Friday, March 4, 2011

Teaching Sex: A Lesson at Northwestern University

Controversy has emerged at Northwestern University after Prof. Michael Baily during an after-class lecture invited 4 members of the Chicago BDSM community to discuss “kink” which included an impromptu live sex-act demonstration. Initially, Northwestern supported the demonstration, but amid the growing outrage (from parents, alum, and Evanston community members) the university has decided to open an investigation to, as Northwestern President Schapiro stated “investigate fully the specifics of this incident, and also clarify what constitutes appropriate pedagogy, both in this instance and in the future.” (Chicago Sun Times).

Initially the university’s support for Baily’s after-class demonstration was defended using academic freedom and the importance to be able to teach controversial topics. Alan K Cubbage, vice president for University Relations noted “Northwestern University faculty members engage in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial and at the leading edge of their respective disciplines. The University supports the efforts of its faculty to further the advancement of knowledge” (Sun-Times). Baily’s syllabus for the course itself notes that the course is "skewed toward controversial and unusual aspects of sexuality." But, with potential bad press and loss of monies, the tune has changed - including numerous other critics - with the President of Northwestern saying he is “‘troubled and disappointed’ by the live sex toy demonstration in a campus auditorium last week, and that it was not in keeping with Northwestern's mission.”

Lance Gravelee, who teaches a human sexuality course at the University of Florida believes that Baily went to far stating “this case is so far on the other side of the line that it doesn’t strike me as difficult to figure that out” and that as a professor he “can’t imagine doing something like this in a classroom”. Gravelee has discussed the issue of female orgasm (one of the topics during the after-class demonstration) noting “you can do that and stop well short of bringing it into the classroom" and as such "they would have a hard time convincing me that this was an appropriate way to challenge misconceptions." Misconceptions it seem can be addressed by simply discussing them, but to illustrate the existence of and experience of a female orgasm is out of the question. Human sexuality, as an academic pursuit is, it would seem, purely a mind game, about acquiring knowledge and overcoming misconceptions without any attention to the physical or material complexity and experience of the body.

It is the body that is the problem in this case. To illustrate, with a real-life woman, particular sexual practices that bring about pleasure and orgasm is seen as one Evanston parent wrote a sign of “low-class depravity” - never mind that the female participant fully consented to and expressed her own enjoyment of exhibitionism. But the body is not always the problem in higher education - there are all kind of embodied demonstrations that take place on a university campus, from rock climbing to scuba diving. Rarely are there any controversies surrounding such demonstrations and actions. And it would be absurd, I think, to say it is perfectly fine to teach rock climbing or scuba diving by talking about how to do them without, at the minimum seeing demonstrations about proper techniques.

Sexual technique is, of course, a much more loaded conversation. Deirdre McCloskey, a UIC professor who has criticized Bailey in the past, said “he aims for shock over substance” (Chicago Sun Times). Such a view, while understandable, fails to grapple with why a demonstration of proper and alternative sexual techniques is not considered “substantive.” Is the female orgasm not an important and substantive topic that should be more engaged and thought about, especially in an age where women’s rights are being challenged on the floors of Congress? A Northwestern parent, Lynn Simmons thinks not, writing the demonstration “does not fall under the umbrella of education. It's demeaning to women. I just thought it was completely, completely out of line." (ABC Local). Now, I respect differing opinions, but I am not sure how a demonstration that was fully consensual and illustrating, through its very performance, a particular sexual fetish is demeaning to women? I find it actually, in this context, quite liberating and educational to see that women can 1) orgasm and 2) have control over how their body is pleasured by their partner(s) in non-normative ways.

This is not to say that women do not experience a disproportionate amount of sexual violence, but to note that it is important to recognize moments when female sexuality (and I would argue male sexuality via her partner’s pleasure in the demonstration) is shown as a positive and important aspect to a fulfilling life. As Jim Marcus, one of the presenters noted, "Everyone in the room consented to be there. Everyone on stage consented to do what they were doing. No one got hurt. Everything was done in safe, sane and consensual way," with such a demonstration providing an education (ABC News).

It is, no doubt, though shocking, to hear about a sex demonstration at a university. While everyone knows students have sex on campus, god forbid a university campus (consisting almost entirely of those who have reached the age of consent) actually teach a plethora of ways to get your rocks off. So, McCloskey is correct in stating this is “shocking” because we prefer sex to be the unspoken and are shocked when it is not. As CBS News reports:

Bill Yarber, a researcher at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute and author of the widely used textbook "Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America," said he's never heard of a naked woman being brought to orgasm in front of a class of students. "There's certain boundaries of things, I think, that are acceptable and that would certainly be pushing that," (CBS News)

And Bailey’s decision to allow this demonstration does in fact push the boundaries, but is that not the purpose of the academy - to push the boundaries of thought and pedagogy? Is this demonstration a rather explicit example of an erotic pedagogy?

In a time where sex education is abysmal, rates of HIV are on the rise in particular populations, notably youth, and the population lacks the access and ability to discuss the complexity of sex and sexuality it would seem the university is, at least, one place a part of the population might receive some “real” training in sexual technique. And it is for this reason, I found the statements from students to be quite illuminating and quite different than those of the “adults” aforementioned. Students who attended recognized the educational value of the demonstration. As Natalie Houchins said "We all learned some things. We learned about kinky sex culture, reasons they do it. We learned how these instruments work." And Sarah Lowe said she “was not disturbed by it,” but was “glad that it took place in an auditorium, rather than a smaller classroom, which would have been too close and awkward.” (Both from Sun-Times) Lowe further said

I was basically interested to see how it works. There wasn't anybody who was angry or expressed disgust. They asked questions about the lives of the presenters. It was very informational, I feel, about the sexual diversity that exists.

Not all students stayed for the demonstration. "For me, I'm glad I didn't see it. It was a little too explicit for me, and if I were in the class, if I would have stayed for the demonstration, I probably would have left. I know a couple of my friends did get up and leave," said Diana Lorenzini (ABC News). No where in this student’s view was the demonstration inappropriate or uneducational, rather it was not up her alley - to explicit.

Perhaps the students, who are themselves adults, in this after-class demonstration have something to teach those older adults about the value of an education. Perhaps their open-mindedness and general curiosity demands that the shock and awe around sexuality is outdated and in need of makeover. Or, that while such a demonstration might be too explicit for some, is still an important educational opportunity to be afforded those who are interested. Perhaps sex demonstrations, just like rock-climbing and scuba diving, deserve a place in the classroom to help students see the diversity of sexual possibilities and how to perform such possibilities in a safe and consensual manner. And, like those less “shocking” activities, perhaps such demonstrations for the time being, remain an “add-on” to the curriculum which is better than nothing.

We often hear stories emerging out of college campuses that involve sexual assault and violation. We can look at cases at Notre Dame, Drake University, Dickinson College and most likely any and all universities. Often such cases, while provoking outrage, fail to adequately address the issue of sexual assault. As Shirra Tarrant on Ms Magazine Blog writes there is significant silence around sexual assault on campuses and “sexual assault breeds in the Petri dish of silence.” Silence, in general, contributes to misconceptions, fears, shame, and potential harm around issues of sexuality. Not only should sexual assault be discussed and addressed, but so to should alternative, safe, and consensual sexual practices that allow all parties involved to experience pleasure and further learn how to live pleasureable, joyous lives.


Kara Spak (3 March 2011). Northwestern University defends after-class live sex demonstration. Chicago Sun Times. Accessed at:

Barry Leibowitz (3 March 2011). Northwestern Sex Toy Demo: Univ. Kids get explicit lesson in human sexuality. CBS News accessed at: (

Stacey Baca & Eric Horng (3 March 2011). Participants call NU sex demo ‘educational’ ABC News accessed at:

Shirra Tarrant (8 Dec. 2010). Silence and Sexual Assaults on College Campuses. Ms Magazine Blog. Accessed at:


Anonymous said...

How is a live demonstration of a exhibitionist woman being brought to orgasm by a fucksaw (an electric saw with a dildo stuck on the end of it) an example of a safe secure fulfilling alternative sexual relationship? Get real! This was pure porn at its worst and has no place in a University setting. According to the professor's argument, it would be ok to have a live demonstration of pedophilia or beastiality and find intellectual justification for its 'educational value' as a demonstration of alternative sexual preferences. This professor has a major problem and he should seek professional psychological help to deal with his kinky fetishes or he might wind up getting arrested in a porn sting by the authorities.

A Queer Lens... said...

How is it not an example of a safe, secure, fulfilling alternative relationship? It may not be what one might consider "normal," but it is a relationship between (two) persons that is safe, secure, and consensual. As for the psychological health of the professor, there has been no evidence (or discussion that I have seen) that he is mentally unhealthy. Teaching and discussing human sexuality and the diversity that exists is in no way a sign of psychological pathology. I think allowing for a diverse representation of sexuality and the ethics of alternative sexual communities (e.g. the ethics of BDSM documented by various ethicists and anthropologists) is, in fact, a way to fight against psychological shame as it allows individuals to see the diversity of sexual pleasures and that it is ok to explore and try new things, if done in a safe, and consensual manner.