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. …