Sex, Morals, and Academic Freedom

A fucksaw.[First, some backstory--this post concerns a controversial event at Northwestern in which the professor for a class called Human Sexuality held an optional live demonstration that showed a man penetrating a woman with a sex toy. The story, which was first reported by our campus newspaper (the Daily Northwestern), quickly blew up and was featured in media outlets all over the world, including the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Here are the NYT and CNN articles on it.

Second, I wrote this piece for the blog of Northwestern Sex Week, an annual event that I'm on the planning committee of. Here's the original post.]

Much has already been written about the infamous Professor Bailey and the optional sex-toy demonstration he held for his Human Sexuality class. I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.

First of all, I’m not in the class and did not witness the demonstration. From what I’ve heard, I’m not sure that it would’ve had educational value for me, personally. That said, I am a member of SHAPE (Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators) and the Sex Week committee, and therefore, I already know quite a bit about sex. And yes, I know that women have g-spots and can potentially ejaculate. I also know that the range of human sexualities and sexual proclivities is virtually limitless, and that each individual views and experiences sex differently.

However, not everybody realizes this. For much of my adolescence, I didn’t either. Like some of the people I’ve met here at Northwestern, I freely labeled others’ sexual behaviors as disgusting, weird, abnormal, pathological. I didn’t realize how wrong this perspective was. The impression I get of Professor Bailey’s class and this demonstration is that they aim to eradicate this perspective. To that end, I can only endorse them both with complete confidence.

Second, even supposing that this demonstration had no educational value for anyone–which I highly doubt–we enter dangerous territory when we advocate banning something simply because we, as individuals, do not see its value. This is especially true in the academic realm. The concept of intellectual freedom does not exist to protect someone’s right to claim that the sky is blue; it exists to protect someone’s right to challenge existing norms and assumptions. It does not exist just to protect my English professor’s right to interpret a Dickens novel in a particular way; it exists to protect a human sexuality professor’s right to teach controversial material to his students. Even if Professor Bailey’s demonstration ultimately taught nothing, he should have the right to try unorthodox teaching styles, just like he has the right to conduct unorthodox research. Even if he failed, he has learned. That’s what academic life is all about.

I am also disappointed to read the numerous online comments from Northwestern alumni claiming that, because they disagree with this demonstration, they will no longer be donating money to Northwestern. This is, to put it bluntly, incredibly selfish and narrow-minded. In my opinion, one donates to an institution to support its overall mission, not because one agrees with every policy, every professor, every class, and every lecture. I, for instance, do not agree with some of the things that Northwestern faculty and administrators do–quite a lot of things, actually. Yet you can be sure that after I graduate, I will be donating money to this amazing school, probably for the rest of my life.

Third, this entire controversy, in my opinion, was started by a campus media given to sensationalism. With the media firestorm that has ensued, you would think that there had been some high-profile complaint from a student or parent, some allegation that the demonstration deeply disturbed a student–something. To my knowledge, there was not. In the article that broke the story, the Daily Northwestern failed to quote even a single person, student or otherwise, who had been offended or displeased by the presentation. Yet the article’s headline referred to this event as a “controversy.”

Finally, I would like to challenge all those who oppose this demonstration on moral grounds. Professor Bailey himself said it perfectly in his statement of apology:

Those who believe that there was, in fact, a serious problem have had considerable opportunity to explain why: in the numerous media stories on the controversy, or in their various correspondences with me. But they have failed to do so. Saying that the demonstration “crossed the line,” “went too far,” “was inappropriate,” or “was troubling” convey disapproval but do not illuminate reasoning. If I were grading the arguments I have seen against what occurred, most would earn an “F.” Offense and anger are not arguments.

Students were warned multiple times of the graphic nature of the presentation, and told that they were free to leave at any time. The individuals who staged and participated in the demonstration were all consenting adults. The course itself involves watching videos of people having sex, and no controversy has arisen because of that. The course, and this demonstration, involves an act that is as normal and natural as breathing, eating, and sleeping. Like Professor Bailey, I have yet to find a convincing argument for why this should not have happened that does not hinge on personal values, and that does not seek to impose one’s personal values on others.

In short, the fact that Professor Bailey was forced to apologize for the world’s closed-mindedness is tragic. And it means that we, the Sex Week committee, have our work cut out for us this year.

Let’s not forget that there was a time when you couldn’t say the word “pregnant” on television. There was a time when discussing sexuality in a classroom setting would’ve been impermissible. There was a time when a play like the Vagina Monologues could never have been staged in public, and there was a time when Sex Week could never have happened on a university campus.

Apparently, there is also a time when demonstrating the use of a sex toy on a consenting woman in front of a hundred consenting adults is unacceptable, too. That time is now. But we should remember how strange–how silly–yesterday’s taboos seem to us today.