Sex Education, Live Demonstrations, and Northwestern University
A few weeks ago, Northwestern University professor J. Michael Bailey did something that ruffled a lot of feathers.
He teaches a lecture class on the science of sexuality and in order to supplement the course, he organizes a series of optional presentations with guest speakers. These sessions are 100% voluntary, none of the material presented is included on exams, and he puts them together on his own time and for no pay. He does it because hearing from people who actually engage in various sexual practices puts a human face on it. His guest speakers have included a panel of gay men, a transsexual performer, convicted sex offenders, swingers, and a plastic surgeon.
Now, I think this is fantastic. One of the most common flaws in university level sexuality classes is the tendency to create a vast distance when talking about sexual experiences or practices. It’s “those people” over there who do “those things.” But it isn’t until we meet people who do those things that we realize that most of the time, they’re just folks. I’ve been a speaker on various panels and it’s always amazing to see how much meeting a real-life person can change attitudes and beliefs about sex and communities of erotic affiliation.
At the same time, there’s a difference between talking with people about their sexualities and a live demo, which is what got people riled up. According to Bailey’s statement, the topic of the session was G-spot and female ejaculation. Since the mainstream scientific world still doesn’t agree on whether the G-spot exists, even though there’s been some pretty solid research and plenty of anecdotal evidence, having speakers talk about their experiences would be quite valuable. The guests brought a toy that they use for their G-spot fun. So far, so good. And when they asked the professor if they could give a live demo, he decided to go ahead with it. Of course, that’s when things get tricky.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that there’s definitely a place for sex education demos. While the workshops at Good Vibrations are always 100% clothed and there is no genital touch, we do sometimes host classes on topics like bondage or spanking that can include demonstrations. (The spanking demo model wears a thong.) And there are lots of workshops that include experiential learning, such as the handjob class. At that one, attendees practice on dildos. Or the ever-popular kissing workshop, for which you have to sign up with a partner. There are some other organizations that offer workshops with more explicit demonstrations or participation, too.
As a sex educator and workshop presenter, I strongly believe in the value of experiential learning. The more closely you can simulate the real-life application of new skills, the more people acquire them. That’s why pilots are trained in flight simulators and culinary students practice in real kitchens. But the difference, I think, is that there needs to be a clear goal in mind. I’ve seen more than a few sex workshops that included a demonstration that didn’t really serve much purpose. You shouldn’t throw a demo into a workshop simply to fill the time or because everyone else does it. You should do it because it helps you meet your planned objectives and because it helps the students learn something.
Bailey has said that, while he hesitated briefly, he decided to allow the demonstration because he had lectured earlier that day about the attempts to silence sex research are rooted in sex-negativity and that he didn’t want to give into erotophobia and fear. The students were alerted repeatedly about the explicit demo and given the option to leave. Plus, their feedback was uniformly positive. So what’s the problem?
I see two issues here. First, it’s not clear to me that this demonstration was intended to meet any particular learning objective. While one could argue that observing people having sex can be an amazing learning experience (and one that I’ve certainly benefited from as part of my training as a sexologist and sex educator), the impromptu nature of this particular event makes me wonder about it. Of course, there needs to be room for teachers to improvise, adapt to the always-shifting needs of a particular class, and to take advantage of opportunities for teaching moments. But this is a significant enough shift from Bailey’s usual practices that I can’t help but think that he could have handled it better.
Second, on-campus sex education is already controversial. For example, Bridgewater University professor Margaret Brooks has been attacking university sex weeks and sex ed events, even if she has to misrepresent things to do it. And when folks like her stir things up, it makes administrators nervous, which leads to situations like universities refusing to let qualified speakers participate at conferences because of their connections with porn. Whether there’s an educational justification for a live demo, it’s certainly fraught with political consequences. And while Bailey welcomes disagreement and debate, a lot of professors of sexuality classes don’t have enough support from their deans to be able to weather the storm. My guess is that this is going to cause some backlash for many of them.
Frankly, I think that, at the very least, Bailey was unwise to make this decision in the moment. The issue of sex ed on university campuses is so complex that I think it would have been better to develop a plan. It also would have been more effective if he had a clear objective in mind and an explanation of how a demonstration would support it better than, say, a video presentation. (And for the record, there are plenty of movies of female ejaculation, ranging from the informational to the erotic, so it wouldn’t have been hard to find.) And it really would have been wise of him to put this into the larger social and political context before making a decision.
Did the students benefit from their experience? They say they did. And since nobody was required or pressured into attending, there’s no question of consent. Even so, I’m not convinced it was the best move, either from an educational perspective or a political one.