Arguing with Myself: Tastefulness, Censorship, and the Sex-Toy Demonstration

Maybe I’m just getting old.  As my 32nd birthday looms ominously at the end of this month, I have started to see some of the telltale signs that I can no longer count myself among the ranks of the young.  If I don’t get at least 7 hours of sleep, I’m ruined the next day.  I select food at the supermarket with a much greater focus on trans-fat than flavor.  I drink tea.  Tea!  My only consolation is that at least I, unlike some others, recognize that I am getting older and have attempted to gracefully hang up my shiny clubbing shirt in favor of my comfortable, stained sweatshirt.

It is within this context that I have tried to approach the recent controversy at Northwestern University.  To briefly summarize, Professor John Michael Bailey, who teaches a large human sexuality class at Northwestern, held a supplemental session after one class, where a naked, non-student female was stimulated with what I have seen described alternatively as a “high-powered” or “motorized” sex toy.  That’s really all the detail we need to get into on that.  About 100 students, who were completely informed on the explicit nature of the content, chose to stay and watch.  Surprisingly, Bailey was shocked when protests and complaints appeared almost immediately, as he saw the exercise as completely in tune with the mission of his course.  He viewed the reaction as a division between people like him who “see absolutely no harm in what happened, and those who believe that it was profoundly wrong.”

I don’t think Professor Bailey is quite right here.  There has to be a middle ground between “absolutely no harm” and “profoundly wrong.”  I have always been proud that progressives are often able to see things in a nuanced way, not just black or white, or right or wrong.  What happened at Northwestern is neither a great victory for sexual liberation and education, nor the last step in the downfall of human civilization.  It’s somewhere in between.  And yet, my own opinion on whether this was appropriate, or how appropriate it was, depends on whether you ask this new (almost) 32-year-old version of myself, or the 22-year-old version who had never heard of trans-fat.

The 32-year-old version of me is, admittedly, a little shocked that this kind of exhibition would happen in a classroom in a large, national university.  I say “exhibition” instead of “demonstration” because the purpose of the activity was not to teach the students how to use the motorized sex toy. This type of presentation is clearly different from the practical knowledge that a condom demonstration, for example, is designed to impart.  Bailey claims that the display was appropriate because that day’s class had been focused on kink, and the display “surely counts as kinky, and hence as relevant.”  But this explanation strikes me as a bit of a stretch.  I think it’s much more likely that Bailey thought that the presentation would be edgy, cool, and push the boundaries of what is traditionally acceptable in the classroom.  His decision to allow this to happen was a lapse of judgment that has come back to bite him in the butt.  And, at the risk of sounding judgmental, the idea of watching a naked woman perform a sex act in the name of education seems a bit, well, juvenile.

My 22-year-old self, however, would be more than a little disgusted with me at the moment.  How dare a university, uptight right-wingers, or Old Man Malone tell me what consenting adults can and cannot view?  Everyone in the classroom knew exactly what they were in for, and they saw a legal act that harmed absolutely no one. Furthermore, college students are perfectly capable of determining what enriches their educational experience.  Just because this demonstration didn’t fit into a traditional idea of what education should look like doesn’t mean that is has no value.  New and different experiences have value in and of themselves, unless you’re just too closed minded and prejudiced to see that… Gramps.

Obviously, I think that both of these versions of ourselves exist in all of us, and have less to do with our age than with the reality that sexuality is a tricky issue.  Questions of appropriateness, judgment and, yes, even tastefulness are natural, and it’s ok to struggle with them and to have different opinions.  Part of me worries that decisions like the one Professor Bailey made in allowing this presentation actually set back the cause of sexual health, rights, and information because they make us appear fringe and give ammunition to those who want to marginalize us and shut us down.  This is not just a hypothetical concern that I have; I follow controversies across the country as part of my job, and see how they incite opponents of sexuality education and can cause real harm.  However, another part of me is terrified of the restriction of information on college campuses, which are supposed to be the last bastion of open thought and exploration.  Censorship is a very real threat, and can destroy the foundation of education.

These two concerns may seem mutually exclusive, yet here I am, able to hold onto both.  The goal should not be for one side to win out over the other, but to achieve a balance that lets us make reasonable decisions without becoming too extreme in any direction.

In fact, I’m wearing my shiny shirt under my sweatshirt right now, and it feels just fine.

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  • plume-assassine

    And, at the risk of sounding judgmental, the idea of watching a naked woman perform a sex act in the name of education seems a bit, well, juvenile.

    That was my impression, too. And, at the risk of sounding judgmental and juvenile myself, that kind of exhibition ~*~in the name of science~*~ seems like an excuse for a bunch of college students to have a sleazy circle jerk.

  (NSFW) It’s for educational purposes, really guys! No, seriously!

    Hahaha, yeah, okay *roll eyes*

  • leorising

    …if only for the reason that some of the young male students might’ve had a chance to see what a woman looks like in the throes of a genuine orgasm, as opposed to the stilted and highly acted-out moaning one sees in most male-oriented porn. This professor could have done these guys’ next girlfriends a tremendous favor!

  • prochoiceferret

    the young male students might’ve had a chance to see what a woman looks like in the throes of a genuine orgasm, as opposed to the stilted and highly acted-out moaning one sees in most male-oriented porn.




    I don’t think the orgasm produced using an industrial-grade power tool with a dildo on the end exactly qualifies as what most people would like to think of as “genuine”…


    This professor could have done these guys’ next girlfriends a tremendous favor!


    Not this guy’s girlfriend!


    Charlie prepares to pleasure his lover.

  • blizno

    As I understand it, this was a course dealing with human sexuality. After the class was over for the day, an extra demonstration was announced and it was made clear that it would be sexually graphic.
    Only students who chose to witness the sexually graphic demonstration stayed.

    I’m having trouble understanding why there is any controversy about this. It was a demonstration of human sexuality during a class about human sexuality. Nobody was trapped into seeing it.

    All I can think is that the lingering Puritan hatred of human sexuality that poisoned the early North American colonies is still spreading the poisonous lie that having sex is bad; that witnessing happy, healthy sex is bad.
    This sick, corrosive attitude should have disappeared centuries ago.

    Sex is not bad. Sex is good. Two or more people having consensual, loving sex is a healthy, wonderful thing.

  • heather-corinna

    Cory Silverberg had some really fantastic — and IMO, spot-on — things to say about this here:


    It also gives some background on Bailey that I think matters which some of us were already aware of, but which many people talking about this have not been.

  • ack

    That was a really good piece. I think Bailey fell into an egotistical trap when he declared that anyone who thinks that the demonstration was inappropriate isn’t sex-positive. It DOES silence people, when the sex pos movement should be about inclusion. It should be about respecting people’s experiences. And it MUST do more than simply acknowledge the existence of sexual violence and coercion.


    He’s a John Money wannabe. (Who was also an egotistical ass, so I guess he’s getting close to his goal.) My Human Sexulity professor was a student in one of his classes when he was showing fisting porn in the background of lectures to see how long it took for the students to become desensitized.

  • arekushieru

    I think you’re seriously underestimating cultural pressure put on people to act less like a prude (although that’s odd, because here you are using it, yourself).  And I think you are seriously underestimating the cultural pressures at play amongst the demonstrators themselves.  Kthxbai.

  • ack

    IMO, the professor lost his credibility as a sex positive person when he declared that anyone who thought the demonstration was inappropriate as prudish. Considering that it contained a live demonstration of a woman using a vibrator attached to a reciprocating saw, I say that is potentially harmful to people. He doesn’t get to decide what’s harmful to people. The person experiencing it gets to decide what’s harmful. That’s pretty much the basis of discussions about sexual violence. Anyone who was present and was uncomfortable has been effectively silenced for fear of being labeled as sexually regressive.


    The juxtaposition of sex and violence appears to have been lost on him.


    I completely agree that we need to have different conversations about sex in this country. I also think that the cornerstone of those conversations HAS to be respect. I don’t feel like his declarations were respectful, and he certainly could have handled it differently.


    Also, he’s apparently a TOTAL DOUCHE on trans issues. :(

  • socorro-sultan

    coming from a conservative culture, im definitely saying no for it. what’s the essence of showing  it to the public?

  • ack

    You can read his defense of the demonstration here, which offers some of his rationale:


    I find it interesting that he apparently didn’t KNOW about the demonstration until right before the panel. That piece gives me pause about the informed consent of the attendees. The fact that the toy was a “fucksaw” complicates that further.


    I’m pretty conflicted about it, to be honest. I think that a demonstration on female sexual arousal and ejacultion could certainly be educational, and that broader conversations about sex are ALWAYS good. I just also think that his responses labeling himself and his supporters as sex positive and everyone else as prudes shuts down dialogue.


    For instance, Socorro, he could have engaged people like you in a conversation about this and tried to get you to see his perspective. He could have acknowledged WHY people are responding with discomfort. I don’t think he did that.

  • sweetlysinging124

    I don’t see it as a truly academic pursuit because there wasn’t a male equivalent showing of physical arousal based on anal pentration.  A truly balanced course, and balanced discussion about sexual arousal, would address the physical, “scientific” intricacies of arousal in males as well as females.  I also don’t see why it was necessary for the woman to be naked, and I don’t see how anyone could have seriously learned anything from the distance between the performer and the audience as well as the fact that the interaction of the vibrator with the vaginal canal was not visible.

    This wasn’t sex-positive: it was sexist, objectifying to the woman.  I understand that the performer’s “friends” talked about the science of the g-spot, but what about the performer?  Understanding her views on sexuality and her own body, and why she is comfortable enough in that situation to actually orgasm, is extremely important.  Without that, it feels like this presentation sends the message that all women enjoy being penetrated, regardless of the person penetrating or the surrounding circumstances, you just have to hit the right spot.

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