she says. "In the '80s, it was, 'Should we be experimenting with our sexuality?' In the '90s, the attitude is, 'We'd better not experiment sexually unless we know it's absolutely safe.' You see the increasing conservatism."

In two decades, student inquiries about health have doubled, Coates says. In the past six years, questions about AIDS alone have tripled.

"The concerns around the consequences of sex are far more serious," she says.

Sex education is serious stuff. It's also great theater under Coates' sure direction.

"I think Mona is--I don't want to cheapen it--(but) more of an entertainer," Grant says. "She has more of a flare for the way the material is presented. She has an excellent (way of) inspiring large audiences."

On a recent afternoon, Coates took center stage. Like a practiced talk show host, she dragged her microphone cord behind her, occasionally chopping the air with her hand to make her point.

The question in her hand from the Question Box was from a male, 19, who felt turned on by pornography but guilt-ridden because it demeans women. She applauded his sensitivity and warned him of developing a dependency on such films.

"If you feel any compulsive need to use pornography, back off," she says. "Don't let anything run you . . . just wean yourself away from it."

Next, Coates readies the class for her guest speakers. Transvestites, she says, are "just normal people" with a "deep and profound need" to wear clothing of the opposite sex.

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