“After School Special”
By: J. Thomas Hunter
Northwestern University made headlines this week not because it is home to another Nobel Peace Prize winner, but because of smut. On February 21st, Professor J. Michael Bailey held an after-class session for his Human Sexuality Students that focused, at least in part, on female orgasm and female ejaculation. After holding a discussion and watching a video about female orgasm, Bailey and one of his guest speakers, Ken Melvoin-Berg, presented a couple (Jim Marcus and Faith Kroll) that labored (for about three minutes) to add to the experience. Kroll completely undressed and Marcus brought her to orgasm with a mechanical toy (imagine a reciprocating saw with a phallus instead of a blade) before a live audience of about 100 voyeurs—many of whom are teenagers. News of the event was relatively slow to surface, but when it inevitably did, it brought a storm of controversy upon the professor and upon the elite university.
At first, Northwestern stood behind Bailey. Dean of Students, Burgwell Howard argued that the demonstration likely “falls within the broad range of academic freedoms.” University spokesman, Alan Cubbage said, “Northwestern University supports the efforts of its faculty to further the advancement of knowledge.” Not long after these statements were made, and as opposition mounted, the university’s president, Morton Schapiro, came out against the demonstration. Schapiro, reportedly “troubled and disappointed” by the event, called for an investigation of the event’s specifics and stated that he feels it “represented poor judgment on the part of [NU’s] faculty member.” Schapiro continued, “I simply do not believe this was appropriate, necessary or in keeping with Northwestern University’s academic mission.” I concur.
Given the population of the university—young and very liberal—one can hardly say that the debate about the demonstration rages. Most conversations about it appear to be supportive of the professor. They involve giggling and dramatic soapbox speeches that rail against America’s puritanical views about sex and self-discovery. Bailey, himself, joined in the soapbox speeches “heroically” refusing “to surrender to sex negativity and fear.” He even offered a defensive “apology” in which he gave his critics an “F” for their arguments. “Those who believe that there was, in fact, a serious problem have had considerable opportunity to explain why: in numerous media stories on the controversy, or in their various correspondences with me…they have failed to do so.”
On the other side of the debate, though, are those who found Bailey’s decision deplorable and unfortunate. Schapiro acknowledges that he has received many complaints about the demonstration. The source of those complaints must factor in to his decision to so strongly denounce Bailey’s sex show. Has Bailey alienated prospective donors who, in a tough economy, are considering where to donate their money? The tactical realities must also affect Northwestern’s response: Is Bailey, a 21-year veteran, tenured? Does the university have the latitude to remove a professor who attracts negative attention and displays a tendency toward self-righteous martyrdom?
While Bailey argues that his critics have not sufficiently argued against his demonstration, he has failed to argue the intellectual and ethical support for his show. Few may oppose a psychology class about human sexuality—at least offering such a class is easy to defend. Perhaps one could even argue persuasively that such a class about female orgasm or female ejaculation is a worthy academic endeavor. (Or maybe I am ceding too much ground) Defending a live, public demonstration of the phenomenon, performed by an unmarried couple that revels in sexual exhibitionism and kink to an audience of teens is much more difficult. The glaring question one has for Bailey and the University is, “To what end did this performance serve?” The answer, thus far, is “to shock”—hardly an intellectual pursuit.
Since William F. Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale,” the elite university has been scrutinized as a place where intellectualism is replaced with indoctrination. The thesis of Buckley’s debut book was that undergraduates, through their university-required course-loads, are subjected to texts and professors that uniformly reject Judeo-Christian ethics and are, instead, taught the superiority of more mutable secular mores. Other works, making the same argument, have spawned with more contemporary examples. This demonstration at Northwestern fuels the argument that the elite university promotes and defends anti-social behavior—at an annual cost to parents of about $52,000.
Undeniably, Bailey’s demonstration helps to tarnish the reputation of the Northwestern diploma and faculty (those who defend him), and it also calls into question the ethical, intellectual and even political state of higher education. An 18 year old student was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “Over time people will become more liberal. I don’t think it will be an issue.” This indoctrination, not education, may very well prove to be the paramount objective of the elite university.