UPDATE (3/5): The professor involved in this incident has issued an apology. Portions of it can be read in an article here.
UPDATE (3/4): The president of Northwest University has expressed concern over this incident (here), saying he was “troubled and disappointed,” and has ordered an investigation. Hopefully my assumption about the university’s response will be proven wrong.
HT to Jim West. A human sexuality professor at Northwestern University has stirred some controversy for allowing a live demonstration of a sex toy at an optional after-school program. An article here (warning: contains profanity and graphic language) describes the circumstances and the aftermath, and the professor involved has published his own statement here.
The after-school program is a regular feature of his class designed to give some of his 600+ students an opportunity to directly engage authorities on their subject-matter. Here is the professor’s account:
On the afternoon of February 21st Ken MB and colleagues arrived while I was finishing my lecture, on sexual arousal. I was talking about the female gJspot and the phenomenon of female ejaculation, both of which are scientifically controversial. I finished the lecture and invited the guests onstage. On the way, Ken asked me whether it would be ok if one of the women with him demonstrated female ejaculation using equipment they had brought with them. I hesitated only briefly before saying “yes.” My hesitation concerned the likelihood that many people would find this inappropriate. My decision to say “yes” reflected my inability to come up with a legitimate reason why students should not be able to watch such a demonstration. After all, those still there had stayed for an optional demonstration/lecture about kinky sex and were told explicitly what they were about to see. The demonstration, which included a woman who enjoyed providing a sexually explicit demonstration using a machine, surely counts as kinky, and hence as relevant. Furthermore, earlier that day in my lecture I had talked about the attempts to silence sex research, and how this largely reflected sex negativity. I have had previous experiences with these silencing attempts myself. I did not wish, and I do not wish, to surrender to sex negativity and fear.
Ken MB and friends spoke to the class for a while and then informed students they were about to perform their demonstration. The presentation seems to have lasted about 5J10 minutes of their hour long presentation. While I watched, I experienced some apprehension. None of this apprehension had to do with the possibility of harm to any observer, and none of it had to do with a lack of educational value. As I alluded, some experiences are educational and interesting in non-traditional ways. Rather, I was worried that there could be repercussions that would threaten the valuable speaker series that I have built over the years.
There has been positive and negative reaction to this event, with rather predictable rhetoric from both sides (“That’s not what I’m paying 200k for my child to learn!” vs. “These are consenting adults!”). The professor’s response shows considerable reflection, but, in my opinion, not a great deal of integrity. Before I explain why, here are some things I am happy to grant:
- It was an optional event and the students were warned several times about the graphic nature of the content
- The demonstration is a part of a program series that has a history of frank and open discussion of sexual diversity
- Sex research is too restricted
- The students are adults
- Nothing illegal occurred
- The discussion before and after the demonstration was no doubt enlightening and relevant to the course
Some considerations conflict with the relevance of these concessions, though. Turning 18 doesn’t mean you suddenly have the capacity for critical and objective thought, especially when it comes to sexuality. There’s a reason you have to be 21 to drink (or 25 to rent a car), and I can’t imagine anyone actually arguing that college undergrads have a purely academic interest in human sexuality. Irrespective, just because they were adults does not mean that this was necessarily an appropriate event. The professor comments:
I certainly have no regrets concerning Northwestern students, who have demonstrated that they are open-minded grown ups rather than fragile children.
The implication here is that only fragile children could be adversely effected by public demonstrations of sexual acts. He states at the end of his statement that he expects disagreement and that thoughtful discussion of controversial issues promotes education. The above does not show a willingness to thoughtfully engage opposing viewpoints. The above is emotive rhetoric. I have to disagree with the professor’s comment itself, too. The professor should know that sexuality is not an abstraction from which the human brain can, without exception, simply decouple for observation and analysis. Sexual addiction and other related conditions are serious problems, and it’s a problem among open-minded adults, not just fragile children. To insist that undergraduates can view this kind of sexual act without even the possibility of adverse psychological effects betrays a shocking lack of objectivity. I believe that sexuality, sexual addiction, and sexual diversity do need to be studied, and there should be forums available for research into this, but I don’t see how this demonstration contributed to the furtherance of the education of these students. An article here includes an interview of the guest lecturer and his fiancee, who performed the act. The participating couple explains that they had not planned on an actual demonstration. The demonstration was decided on spontaneously to correct misunderstandings about sexual arousal that they felt may have arisen after viewing a sexually explicit video. It sounds more to me like taking advantage of an opportunity. They are not trained educators, they are exhibitionists who were happy to have an opportunity to disseminate their value system. For the professor, it seems, the value system is just as welcome as the data. One student said this:
“We were watching a video on sexual arousal,” Smith said. “The main guy, Ken, said, ‘Are you ready for the live sex show?’ We were like, ‘OK.'”
“Live sex show” is what you see in flashing lights on Harry Hines Boulevard, not what you cite in a term paper. None of the students interviewed gave me the impression that the felt the demonstration was valuable from an academic point of view. They just seemed to think it was cool to see. Even if this act was intended to promote an academic approach to sexuality (I can’t say I’m willing to grant the exhibitionists that, yet), it was obviously not couched that way. From the professor’s description of the events, we see that he hesitated at first. He states that his hesitation was brief, and that during that brief hesitation he concluded that no reason existed for the students not to see it. It seems unlikely to me that he thought very hard about it. Obviously he’s also in a position where greater exposure to this kind of information is desirable, whether it technically contributes to education or not.
In the long run, the school’s not going to do anything. No laws were broken and they didn’t have guidelines set up for this. This is one of those things that exists in that shadowy area of administrative policy that has no point of departure except for the precedent they want to set for the academy. The school will not come down on the side of restricting this kind of thing. To do so would be to invite criticism from all corners of academia, along with accusations of pandering to the religious right (who are the only people who could ever object to an act of machine-aided masturbation performed in front of 100 twenty-one-year-olds). That doesn’t make it right, though, or necessarily educational; it makes it a battle ground, and too often the focus is not on the individual battle, but on the tide of the broader war. What bothers me the most is that there will be no real “thoughtful discussion.” The professor will defend himself from the sound-bytes coming from one side of the argument (and if the comment above is any indication, he will be just as marginalizing in response), and other sound bytes will be hurled in response from the other side of the argument.