The whip is 5 feet long and studded with metal and when the pony-tailed "dominant" cracks it, the whole class lets out a collective yelp.

Not Tamara Bowman. To the petite, blond, unshakably sunny professor of Orange Coast College’s "Human Sexuality" class, such demonstrations are mere teaching aids.

The goal? To expose her students to all aspects of sexuality, even the most controversial.

The point, she says, is less to shock than to capture attention and incite debate about healthy – and unhealthy – sexual behavior.

It is a hard lesson that Bowman herself has learned.

Today, about 50 wide-eyed students are assembled before a guest panel of sadomasochists. Bowman, 41, invites more than a dozen "sexperts" to speak each semester.

Anatomical experts, the transgendered and transvestite, a tantric sex practitioner, and even a former porn star bring a flesh-and-blood immediacy to textbook explorations of complex sexual subjects, Bowman says.

In some cases – including Bowman’s – the discussions are also a form of therapy.

The class starts with Bowman circulating what she jokingly calls the "Sex Bucket" – a small silver tin decorated with gaudy feathers into which students can anonymously insert questions.

The frank and often-uproarious discussions that result have helped make "Human Sexuality" one of the most popular classes on campus.

"The point is to be able to feel or explore the fullness of sex, instead of just seeing it as pornographic, or something that happens in a back alley," Bowman says. "This is the only format where [students] have the freedom to ask questions without being judged."

The class first started in 1975, the result of student demand, according to Mona Coates, a former professor and California sex therapist who is credited with many "Human Sexuality" class innovations.

"We probably were the first to try that," Coates says of using first-person "testimony" by a wide variety of speakers.

The popular format "spontaneously" spread to colleges and universities across the state, Coates says.

Today, five professors teach Human Sexuality at Orange Coast, usually to overflow classes of 300 students or more in the campus auditorium. Bowman, confined temporarily to a smaller classroom, had to turn students away this semester.

Which is a shame, Bowman says, because the wide-ranging and non-judgmental discussions of painful topics like incest and rape sometimes prompt survivors to step forward and seek help.

"I’ve had students say to me: ‘You literally saved my life,’" Bowman says.

The class serves more than Bowman’s students. "Human Sexuality" is also helping Bowman to heal herself.

"I was so suppressed," she says of the strict, evangelical household in Bakersfield, Calif., where she was raised. "Sex was something we talked about in whispers in the back of the school bus. At home we weren’t even allowed to look at ourselves – it was considered dirty."

For a therapist and teacher who encourages open discussions in the classroom, Bowman is surprisingly discreet about the next aspect of her story – the childhood sexual abuse she suffered.

Bowman remembers breaking out in hives just thinking about sex. Then she went to college and took a class called "Human Sexuality."

For the first time Bowman heard experts talking about unheard of subjects – including sexual abuse – in a way that had her "falling off my chair."

"I just couldn’t believe people could talk about it like that," she says. "It’s as if we come to this life like a castle full of rooms and growing up our caregivers start shutting the doors. I felt like going into that classroom those doors were being opened up."

Bowman took the class three times. She got a job working with victims of child abuse. She married.

Then her world fell apart.

After 10 years of marriage, Bowman says her husband fell in love with his high school sweetheart over the Internet. He asked for a divorce.

"I thought I was going to die," she recalls. "I prayed and said, ‘Lord – I don’t want to go on, but if there is something here on earth for me to do, send your angels.’"

Two months later, Orange Coast College offered her a teaching job.

For Bowman, it was a way to pass on knowledge that changed her own life.

"I know how damaging, how alienating and annihilating, sexual abuse can be," she says. "And I’ve been that and come back."

When her S&M panelists finish speaking she asks them: Does guilt seek punishment?

Her point: could some victims of early abuse be unhealthily drawn to (even simulated and controlled) recreations of that abuse later in life?

The panelists assure her this is not so.

Privately, however, Bowman is not so sure. But voicing her opinions, she says, is not the point.

"What we’re doing is taking the lid off and sifting through it and allowing each person to decide what’s right for them," she says.

The subjects covered include more than just the taboo and the titillating. Among her guests are a midwife from Hoag Hospital (on the subject of childbirth), an HIV survivor (AIDS), Planned Parenthood staff (contraception), a Vietnam-vet paraplegic (sex and disability), as well as survivors of sex abuse.

Inside the classroom, no question is too outrageous, no topic too forbidden.

"I think it’s a good attitude," says Bun Thet Lim, 19, a sophomore. "She just puts out the subject, she lets us experience things, and the rest is up to us."

"She’s wonderful," adds Jackie Cohen, 21, a third-year student. "She speaks to all groups."

Conservative or religiously influenced attitudes toward sex are covered with the same careful lack of judgment.

Many of Bowman’s students, she believes, are not sexually active. Others plan to wait for marriage.

"And that’s OK," Bowman says. "I encourage them to hold on to their core values."

But Orange County kids, she feels, have a "huge gap" when it comes to sex education.

"They have no idea, because their parents don’t talk about it," Bowman says. The class "is about being able to have the knowledge and the level of comfort so you can engage with your partner when it’s time."

And sex, she says, is ultimately not the point. Bowman says the real focus of her class is self-esteem.

"I talk a lot about love and intimacy," she says. "But in the end, the most important person in the world to fall in love with is yourself."

© 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.