If he had it to do over again, professor John Michael Bailey says he probably wouldn’t allow a live sex demonstration in his human sexualities class at Northwestern University — but not because he thinks it was inappropriate. A weary-sounding Bailey, reached by phone this afternoon, told me that on principle he stands by his decision to let one guest presenter use a sex toy — rather unsubtly known as the “fucksaw” — to bring another presenter to repeated orgasm in front of his students. But he says it simply wasn’t worth “the fallout,” which has included coverage from every mainstream news outlet from the Associated Press to MSNBC. Following the media pickup, the university’s president, Morton Schapiro, issued a statement criticizing Bailey’s “extremely poor judgment” and announcing an official investigation.
So why did he allow it to happen? It was part of an optional lecture — which came with multiple warnings about explicit content — after his human sexuality class. It featured three guests involved in the BDSM scene who were planning to talk about their kinky lifestyle. It happened that the presenters arrived early during the professor’s lecture on the g-spot and female ejaculation, both of which are scientifically controversial. When it came time for the guests’ presentation, one of them, Jim Marcus, suggested that he and his fiancée, another speaker, provide a genuine example of female ejaculation right there on the spot. After brief hesitation, Bailey agreed.
“I couldn’t think of a legitimate good reason why people shouldn’t be allowed to see that, and I still can’t,” he told me. The students were repeatedly warned about what they were going to see, and those who were uncomfortable with the idea were allowed to leave. The woman took off her clothes and her fiancé got her off with the motorized dildo — although she didn’t actually ejaculate. It took no more than 10 minutes of the hour-long presentation — but it’s getting Bailey his 15 minutes of infamy, and he made clear that he isn’t enjoying it one bit.
All of which makes me ask: Aren’t we overreacting a bit? It isn’t at all unusual for college human sexuality classes to screen scenes from pornographic films and expose students to all manner of edgy, taboo material. Now, there is certainly a difference between watching a video demonstration and witnessing it live in person. With the latter, there’s the possibility that the students are participating in the couple’s exhibitionistic fantasy — meaning they weren’t merely observers but also participants. Such are the complicated dynamics found in any sort of sociological research. It’s also true that watching a video allows for a level of emotional distance that isn’t possible with a real-life, real-time act.
But that disconnect alone is a subject worthy of an entire human sexualities lecture — especially for a generation raised on Internet porn. Students should be challenged to think about the line between fantasy and reality, observation and participation, and they should be encouraged to consider how personal responsibility comes into play, and where they want to draw their own boundaries.
Now, I’m not saying that Bailey actually planned an in-depth discussion on all that; the demonstration was largely spur-of-the-moment. I’m just saying I can imagine an optional live sex demonstration having some educational merit. Whether this one actually did, I couldn’t say — but one has to consider why it matters so much. Schools allow all sorts of dubious exercises in the name of education — plenty of pricey guest lecturers offer exactly zero — but few things challenge current social norms and moral standards like public sex does. This demonstration causes such discomfort because it violates fundamental boundaries of public and private. There are good reasons for these limits — and violating them understandably sparks unease — but that doesn’t mean this kind of demonstration should be forbidden or receive wholesale condemnation.
It’s important to note that this story broke in Northwestern’s student newspaper — the angle being that, hey, this unconventional demonstration had taken place, and students were fine with it. It didn’t make MSNBC because the actual students who witnessed the demonstration were outraged or scarred by the experience. It made national news because the idea itself is shocking, unusual and titillating. A live sex demonstration in a college class? It’s the stuff of pornographic fantasy — or Monty Python (see the video below). Look at me writing about it! Look at you reading about it! Who doesn’t enjoy gawking at the idea of such a taboo-exploding event?
The point of a college class like this is to explore the range of human sexual experience through a critical scientific lens. When you’re talking about a controversial phenomenon like female ejaculation and you have a guest lecturer offer to demonstrate it for the class, what scientist says no? As Bailey wrote in his official statement following the explosion of press coverage, “Earlier that day in my lecture I had talked about the attempts to silence sex research, and how this largely reflected sex negativity,” he said. “I did not wish, and I do not wish, to surrender to sex negativity and fear.” As for what he’s learned from the experience, Bailey tells me that it’s too early to say — before adding, “What has happened reinforces the fact that a significant portion of society is very sexually conservative and I knew that, of course, but this reinforces it. Part of that is being outraged by sexual interactions that have no clear harm to anybody.”