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Northwestern’s Sex Toy Story, or, Why I Read Feminist Blogs

J. Michael Bailey stirred the hornet’s nest with a live sex demonstration after a session of his Human Sexuality class. The incident has been lousy with coverage, but reasoned discussion has been hard to find. Here’s where to go to find it.

I was pretty ambivalent about the controversy over J. Michael Bailey’s live-sex demonstration for his Human Sexuality class at Northwestern. I’m a prude, and wouldn’t have gone, but then again I went to NU’s demi-rival, where you can’t lick an ice-cream cone without being called an animal.

But then I read the press reactions. John Kass: it’s depravity! The Tribune editorial board: it was a bad idea (but we won’t explain why)! Neither opinion is necessarily wrong, but neither argument gets us anywhere.

Unfortunately, Bailey didn’t offer much more compelling reasoning:

I was talking about the female g-spot and the phenomenon of female ejaculation, both of which are scientifically controversial. I finished the lecture and invited the guests onstage. On the way, Ken asked me whether it would be ok if one of the women with him demonstrated female ejaculation using equipment they had brought with them. I hesitated only briefly before saying “yes.” My hesitation concerned the likelihood that many people would find this inappropriate. My decision to say “yes” reflected my inability to come up with a legitimate reason why students should not be able to watch such a demonstration. After all, those still there had stayed for an optional demonstration/lecture about kinky sex and were told explicitly what they were about to see. The demonstration, which included a woman who enjoyed providing a sexually explicit demonstration using a machine, surely counts as kinky, and hence as relevant. Furthermore, earlier that day in my lecture I had talked about the attempts to silence sex research, and how this largely reflected sex negativity. I have had previous experiences with these silencing attempts myself. I did not wish, and I do not wish, to surrender to sex negativity and fear.

(FWIW, this isn’t the first time Bailey has caused a stir. His book on gender and transsexualism, The Man Who Would Be Queen, caused wide controversy as recounted by Bailey critic and UIC econ prof Deirdre McCloskey. And this time won’t be the first that Northwestern has investigated Bailey’s work. More here [PDF].)

Basically, the only reason not to do the demonstration that Dr. Bailey could come up with was that some people would find it inappropriate, and it’s pretty obvious that they would. Which is not only reminiscent of the irritating “I’m sorry you were offended” non-apology, it also discounts the possibility that there are other, more thoughtful objections than “sex negativity.”

But like I said, I’m a prude and don’t think about these things a lot, so I couldn’t do a lot better on my own. But I knew where I could probably find a thoughtful discussion: in the comments section at Jezebel, Gawker’s feminist blog.

There’s no consensus; quite the opposite. There are compelling arguments for:

the truth is female sexuality is grossly underrepresented in our society while male is not (there is a great documentary available on Netflix instant right now that partly examines how instances of female pleasure are often edited out of major studio films). Female sexuality is also misunderstood by many people, so any truthful exposure the Human Sexuality students can have to it should be applauded.

And against:

The thing that bugs me about this is the emphasis the prof placed on how the woman had a fetish for being watched by crowds. That makes the class itself part of the sex act– I’d be intensely uncomfortable to be asked to participate, even in a passive way, in a sexual act as part of a college course. Even if it wasn’t compulsory to attend, it creates a very uncomfortable dynamic for the students.

A number of commenters made that point, and to me it was the most convincing–the best response to “so how is this different from a video?”

I’m with the objectors, but reasonable people are disagreeing. Which is why I went to Jezebel in the first place, and why I go there and to blogs like it when stories about gender and sexuality break. Critical, thoughtful writing about those subjects aren’t something we do much of, or at least enough of, in the mainstream press. For instance, there’s lots of LOLing about Charlie Sheen and his twitter account, but it was Jezebel founder Anna Holmes who brought some dignity, gravity, and context to the subject in the New York Times.

Feminism isn’t just about sociopolitical advocacy; it’s also an intellectual framework (possibly the only good one we have) for addressing sex and gender. To put it another way, it’s like the relationship of libertarianism to economics–on one hand, it represents a range of beliefs about specific policies and practices; on the other, it provides a set of tools to discuss power dynamics. It’s why I found feminist writing on Mad Men as illuminating as economic analysis of The Wire, and why I’m glad there are people out there thinking and arguing about these issues.

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