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Including Sex In Sex Education

Here is a disclaimer I never expected to write for this column: Today’s commentary includes some graphic discussion of sex. If this might offend you, please exercise discretion before you continue reading.

My 20-year-old daughter is a journalism student at Northwestern University, where she is very happy. One of her favorite classes is the psychology course in Human Sexuality she is taking this quarter from Prof. John Michael Bailey.

Bailey and his class have been all over the national news lately. Two weeks ago, the professor allowed something unexpected and — to some people — shocking to occur in his human sexuality lecture hall. What happened was sex.

Specifically, a young woman who is not a Northwestern student was, as the Daily Northwestern reported, “repeatedly sexually stimulated to the point of orgasm” by a “motorized phallus.” It is not necessary to repeat the street name for this device, but I am aware of such inventions. The ones I have seen look like a cross between a power drill and a chain saw, minus the sharp edges.

The demonstration occurred at one of the optional after-class discussion sessions that Bailey organizes to complement his standard lectures and reading materials. Other sessions have included question-and-answer periods with swingers and sex offenders. The nearly 600 students in the class, which is one of Northwestern’s most popular, are not required to attend these sessions, and the material is not included on exams.

My daughter skipped the Feb. 21 presentation on sex toys. She very much regrets that now. Even the professor did not have advance notice that the session’s principal guest, Chicago sex tour impresario Ken Melvoin-Berg, planned to bring along a couple that was prepared to display the apparatus in action. My daughter, busy with her work as the Daily Northwestern’s sports co-editor, thought she was merely missing a guest lecturer.

About 100 students reportedly stayed after receiving multiple warnings of the graphic nature of what was to follow. Bailey made a last-minute decision to permit the demonstration.

As Bailey explained to the class when the controversy broke out, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but watching naked people on stage doing pleasurable things will never hurt you.” As far as I know, not a single person who attended the demonstration has uttered a word of complaint.

So now I am weighing in, as the tuition-paying parent of a student in Bailey’s class — and I am not complaining, either. The way I see it, Bailey turned an educational triple play for my daughter’s benefit.

First, there was the session itself, which offered her (had she stayed) a chance to hear live people explain why they would use such machinery in their sex lives, as well as why they would do so in public. Part of the in-class discussion, my daughter has since been told, focused on exhibitionism. This seems a perfectly reasonable topic for a human sexuality class. For that matter, so does an exploration of the variety of ways in which people engage in sex.

Should it matter that this was a live person in front of the room? Videos of such devices are readily available on the internet. Had Bailey or his guests merely shown such a video and talked about it, there would almost certainly be no controversy. But there would have been no chance for students to talk directly to the participants. I can see a benefit to the in-person approach.

Second, there was the journalistic aspect of this experience. My daughter has held all sorts of jobs at the Daily Northwestern, which broke the story of the demonstration. But was it a story worth breaking? Was it news, on the campus of a leading research university, that there was sex in a human sexuality class? And if it was news, did graphic details including the device’s crude name belong in the paper and on the paper’s website? These are the sorts of questions journalists must address. The only way to learn how to handle them is to do it.

My daughter did not make these decisions — her sports desk assignment left this story in other hands — but she had a chance to weigh in. She also had a chance to observe how the story developed once it was picked up by the Chicago media and, later, by the national press.

Third, there is an important life lesson in the Realpolitik that followed the news coverage. The university supported the professor while the story was restricted to the campus. Dean of Students Burgwell Howard told the student newspaper that the event probably “falls within the broad range of academic freedoms — whether one approves or disapproves.”

Things changed when the story went national. Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, said in a statement last week that he is investigating the incident because “many members of the Northwestern community are disturbed by what took place on our campus. So am I.” Schapiro did not say what disturbed him, nor what he is investigating. There does not seem like much to investigate about an event that took place in front of 100 attentive witnesses.

So I offered my own hypothesis to my daughter: Schapiro is playing to his base, the same way politicians play to theirs. A big part of his job is to raise money for Northwestern. He doesn’t want to lose a six- or seven- or eight-figure contribution to the school over this incident. So by being publicly “disturbed” and announcing that he is investigating, he can at least tell an upset prospective donor, “I know how you feel. I looked into it, but you know, with faculty tenure, there was really nothing I could do except make sure it doesn’t happen again. I’ll keep that professor in line.”

Sure enough, on Saturday Bailey issued a statement in which he apologized, even though he said he did not quite know why he was apologizing.

“I regret allowing the controversial after class demonstration on Feb. 21,” the professor wrote. “I regret the effect that this has had on Northwestern University's reputation, and I regret upsetting so many people in this particular manner. I apologize. As I have noted elsewhere, the demonstration was unplanned and occurred because I made a quick decision to allow it. I should not have done so. In the 18 years I have taught the course, nothing like the demonstration at issue has occurred, and I will allow nothing like it to happen again.”

But Bailey added that nobody who has objected to the demonstration has expressed a clear reason why they object. “Saying that the demonstration ‘crossed the line,’ ‘went too far,’ ‘was inappropriate,’ or ‘was troubling’ convey disapproval but do not illuminate reasoning. If I were grading the arguments I have seen against what occurred, most would earn an ‘F.’ Offense and anger are not arguments.”

So why did Bailey apologize? My guess is that he was told that unless he did so, his after-class sessions and perhaps the course itself would be history. And though his academic tenure might protect his own position, I expect Bailey felt he owed it to future students not to let that happen.

Earlier this quarter, my daughter told me, the class discussed living in a “sex-negative” society that generally frowns on expressions of sexuality, versus a “sex-positive” one that embraces it. If nothing else, she said, this controversy demonstrated how sex-negative our society remains, even with all the changes of the past half-century.

She is right. I started this column with a disclaimer precisely to avoid needlessly offending someone who does not want to read about sex, though I suspect I did not lose many readers as a result. Despite the disclaimer, there may be a few employees at my firm who will have trouble looking me in the face today after they read this column. I am sorry about causing them any discomfort. I am not trying to change society here, and I doubt that my daughter’s professor harbors any illusions about his ability to change it, either.

Maybe I am sympathetic because I, too, took a human sexuality course, 35 years ago. There was no live sex. But there was a lot of information that helped me to understand the power of sexuality as a human motivating force and the enormous variety of ways in which sexuality is expressed. I want my daughter to have that benefit. I realize that she lives in a world where sex and depictions of it are more pervasive than ever before. If Bailey is giving her more information than I got, it probably is because she will need it.

My daughter says she will send this column to her professor. I am glad for that. I want him to know that at least one parent recognizes the nastiness he is now enduring, and is grateful for his willingness to bear it in the interests of his students’ education. I cannot think of a better example of academic freedom being put to good use, if only on a one-time basis.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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13 Responses to "Including Sex In Sex Education"

  • Jon Burchfield
    March 7, 2011 - 11:52 am

    I support Mr. Bailey and the author of this article. If I had the means, this allowance of sexual expression as an academic tool would induce me to contribute a 6 figure sum, but only if the monies would go directly toward the advancement of Mr. Bailey’s agenda. BTW, I would have no problem looking the author of this article in the eye.

  • Zelda Gillian
    March 8, 2011 - 12:04 pm

    Thank you so very much for publishing a parent’s perspective to this situation and thank you for adding a rational voice to the conversation! I am saddened to see how antiquated modern society still is when it comes to sex and sex education, as is evidenced by the global outcry against the school, professor and presenters. As a Northwestern alum, an active member of Chicago’s sex-positive community and a parent myself, I am hopeful that voices of people like yourself will be heard and heeded to provide a more sex-positive future.

    Lastly, I would like to clarify your comment that “Even the professor did not have advance notice that the session’s principal guest … planned to bring along a couple that was prepared to display the apparatus in action.” The demonstration was not something that was planned in advance by any of the parties. Mr. Melvoin-Berg brought with him a panel of experienced individuals from Chicago’s BDSM community to aid in advancing the discussion and educational value for the students. The individuals’ willingness to participate in the last-minute demonstration was merely an effect of the open and educational nature of the community itself and the comfort with which we approach most expressions of sex and sexuality, and not out of a desire to shock or gain some sort of fame or notoriety (as has been rumored to be the case).

    Thanks, again, for your comments and perspective.

  • Angela Keys
    March 8, 2011 - 12:06 pm

    Thank you for realizing the value of these kinds of presentations & supporting those who are brave enough to go out on a limb for the noble purpose of furthering education. I know the three presenters personally, & was frankly waiting for this kind of blowback once the story went national. I’m watching the array of reactions with great interest & feel that human sexuality is indeed making progress, even if the loudest people currently drown out the more reasonable folks.

    ^_^

  • Krista Cox
    March 8, 2011 - 1:58 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article. Anger and offense are not arguments, indeed. Anger and outrage at …what, exactly? If someone can define that, we can start a discourse. I’ve had about enough of the knee-jerk sexual hangups in this country. It’s absurd.

  • Dianna Johnston
    March 8, 2011 - 1:58 pm

    While I had no previous information on this occurrence before reading this article, I, at first, mistook this to have been on the high school level, but now, realizing this was done for and by adults, completely voluntarily, and utterly without consequences to the participants or observers, I am appalled. Appalled that the university would succumb to censorship from outside forces over something so harmless, so educational, so voluntary. HOW DARE THEY! I just wanted to chime in as the parent of a 13-year-old daughter, as well as two older sons. They see sexuality everywhere, even as small children. By the time someone is college-age, s/he is an adult, capable of *gasp* having the same kinds of experiences in the first person that these other adults watched. Gimme a freakin’ break. Quit your pearl-clutching and leave other grown ups to make their own decisions.

  • Kelly Aschlin
    March 8, 2011 - 2:27 pm

    “Had Bailey or his guests merely shown such a video and talked about it, there would almost certainly be no controversy. But there would have been no chance for students to talk directly to the participants.”

    You’re so right. It would have been impossible for the students to watch a video and then ask the visiting lecturers a question.

  • Sérgio Meira
    March 8, 2011 - 4:05 pm

    It is good to see that, even as this mostly sex-negative society still retains its sex-negativity, there already are cracks in the wall, holes in the shield, gaps in the force field. Hopefully other parents will weigh in, and support Mr. Elkin’s viewpoint.

    There is some hope for the future. Whether or not society will change, it will have to be gradually and slowly. Let’s all hope for the best.

  • Corena Schofield
    March 8, 2011 - 11:11 pm

    I am a student at the University of Washington and we have two big classes on sexuality: Sociology of Sexuality and Psychology of Sexuality. In both classes, students have to opportunity to listen to members of the transgendered community, nudist community and even the BDSM community come to speak and share their experiences, often in very explicit detail. We watched videos of sex, erotica, and pornography (I make a distinction because some videos were certainly intimate while others were clinical). The Psychology of Sexuality professor would have “Porn Fridays”, where she would show different types of porn and then the class would discuss what they had watched. I was always amazed by the maturity of the class. Each class had nearly 700 people and almost no one left when our professors gave warnings. There was of course an implied warning because we were signing up for sexuality classes 😛

    There was never an uproar among the administration or parents of the students. Perhaps its because these classes have become pretty well established, or perhaps we’re just a more liberal campus (I know little about Northwestern).

    It is always good to know that Northwestern is opposed to consenting adults engaging in substantive educational discussions…

    • Kelly Aschlin
      March 9, 2011 - 12:15 pm

      “It is always good to know that Northwestern is opposed to consenting adults engaging in substantive educational discussions…”

      Can you show me an example of someone from Northwestern opposing the discussion of this topic or the discussion of the act? I think that the issue is the impromptu, unscheduled, therefore not a part of the planned educational curriculum, nature of this demonstration. When something is not a planned part of a curriculum, it’s hard to defend it as necessary to the development of the student. I’m all for live sex demonstrations in controlled environments, witnessed and performed by consenting adults. I just think that if it’s going to happen in a college classroom, it needs to be part of the curriculum, justified at least by the ability of the professor to verbalize the learning objective. Haven’t heard that yet from Bailey, which makes me a little uncomfortable.

  • Marquette Gass
    March 9, 2011 - 5:28 pm

    How do we know how old the students were? I attended college when I was 15. What evidence has the university put forward to demonstrate that those under 18 were not in attendance? What steps were taken to insure that others did not gain entry to the session?

    If neither the author nor the author’s daughter attended the event, how can either judge the true nature and scope of the event? Maybe this is being made into more than it is. Maybe there is more to it than we know. Before lending your support, get the facts.

    One final thought – in his earlier released statements Prof. Bailey implied that he knew about the demonstration and was concerned about how it would be perceived. Now he is saying he had no idea what was to take place, but took no steps to stop it. Which ever statement is true makes the other a lie.

  • Marissa Barker
    March 9, 2011 - 6:37 pm

    There is so much talk of how we are a sex-negative society in the article and subsequent replies. We are a sex-negative society? What?! Has anyone picked up a Cosmo lately, turned on MTV, looked at a Billboard? We are not a sex-negative society, we are a sex-hypocritical society. Sex is everywhere, it just has to be the right kind of sex.
    The demonstration in question focused on a female orgasm, an ejaculatory female orgasm. There still exist a vast majority of medical professionals and other so-called experts who dispute woman’s ability to have “squirting” orgasms. This is why it is such a big deal. Because Prof. Bailey did not present the right kind of sex.

    And, Kelly, Prof. Bailey has made comments. Some of which were quoted in this article.

  • Charley Christman
    March 10, 2011 - 7:52 am

    In spite of all the positive feedback defending this situation, when you started out by saying your 20 year old daughter …, I was sure you were going to find fault. I am at or above your age, sell sex toys, and agree completely with your take on this, but in my own circle of contacts, there are still quite a few at my age who can’t come to grips with this sexual openness. I suspect that we will have to just die off to get by it on a broad front. Some of my friends turn away from my computer where I am working on simple images of vibrators. You can be sure THEY are not condoning such open sexuality courses for their kids in the universities. Thanks for surprising me.

  • Craig Ross
    April 25, 2011 - 5:52 pm

    Your 20 year old daughter and you are trying to be open minded and view this as an education. This is what the beautiful buildings and campus is being used to stage? To what end? At what opportunity cost? Why not just have a prostitution dial-up service too? There are no lines to cross.

    China will take over the USA in 2020 as the world’s top economy. Oh well. As long as American students are open minded about squishy orgasms, saw vibrators and nakedness. Get over yourselves, Americans, with the sex stuff that is from childhood.

    This nude display seems trite, silly and hardly worthy of a university course, particularly when you factor in the fees and the effort to gain entrance to such a prestigious university.This is the issue. Your brand is smeared as being foolish.

    As an aside, I wonder how many of those students would watch two men doing a similar act?
    Does Northwestern do any courses on how to have sex and love it with one partner while you raise children? That is a far more complex and difficult sex topic. Maybe one of the alumni would volunteer to show their techniques.

    How will you glue your marriages if sex is so valueless?

    Have you visited societies where sex is just done in public with whomever? If this a pro-sex society? I found those societies had high rape and violence against females. Being so casual about your society and how the academics promote this sort of thing is very dangerous. Sex is the most powerful force. I am amazed at the casualness of your article.