Published on The Daily Femme – Friday, March 4, 2011
Contributed by Annamarya
If you had the opportunity to witness a five to ten minute live sex toy demonstration, would you take it?
It was a question students at Chicago’s Northwestern University had to consider on Monday, February 21 while attending an optional, educational event prepared by author and NU professor John M. Bailey, who teaches the university’s nearly 600-person large Human Sexuality course. With a focus on kinky sex and sexual arousal, the hour-long panel, which was attended by about 120 students, featured guest lecturer Ken Melvoin-Berg, co-owner of Weird Chicago tours, and couple Jim Marcus & Faith Knoll, who performed the demonstration. Relevant to the panel’s subject, the naked Knoll was “repeatedly sexually stimulated” by a motorized sex toy reminiscent of a phallic saw to show a realistic female orgasm, and was followed by a discussion on safety and consent. According to numerous reports, students were warned explicitly upwards of six times about what was forthcoming and were given the chance to leave if they so wished. Some trickled out, said attendee Justin Smith, a senior at NU, but most, including a student’s mother, stayed and watched in baited silence. But despite the voluntary nature of the event, which is one out of many designed by the 53-year-old Bailey to address “interesting aspects of sexuality,” an uproar ensued.
Despite Northwestern University spokesman Al Cubbage’s assertion that the institution “supports the efforts of its faculty to further the advancement of knowledge,” NU president, Morton Schapiro, released a statement saying he was “troubled and disappointed” by Bailey’s actions, and that the lecture was inappropriate, unnecessary or didn’t keep with the institute’s “academic mission,” even though it was optional, after class, and not reviewed on exams. The administration announced yesterday that they’re launching an investigation into the Feb. 21 incident. It’s not clear what the intent of that is, although I suspect it may have to do with whether the demo violated local ordinances, as Evanston police said that’s up to the school to determine.
who penned and collected stories for his 2003 book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism,”* has defended his controversial demonstration, and rightly so. Feedback for the seminar, he wrote in a March 2 email to his students, was “uniformly positive,” and most attendees for the dialogue with guest Ken MB found it “most valuable.” “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…I expect many people to disagree with me. Thoughtful discussion of controversial topics is a cornerstone of learning,” he wrote.
While I understand how such a demonstration can make some uncomfortable, I in no way find it inappropriate. In fact, I have nothing but respect and admiration for the Baily’s progressive and liberal approach. Sure, it was an unorthodox method of dispensing education within a mainstream institution. But it’s not entirely uncommon. There are many organizations, like Sexploratorium here in Philadelphia, that focus on sex-positive education through demonstrations and lectures such as the one that took place at Northwestern University.
And I am all for that. The best way to receive a thoroughly honest education is to experience the subject hands-on–to understand the ins-and-outs of it as it occurs or occurred in nature, rather than through paper and ink (of course, within the realm of realism). As Bailey has said, “engaging real people in conversation provides useful examples and extensions of concepts students learn about in traditional academic ways.” It’s an opinion backed up by Laura Anne Stuart, coordinator of sexual health education and violence prevention at University Health Services, who, as a sexuality educator, believes specific arousal technique demos “definitely have educational value.” Those who cannot distinguish between intent of education and intent of arousal shouldn’t take part in teaching of this nature.
Nevertheless, would Bailey’s optional after-class seminar, then, have been more appropriate if it took place off-campus in a safe space like Sexploratorium? Furthermore, if he had played a video or had the demonstrators stimulate female ejaculation clothed, would its “obscenity” still be questioned? More than likely, yes. As Bailey noted in his email, there are attempts to silence sex research, which “largely reflect sex negativity,” something he doesn’t wish to “surrender to…and fear.” It’s no secret the general public is uncomfortable with sexuality, so when sex is involved, no matter the capacity (positive vs. sleazy; overt vs. subtle), objections will be raised. Just think about Lea Michele and the debacle over her Cosmo cover.
Putting the content aside, the fact is students were warned about the “extreme” nature of the live demo numerous times. They had a choice of whether they wanted to witness it or not. Those who were curious and/or comfortable with educational exhibition stayed. Those who weren’t left. Therefore, shouldn’t the appropriateness of the lecture be determined by those who witnessed it? Do those not in attendance really have a right to naysay something that clearly was performed with the intention of educating students on sexual diversity?
*WRITER’S NOTE (10/10/2013): At the time that I wrote this piece, I was not aware of the (rightful) controversy surrounding Bailey’s 2003 book as I did not perform in-depth research for this blog post. (The post was originally meant to be a discussion about the benefits of sex-positive education with demonstrations.) Now that I am fully aware, I do want to say that I do not now (or then have) support Bailey’s writing on transsexualism and transgenderism, nor do I support his insensitive response to those people he has hurt with his writing. I do, however, stand behind my support of sex-positive sex education.