The thing we'd rather not talk about

Sally Lehr

Sally Lehr works with students to make them feel more comfortable in raising important issues around sex and sexuality with patients and families. 

More often than not, today's health care professionals receive little education on human sexuality, an essential part of health and well-being.

Bucking that trend, Sally Lehr has taught an elective class, Human Sexuality in Health and Illness, for more than 24 years. The teacher in Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing says that she’s determined to help her students feel more comfortable raising important issues around sex and sexuality with patients and their families.

Even medical professionals are often uncomfortable discussing sex, and that’s a problem, says Lehr. "Physicians don’t get any more training in sexuality than anyone else." As an example, Lehr refers to an ob/gyn resident she met at a conference three years ago who had gone through 18,000 hours of medical training—but only 45 minutes on human sexuality. "But people expect doctors to be comfortable talking about sex," says Lehr.  

If patients are too uncomfortable to talk with their doctors about changing medications, they often take another route. "They may figure out why their sex drive has changed and quit taking the medicine," Lehr says. While that solution might help their sex life in the short term, it comes at the long-term cost of any benefits the prescription drug was providing.

Lehr had no intention herself of talking about sexuality until she began studying for her master’s in nursing in 1974. In the process of being educated as an advanced practice psychiatric nurse, she became intrigued with sexuality’s connection to health when she met a faculty member, Frances Nagata, who also worked as a sex therapist. "She was the first person in my life who ever talked openly about it," Lehr says. When Nagata started the sexuality class in the nursing school, Lehr was happy to serve as her assistant, helping others become more comfortable with the topic. When her mentor left in 1984, it was a natural fit for Lehr to take on full responsibility for the class. 

Since then, the course has evolved to address current issues and new information. Transgendered sexuality and homosexuality have become major topics in class, along with a range of other sex-related topics that often connect to patients and nurses: sexuality and disability, rape, and sexuality and spirituality.

While students become more comfortable talking about sexuality, they also gain empathy and information, as when they had an opportunity to talk with a guest speaker in a wheelchair about his sex life. "I think that’s really important for the students to hear," says Lehr. "Then when they see other people in wheelchairs, they know there may be some very similar concerns and issues for them."

Dana Goldman

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Emory Health Magazine