Sex in Classrooms: A No-Fly Zone?

Sex in public remains a big no-fly zone.

So, what about sex – or sex demos – in a university classroom?

The controversy that has erupted over the live sex toy demonstration at Northwestern University is nothing if not predictable.

Here is what happened.

John Michael Bailey, a professor in the department of psychology, arranged for an “after class” lecture, as an optional part of his Human Sexuality class. Students were warned that the demonstration would be graphic. Ken Melvoin-Berg, owner of Weird Chicago Tours (who organizes a kind of sex in the city tour), was invited to guest lecture.  As part of the presentation, two friends of the presenter engaged in the “live sex act”:  Jim Marcus used a dildo on an electric saw to bring Faith Kroll to orgasm (there has been debate on line about the precise kind of saw – apparently, it was a reciprocating saw, NOT a motorized jigsaw).

Needless to say, the story got around. At first, the university defended the professor.  But, after an outcry from alumni and parents, and a media firestorm, the President of Northwestern issued a statement indicated his displeasure, and that an inquiry would follow.  Some of the on-line vitriol is the stuff to be expected, including the ridicule that “human sexuality” could even be the subject of serious study within a university.

But then there is the slightly more serious criticism by those who study sexuality – that sex does not belong in the classroom.

One of Bailey’s colleagues has launched a complaint with the American Psychological Association, as a violation of their code of ethics.  Professor Robin Mathy, also an expert in human sexuality, has alleged that Bailey has defied the governing body’s ethical guidelines by exposing minors to a public sex act and knowingly inflicting psychological damage on students.

“I really predict this is going to result in the deaccreditation of the psychology department,” Mathy is reported as saying “The APA can’t just tolerate someone who engages in this prurient behavior.”

Hmm….ok, let’s just bracket for a moment the fact that a person whose expertise is in human sexuality actually uses the word “prurient”.

Minors?  They are university students, who admittedly may not all be over 21, and therefore not of the age of majority for the purposes of alcohol consumption.  But minors?  This isn’t an elementary school.  Its not even a high school.  And they are probably old enough to vote and serve in the military.  So, let’s just bracket that whole “minors” thing too.

The more serious controversy is around sex in the classroom.  Is it ever appropriate?  Are there circumstances that can justify a so called “live sex” demonstration?

I always joke with folks that SDS doesn’t teach “how to”.  We take seriously the idea that ideas about sex matter.  And we teach a multitude of perspectives on how sex, sexuality and sexual diversity matter.

But, what about sex itself?  Should sex remain such a clearly delineated no-fly zone?  Are their circumstances in which some sort of “live sex” would be justified?

And why is the burden on proving that it is justified?

If we study sex, why can we not have sex in the classroom?

Let’s say that we study, well, zebras.  Would it be appropriate to drag a zebra into the classroom?  It would probably be considered unduly crass to bring in the whole zebra.  Skeletons, images, studies….but the whole zebra might be a bit messy.  Is it the same with sex?

It remains sufficiently controversial to show representations of sex in the classroom.  Pornography, or filmic representations of sex in non-porn genres – sex one step removed – continues to teeter on the edge of academic respectability.  The likes of Linda Williams, and other serious scholars, have worked to make porn a subject of serious academic inquiry.  Yet, showing it in the class room remains…well, risqué…in so far as you just never know if you might end up on the front page of the local – or worse, national – newspaper.

But, sex itself.  Real bodies, real touching, real orgasms. Yikes. No, no, no.

So, the question is: should sex be such a no-fly zone for the classroom?   Are there circumstances in which it could be educational, in an “ideas matter” sort of way?  What about sexual performance art?  Like the Annie Sprinkle public cervix announcements performance art of the ‘90s?  Or the Shannon Bell female ejaculation performances?  We can show pictures of these now ….but what about the live version?

The prevailing view in the media commentary and blogsphere is that there is simply no educational content – that there could be no educational content to live sex.

But the view begs the question: it just restates the bright line.  Sex on one side.  Real education on the other.

Programs that study sex and sexuality already challenge this dichotomy.  But, the dichotomy has perhaps only been deferred:  Ideas about sex (good) and real sex (bad).

Classical art long drew a distinction between the naked and the nude; the former was base and physical, while the later aesthetic, intellectual and transcendent.  More contemporary critiques of pornography made not dissimilar distinctions between porn (bad, base, physical) and erotica (aesthetic, of the mind and transcendent).

Bizarrely then, we have the mind/body distinction operating within the very heart of sexuality studies, or at least, what universities will tolerate within sexuality studies.  Ideas and representations of sex appeal to the mind.  That’s okay. But sex itself, well, that’s just base, physical, devoid of intellectual content, and not so okay.

Sexuality studies needs to push a little harder on why intellectual inquiry and academic freedom seems to stop where sex starts.

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