What's OK for Human Sex Class in College?


What is considered appropriate when in a college classroom, especially one dedicated to human sexuality? I think about this often; this idea of “appropriateness” and how it is connected to power, especially my power as the professor. When my homegirl Jenny sent me a story about a Northwester psychology professor, J. Michael Bailey providing students with an optional after-class demonstration of a woman being sexually penetrated to orgasm by a sex toy, this question arose again for me.

My initial reaction was to ignore this story. I thought: “I don’t really care all that much what other professors do in their classrooms.” But then, I quickly caught myself and I realized that I do really care how what goes on in other classrooms because they may impact what I do in my own.

I think of the young woman in my class this semester who was told by another professor she wasn’t allowed to come to class because she hadn’t paid her tuition bill in full, as a result the young woman missed all of her classes for a week. The professor was wrong to tell her this, we were told not to tell students they could not come, yet this professor did the opposite and as a result the student was not present in my class either a week before midterms were to begin.

It’s important what other professors do in their class. It is important to me what professors do in their classes, especially if their students enter my class, but also because I value education and there may be a lot of unlearning we may have to do together.

So, in reading the events that took place and the responses from the Northwestern community, faculty, and administration a few things stand out to me. First, this is a college that seems to have merged the importance of teaching with the importance of research. One description of the campus from the website reads:

Northwestern University combines innovative teaching and pioneering research in a highly collaborative environment that transcends traditional academic boundaries. It provides students and faculty exceptional opportunities for intellectual, personal and professional growth in a setting enhanced by the richness of Chicago.

After spending my undergraduate time and then a short time in a PhD program (which I did not finish but earned another master’s degree) at the University of Maryland, I realized very clearly this is a research university. I was able to tell the difference clearly only after my first master’s degree from NYU, a teaching college. The focus on teaching versus research at NYU, or rather the centering of training educators to be educators and then do research in my department, was clear to me. I felt more comfortable and in the right place. At a research institution, where research is centered and pushed first then education, I was quickly out of my element and lost.

I know there are people who excel in research centered higher ed, and then there are folks like me who are more comfortable in teaching centered spaces. As a result, I believe Professor Bailey had education and teaching at the center of his after-class demonstration.

Second, the topic of age and consent are important. I know very well that my introductory courses have students who are just turning 17 (yes they were born in 1994, talk about feeling old, I REMEMBER 1994 very clearly!), yet it is rare when the 200-and upper-level courses I teach (one the Sociology of Human Sexuality at the 300 level) has students under 18 years old. As a result, the students who chose to attend class were consenting adults. And don’t we, as sexual health professionals, educators, activist, focus on consent? Don’t we envision and hope for a world where people are given options and information to make the best decision for them and that is consent and we must respect it? I think so. I hope so. And I think just as much as exchanging a bodily fluid or a sexual encounter with someone requires consent, so does watching a sexual encounter, and that consent is just as important and in no way less valuable.

Educational value is another component that I think of. Many folks could sit in one of my classes and argue that my centering the (Dave) Chappelle Show season 2 to discuss issues in sociology is inappropriate and lacks educational value. They could definitely make this argument regarding language as I teach at a Catholic college. However, I argue that the value in incorporating such images and narratives is to help my students gradually build media literacy skills, to be critical of representations they often interact with (although the skits are now almost 7 years old!) and deconstruct them so they can make sense of the world based on their values and beliefs.

I believe that it is our responsibility as professors to share information, challenge students to examine information and texts, and help them understand their dis/comfort with various topics. One of the items I write in my syllabus and share with my students at the beginning of and throughout the semester is that we will discuss topics that are going to be uncomfortable, controversial, and may make them experience a range of feelings and emotions and all of these are valid. Professor Bailey made a similar statement in his syllabus.

Third, the educational value of having a live action demonstration is numerous. I think many students can learn about how human sexual response works, or doesn’t in some folks who are experiencing different challenges. There is also the value of understanding how some forms of adult toys can be used or misused. The focus on female sexual pleasure is one that I find extremely useful and one that is often mystified, pathologized, or simply ignored. I wonder how some of the negative responses may be connected to disapproving of female sexual pleasure, or the idea that a woman can experience pleasure on her own.

This of course is connected to an attempt to normalize masturbation. I would hope that promoting masturbation, one of the safest sexual experiences we can promote with one of the most important sexual partner we will have, would be supported. Then there is the idea that nudity can be comfortable. In a society where people are being bombarded with drastic weight loss commercials, plastic surgery for genitals, and a general focus on standards of attraction and beauty, nudity seems to be promoted as acceptable only for a select few. What if our society had more young people and adults who found pride in their nude bodies versus flaws? Imagine how this could have a positive impact in self-esteem, mental health, and reduce various forms of stress.

Let us not forget that such demonstrations are not rare. They were often how early sexuality research and training were provided decades ago. Plus, Annie Sprinkle centered her work on providing demonstrations to audiences using her own body as a model for understanding the vulva, vagina and cervix.

Finally, I believe the educational value of this after-class demonstration helps to make clear that sex work is work. If the sex work being seen is from the perspective of a adult toy creator/developer or someone who may be a performer/educator/sex surrogate (I don’t know the background of the woman providing the demonstration), all of these, to me, fall under the category of sex work.

At the end of the day, for me, the issue is that this being at an institution for higher education is a privilege and one that comes with various forms of experiences and responsibilities. The idea of deciding as a professor what is appropriate comes with responsibility. I believe that Professor Bailey made an appropriate demonstration available to students in a class that focused on the subject of sexuality at a university that welcomes various opportunities for their students. He has provided an educational opportunity that speaks to the campus goal of “transcend traditional academic boundaries.”   I don’t know if I had the same opportunity if I would make a similar decision, but then again I don’t have full professor status, tenure, or desire that specific status.

I’d like to hear what others think about this topic. I’m sure, as usually happens, with more time other topics make come up that will impact my perspective. Yet, as of now, I feel confident in the three areas I’ve mentioned, but would like to hear others share. 


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