Western Nevada College student Karen Royce has filed a harassment claim against the school, alleging a professor there required students to divulge personal details of their sex lives, including assigning them to masturbate.
"It's so inappropriate," she said. "This is why I'm pursuing it. This needs to change."
A college representative says, however, that the assignments were typical for a class of that nature and that students were warned of sensitive material from the outset.
Mark Ghan, vice president for human resources and general counsel for the WNC, said instructor Tom Kubistant has taught the class three times a year for seven years and has never had a complaint.
"That's more than 300 students who have taken this class," Ghan said. "This is the only complaint. There's nothing but high praise I've seen for this guy."
Kubistant didn't respond to phone messages left by the Nevada Appeal seeking comment.
Royce, 60, is a medical technician who's working toward a degree in social work. She said she enrolled in the freshman-level Human Sexuality class, which fulfills a social science requirement, based on the description of the class in the course catalog. It says the class covers topics such as gender, sexual anatomy, sexually transmitted diseases and commercial sex, among others.
Royce said the course began with a discussion of different sexual positions, and she said the instructor went on to assign students to double their normal masturbation routine over the course of two weeks and write journals about their experiences.
"I joked, but was serious and said, 'I don't masturbate, so zero times zero is zero!'" Royce wrote in her complaint, which she filed with the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights. "He became angry and ordered the class to masturbate if they intended to pass the class."
Though Ghan defends Kubistant's curriculum, others in the field take exception to what was assigned.
Brian Oppy, chairman of the psychology department at Chico State University in California, said that while teaching a sexuality class can have some gray areas, it is not appropriate to assign students to perform sex acts or to write about them.
"These are things that might be reasonable in a counseling setting, but not things I would even expect early in a counseling session," Oppy said. "What's more, we're not talking about counseling; we're talking about a classroom."
Other journal assignments in Kubistant's class included requiring female students to write "your views of your breasts and vulva," and the instruction: "Your orgasms. Draw them!"
The term paper for the course requires students to write a 12- to 14-page sexual case study on themselves.
The project begins with a sex history - including a directive to reveal any instances of abuse - and continues through sexual values, arousal patterns and atypical issues such as fetishes.
When Royce asked Kubistant for an alternative assignment, she said, he again refused.
"He said I absolutely had to complete it as assigned or I would not pass the class," she said in the complaint. "Then he inferred to the class that I had issues that (I) need to work out and this might be sexual freedom."
Ghan said an independent investigator determined that Royce's harassment allegation was unfounded.
"The conclusion is there's no sexual harassment," he said. "I'm not surprised, because sexual harassment in the law is unwelcome conduct. It's not unwelcome conduct when you intentionally sign up for an elective course."
Ghan said that after reviewing course outlines for similar college classes across the country, he concluded that Kubistant's assignments are not unusual.
"What I am finding is that it is not unique in this kind of class," he said. "You only write what you're comfortable writing."
Catherine Smith, 28, took the class last year, and she said she was comfortable with the assignments and with Kubistant's approach.
"It's not like he asked us to video it or anything," she said. "It's not a pervy thing. It's self-discovery. He teaches you how to live as a sexual human being and not be afraid."
Kubistant told students he would not read closely the term paper, noting at the bottom of the assignment, "I will only review it as far as to determine how fully you addressed all the issues."
But Oppy said it still crosses the boundary.
"If he's reading it well enough to determine the assignment had been completed, he's reading very personal details," he said. "He knows more than he should about his students."
Kenneth Locke teaches a similar class at the University of Idaho, and he also assigns students to write about some of their own experiences.
However, he said, students turn in assignments using a corresponding number as a means of remaining anonymous. He said students are also able to opt out of an assignment if it's too uncomfortable, and academic alternatives are given for larger assignments.
"In these types of classes, it's important to provide students with alternatives," Locke said. "The important thing is it not feel coercive."
He said he would not assign students to perform any sexual acts.
"Oh, goodness," he said. "No professor I know would be assigning a behavioral assignment rather than a reflective assignment."
Royce said that after attending four classes - and receiving a failing grade on her journal - she asked Kubistant for a copy of the waiver she had signed on the first day of class. She said she was too rushed on the first day to read it completely.
He responded in an email: "We need to talk. I do not think this course is appropriate for you nor do you seem able to live (up to) your commitments to this course experience."
Royce sent a complaint to college officials on Oct. 1, asking that the course be reviewed and that her tuition be refunded. She also filed the complaint with the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights.
According to that agency, sexual harassment occurs when "a school employee causes a student to believe that he or she must submit to unwelcome sexual conduct in order to participate in a school program or activity. It also can occur when an employee causes a student to believe that the employee will make an educational decision based on whether or not the student submits to unwelcome sexual conduct."
Royce sent copies of the complaint to Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto; the office of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.; the WNC Board of Regents; and Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich.
Beyond her personal interest, she said, she is concerned for younger students who may have felt pressure to increase their presumed sexual activity in order to meet the requirements of the class.
"I feel like a lot of kids walk out of there with a different value system," she said. "Sexuality is something personal that should develop over time."
Ghan said he has not heard that reaction from students. He said several have contacted him and offered unsolicited defenses of Kubistant, saying his class is among the best offered at the college.
"They say the course teaches them about morality, relationships and consequences," Ghan said. "It's really a remarkable response from a significant group of students."
Royce said she will pursue other avenues to seek redress.
"I'm not going to walk away," she said. "I'm not done. Absolutely not."