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Hot Times at Northwestern

What the sex toy demo at my university teaches us.

I'd better start with my disclosures: I am a sex researcher at Northwestern University, which means I'm a colleague of Michael Bailey, the guy in the news for hosting a sex demo in his after-class, uh, enrichment sessions. But wait, there's more: I researched and wrote a history of one of Bailey's previous national controversies, and in the process pretty much exonerated him. (You can read that via this page.) Consequent to that work, Mike and I became friends. And, drum roll please: I myself have been one of his after class features for his human sexuality course.

No, I didn't take my clothes off, and I certainly didn't reach orgasm. Like most of Mike's after-class speakers, I talked about the relevant parts of my sex life and then took questions. Just before this, when the HPV vaccine had become available, I'd written about my own HPV experiences in the Chicago Tribune, so Mike reasonably assumed I might be willing to talk to his students about having an STD. I said sure; like Mike, I think it's important for students to know that sex happens to real people.

I learned about the recent sex toy demo (completed with nekked lady being penetrated in front of 100 students) in Mike's course the way everyone else did, namely via the news. This is not my favorite way to find out what's new in Mike's life, but I've grown somewhat accustomed to it.

That didn't stop me from banging my head on the desk as I read on. Now, I don't actually have that many problems with what happened. The session was optional, the students were warned, everybody in the room was a consenting grown-up, yada yada. The problem I have is that Mike should have known this would get enough people upset that it would likely have more negative than positive consequences for the rest of us. Not to mention for him.

In the Internet age, where people are willing not just to see sex toys demonstrated but to write in the mainstream media about sex toy demonstrations, the cost-benefit forecast here should have rung some alarm bells. As one of our mutual friends likes to say, the problem is one of optics. It doesn't look good.

And it's not necessary for teaching. If you want students to have the option of watching this kind of thing, you just have to post a hotlink (emphasis on "hot") on the course website. And if you think such a link that might break university policy, then the idea of a live show should also give you pause.

Finally, although the students consented to watch--and according to Mike have nothing but good things to say--I'm not sure it is really a good idea to put students in the position of helping a woman get off. Remember that the woman who did is, by her own admission, an exhibitionist. At the very least, there needed to be some extensive discussion with the students about how purposefully watching an exhibitionist be sexually stimulated is at some level participating in the act.

What kills me about all this is that Mike's class is really good. It's one of the few human sexuality classes in this country that brings really solid sex science and a serious look at human sexual diversity to a very large number of young people. I'm proud of that class being at Northwestern, and that's why I've not only participated in it but have encouraged others to do the same. It's a shame to have this kind of doubt needlessly thrown on the class and on Northwestern.

And Mike knows perfectly well that academic freedom is most important not in our teaching but in our research. He's done much important sex research that has ticked people off, and he's needed active protection of his research. (Take his work on bisexuality, for example.) So why waste freedom on something so, well, trivial? Why not decide this one in favor of academic responsibility, including responsibility to one's fellow researchers?

Like me, for example.

Mike knows that, when I was researching his history, one of the people whose misdeeds I was exposing contacted our provost and tried to stop me. I didn't need this woman's attempt to censor me to show me proof that Northwestern takes academic freedom seriously; by then, I had already grown used to our provost's occasional messages about our resident Holocaust denier. The messages basically went like this: "We find this guy wrong, offensive, and not worth listening to. And we defend his and your academic freedom." Still, I was glad, when the subject tried to censor me, to get another reminder: the provost wrote to me and assured me I should just continue researching whatever I was interested in.

So you know what I did yesterday as I was reading the initial commentary out of the Northwestern administration, defending all our academic freedom? I dropped those administrators a note thanking them, letting them know I'm proud to be at Northwestern.

Some of my colleagues might think that means I found myself disappointed in President Shapiro's later remarks, wherein he called Mike's decision a case of "extremely poor judgment" and said they would look into the matter. Disappointed? No way. I agree with Shapiro. It was a case of poor judgment, because it wasn't worth it.

Shapiro is still new to us, but I have to say I like everything I see about the guy. He's real--I've seen him embarrass plenty of fellow administrators by actually saying what he's thinking and feeling--and so good for him for saying it looked dumb to him, and he'll take the matter under advisement.

That said, I think it is going to be tough not to conclude that the controversy here--as has often been the case with Bailey's controversies--is one of optics, not substance. The students at Northwestern are real adults; we screen for that. They are capable of setting (and here were actively encouraged to set) their own limits. Although I wish Mike had told the organizer, "no, that's over the limit," I remain proud to work at a place where people feel safe enough to test the limits.

In fact, given the research I do (let's see...this week I called on the American Anthropological Association to apologize), and given the advocacy I do for sexual minorities (let's see...a few months ago I exposed inappropriate stimulation of little girls' clitorises at Cornell's medical school), I literally couldn't work at any other kind of place. So I really hope our university president comes to realize, as the Supreme Court had to this week, that sometimes that sickening feeling in your gut is not a sign of pathology. It's actually a sign you're living in a truly healthy land.

A few postscripts:

First, a few colleagues of mine have written to ask whether I think Mike would have stopped a man from stripping naked and ejaculating. I'm sorry to say I don't know the answer to that question. I have no idea what would have made him think about the consequences of what amounts to a live sex act. Was there a willingness throughout the straight men in that room to see a woman become highly sexualized, where there would have been a hesitation to see a man become highly sexualized? I expect so. But who knows. The primary problem here is total lack of forethought. All the secondary questions are luxurious at this point, though worth asking.

Second, if you want to see what a truly sensible use of academic freedom looks like, take a look at what a group of bioethicists led by Carl Elliott are doing at the University of Minnesota by reading this.

Finally, is wanting sex to be kept less public than this really the same as being "sex negative" as some have claimed? I don't think so. Read this follow-up.