Every college professor has those uh-oh moments: "Uh, did I just say that out loud?" Often you're not even the one who pushes a boundary. You bring in a guest speaker or you show a documentary you forgot to watch to the end; whatever gets said or seen happens and you must decide, on the spot, whether or not you acknowledge and process it or simply move on.
So it is with a great deal of empathy and collegial understanding that my colleagues and I at Northwestern University observe and discuss the international megalo-multi-media ruckus inspired by Phallus-Gate: the five-minute live sex demonstration in an after-class session held by psychology professor J. Michael Bailey after his Human Sexuality class. NU administrators expressed disappointment and disapproval and are investigating the incident. The non-students who did the demonstration argue they were educating students. Bailey apologized, sort of, but defends his decision.
Our community of scholars awoke to this New York Times headline and story:Extracurricular Sex Toy Lesson Draws Rebuke at Northwestern
The Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wrote a column headlined: An OMG Moment at Northwestern
In case you missed it: Two women, (one narrating, one demonstrating) one man, an electric pleasuring device that looks like an electric saw with an attached phallus-shaped dildo. (Is that redundant? Is a dildo always phallus shaped? Uh-oh, did I just write that out loud? Is this thing on?) The public exploration of female ejaculation, orgasm and public-sex fetishism was, from all accounts, consensual. Of the 600 registered students in the class, about 100 remained in the auditorium to observe the demonstration.
One of the students in my class is also a student in Bailey's wildly popular Human Sexuality course.
My student said the class was warned "at least five times" that something explicit was going to be presented and that they were in no way required to say. "It was weird," he said.
Teachable peep show?
This incident, old-news really, as it happened Feb. 21, is now a viral media extravaganza: television news trucks all over campus, Twitter is atwitter, Facebook is blushing, some of the city's esteemed long-time reporters are agog. It's a media peep show.
The official version:
Our campus newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, reported this version of events:
"University President Morton Schapiro on Thursday morning released a statement saying he is troubled, disappointed and disturbed about the demonstration in psychology professor John Michael Bailey's popular Human Sexuality course.
"Although the incident took place in an after-class session that students were not required to attend and students were advised in advance, several times, of the explicit nature of the activity, I feel it represented extremely poor judgment on the part of our faculty member," Schapiro said. "I simply do not believe this was appropriate, necessary or in keeping with Northwestern University's academic mission."
Bailey has publicly defended the demonstration as educational about sexual diversity, which is a common theme in his class. He said he has received no complaints about the incident.
The optional presentation last Monday, attended by about 120 students, featured a naked non-student woman being repeatedly sexually stimulated to the point of orgasm by the sex toy, referred to as a "$#@&saw." The device is essentially a motorized phallus.
The university administration is investigating the incident, which raises all kinds of wonderful issues of academic freedom, ethics, pedagogical sanity and university community standards. For example, if this happened in the Evanston Public Library just down the street, what freedoms apply then? Many critics argue students who have been sexually assaulted might be psychologically damaged by witnessing a woman holding another woman down while woman A's 'fiance' penetrates her with the thing I described.
Sex professor responds
Bailey issued this statement in response to the media explosion:
On the afternoon of February 21st Ken MB and colleagues arrived while I was finishing my lecture, on sexual arousal. I was talking about the female gJ spot and the phenomenon of female ejaculation, both of which are scientifically controversial. I finished the lecture and invited the guests onstage. On the way, Ken asked me whether it would be ok if one of the women with him demonstrated female ejaculation using equipment they had brought with them. I hesitated only briefly before saying "yes."
My hesitation concerned the likelihood that many people would find this inappropriate. My decision to say "yes" reflected my inability to come up with a legitimate reason why students should not be able to watch such a demonstration. After all, those still there had stayed for an optional demonstration/lecture about kinky sex and were told explicitly what they were about to see.
The demonstration, which included a woman who enjoyed providing a sexually explicit demonstration using a machine, surely counts as kinky, and hence as relevant. Furthermore, earlier that day in my lecture I had talked about the attempts to silence sex research, and how this largely reflected sex negativity. I have had previous experiences with these silencing attempts myself. I did not wish, and I do not wish, to surrender to sex negativity and fear.
Ken MB and friends spoke to the class for a while and then informed students they were about to perform their demonstration. The presentation seems to have lasted about 5J10 minutes of their hour long presentation. While I watched, I experienced some apprehension. None of this apprehension had to do with the possibility of harm to any observer, and none of it had to do with a lack of educational value. As I alluded, some experiences are educational and interesting in non-traditional ways. Rather, I was worried that there could be repercussions that would threaten the valuable speaker series that I have built over the years.
Student feedback for this event (I routinely feedback collect for all events) was uniformly positive. Although most students mentioned the explicit demonstration--which they enjoyed and thought was a singular college experience--most also said that the most valuable part was engaging in a dialogue with Ken MB et al.
Do I have any regrets? It is mostly too early to say. I certainly have no regrets concerning Northwestern students, who have demonstrated that they are open-minded grown-ups rather than fragile children.
What - or was-- he thinking?
See, now this is exactly what I'm talking about. Here's a guy just trying to bring in some interesting speakers to engage the students, give them some experiential learning, faced with a split-second decision: Do I let them do it or not? He's under pressure. Six hundred pairs of eyes all on him.
In a panic, he does a quick calculation. "My decision to say 'yes' reflected my inability to come up with a legitimate reason why students should not be able to watch such a demonstration," he wrote. Couldn't say no.
I should add that before the live sex act, the professor showed what was widely described as an academic documentary on sex that, if it had been a pornographic film would have been rated X.
My students were all atwitter about this, as you might imagine. Many were earnestly speculating on the academic benefit. Several said maybe having the live component would attract and keep students' attention. So we turned to the student in our class who saw the whole shebang: the discussion, the film and the sex act. Did he think watching the thing with the two gals and the "fiance"and the saw live and in person deepened students' understanding or engagement in the topic.
"Nope," he said. "They didn't have to go and actually do it. Just talking about it, we were already paying close attention."