A professor at Northwestern University is discovering that if a class involves sex, students aren't likely to mind. The university administration, however, is a different matter.
On Feb. 21, professor John Michael Bailey invited a guest lecturer to give a talk on fetishes for his introductory sexuality class. The guest lecturer invited a non-student couple to the class to give a demonstration, and, after the guest lecturer warned students multiple times about the graphic nature of the demonstration, the male member of the couple used a sex toy to masturbate his girlfriend in front of the class. The woman has an exhibitionism fetish.
Despite the warnings, the assurance that nothing in the lecture would be on the test and scheduling the demonstration after class was over, the university president has stated that the lecture was inappropriate and unnecessary. In contrast, Bailey only just released an apology, stating that while he still thinks the demonstration was useful, he won't allow it to happen again. He maintains, however, that no harm was caused.
There is an obvious question regarding what constitutes justified teaching strategy. The university president is right that the performance was unnecessary -- other professors don't think it should be a mandatory part of the curriculum. But Bailey took steps to ensure that students were aware of what was going to happen. They were told several times beforehand that the display would be graphic. Yet the response from the 100 students who attended has been entirely positive, according to the Associated Press. Bailey's class emphasizes discussion of controversial issues and promotes learning about sexuality through interaction with real people. He claims that hearing people who have fetishes talk about their desires is a much more effective way to get information across.
The demonstration didn't cause any harm. Even if an observant was harmed by watching the performance, the warnings beforehand mean that he or she is responsible for choosing to stay. For others, the positive response of those who did attend -- and the popularity of Bailey's course -- means that it was worthwhile. The couple participated freely and students were respectful, so there's no problem.
Universities are places where controversial ideas are meant to be discussed. The presentation of those ideas may also be controversial. Professors are given the freedom to choose their own curriculum and the manner in which it will be presented, freedom which the university should promote as long as the content does no harm. Bailey's point is that fetishes are already stigmatized in society, so holding such a performance will give students the opportunity to think differently about the negative connotations surrounding fetishes.
Of course, the public won't see things the same way. The university has to go on damage control so that parents will continue to send their children there. It is much easier to tell the professor never to do it again than defend his actions against the uproar the incident is causing -- all that is lost is a unique learning experience for students.