SANTA BARBARA — 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.
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.