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.