How far is going too far when it comes to sex education? Such is being debated once again thanks to a live sex act demonstration at Northwestern University. The controversy, spawned by the decisions of tenured professor J. Michael Bailey, involves an after-class where a guest presenter used a machine-powered saw with a phallic object (instead of a blade) on his fiancé, to the point of orgasm, in front of about 100 students.
This “on the fly” event followed a lecture on bondage, swinging, and other sexual behaviors, plus video of a woman experiencing climax. When the flick was deemed “unrealistic,” the idea of a live sex act was born. With Bailey finding no reason not to allow the demo, he and his co-presenter gave students numerous warnings about the graphic nature of the presentation before proceeding. Some students did leave before the woman was penetrated with a sex device for about three minutes.
While Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, has reacted by launching an investigation, Bailey first reacted with “that is what I get paid for.” The psychology professor has since issued a written apology, claiming that the demonstration was unplanned and based on a quick decision – something he should not have done – though he naively sees “absolutely no harm in what happened.”
In the meantime, the media and academic circles alike are debating whether or not higher education can – and should – go about teaching differently. This demonstration was just the latest in a string of educational offerings Bailey has facilitated, with earlier ones involving presentations, panel discussions or question-and-answer sessions by swingers, transvestites, convicted sex offenders, transsexual performers, and people into “kink.” So does making topics “live” cross the line?
Bailey’s defenders claim that his teaching decisions are all in the name of academic freedom, and that he cannot be faulted for providing students with an opportunity that is a part of what the university experience should be about. Bailey’s critics see what apparently amounts to no more than a reenactment of an Amsterdam sex show as inappropriate, irresponsible, and poor judgment on a number of levels, most basically when it comes to consent.
Concern has been raised over matters like: Did students truly understand what they were about to see? How much did peer pressure play in students not leaving? (Consider that some may not have attended class that day had they known about the demo ahead of time.) Regardless, were students fully protected from what they were about to witness?
Issues around preparation, debriefing, and support have raised alarm even more given the woman involved, a self-described exhibitionist, has made statements indicating that the audience was actually part of the couple’s sexual experience. Media attention, students’ own negative experiences with sex, and conflict over the decision to stay and watch could further be causing students distress.
Bailey has gone on the defensive as sex positive, feeling that his “sex negative” attackers are practicing censorship. He believes no one has given good cause for why the demonstration should not have been offered, especially since he warned the 567 students enrolled in the class that the demo would be explicit (students were invited to voluntarily view the demonstration, and without any impact on their grade). He sees this demonstration as an opportunity for learners to experience areas of sexuality rarely seen.
Unfortunately, it’s all too predictable that the fields of sexuality education and sex research will pay the price for Bailey’s missteps – at least in the United States. What seemingly amounted to no more than an attempt to shock and titillate has crowned Bailey as the Jerry Springer of sex education, and any attempts to highlight real experiences as “freak shows.” Bailey has demonstrated complete ignorance or lack of care when it comes the political and social climates in which sexuality educators operate. Incidences like these hurt all educators who are truly interested in teaching learners about sexuality.
Ironically, many sexuality educators themselves have never attended a workshop or presentation involving nudity, live sex demonstrations, or enhancement products. Knowing well that such learning experiences are largely unnecessary in teaching and learning about sex, a number want to know about the goals and objectives in Bailey’s lesson plan. What were they and what does a live demonstration do for students that a film or website cannot? How does a live sex act meet students’ educational needs?
So far, Bailey hasn’t given anybody any good answers or rationale for his decisions.