I’ll admit, when I first read that Northwestern University Professor J. Michael Bailey had stirred up controversy with an after-class demonstration, I wasn’t too surprised. I took Bailey’s “Human Sexuality” class five years ago, and it was anything but tame.
But a live demonstration of how to use a saw-shaped sex toy? In a classroom? In front of more than 100 people? When did Evanston, Illinois turn into Amsterdam?
Within a few days, the story, originally reported by the campus newspaper The Daily Northwestern, spread like wildfire. The Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, CNN and even the BBC ran shocking headlines like “Live sex toy demonstration held on Northwestern campus.” After a while, I wasn’t amused or embarrassed for my school anymore. I was sad that this scandal is what Bailey’s class was reduced to.
“Human Sexuality” has always pushed boundaries. Bailey passes out sex surveys for his students to take. He devotes a lot of time to talking about fetishes. The entire course is about confronting taboos and making people uncomfortable.
The after-class demonstrations are an important — but not mandatory — part of the class. Five years later, they are still some of my most memorable moments inside a classroom. During the annual discussion with gay men, one panelist talked about losing his virginity in one of NU’s dorms. Two other panelists, who were in a committed, but open, relationship, recounted how many sex partners they’d had (it was in the hundreds).
But the raciest talk I attended was the panel on sadomasochism. Two dominatrixes, dressed to the nines in leather and spikes, and their submissive (who was only referred to as “Danimal”) talked about the S&M lifestyle and demonstrated some of the tools of trade — whips, paddles and even nipple clips. But the tenor of the demonstration was educational. There was never noticeable stimulation. The panelists discussed safety and told personal stories about how they found the S&M community and why it felt like home.
Was I uncomfortable? You bet. But did I learn something? Absolutely. That’s what college is about — pushing your own boundaries and getting exposed to new ideas and lifestyles.
Sexuality is an important part of that. It’s central to human life, and thus it’s appropriate to teach a psychology course about it. Furthermore, it’s educational to hear stories about how people discovered and came to terms with their own sexual proclivities. Mostly, it’s valuable to get out of your comfort zone, confront taboos, understand why they exist and question whether the do-not-cross line should be moved. Being able to do this in the safe environment of a classroom is a good thing.
But you don’t need to watch two people demonstrate a female orgasm to learn how it works. You don’t need to watch live sex to understand its importance, and you don’t have to go to extreme lengths and shock people to make them question sexual norms.
If anything, the live sex toy demonstration takes away from the value of the class. Now, people aren’t talking about the portrayal of sex in our society or psychology of desire. They’re talking about the f$#ksaw. That doesn’t serve anybody.
What do you think? Was the sex toy demonstration appropriate?
Photo credit: Zol87