The Ethics of Sex in the Classroom

"All right, Professor, this time you've gone too far!"

Northwestern University Professor John Michael Bailey decided to enrich his course on Human Sexuality by having a man use a dildo to bring a naked woman to orgasm as his students watched. Did the professor do a live play-by-play of the encounter, like sportscaster  Howard Cosell in “Bananas”? We don’t know. (Yes, today is Woody Allen Film Allusion Day, and no, I don’t know why.) Not surprisingly, this caused quite a bit of controversy on campus, and at least one formal complaint was filed challenging the ethics of the exhibition.  Bailey defended the exhibition, which was voluntary (meaning, presumably, that it wouldn’t be covered on the exam—about a hundred students attended) by arguing that such  unconventional demonstration provide “useful examples and extensions of concepts students learn about in traditional academic ways.”  Northwestern president Morton Schapiro concluded that “I simply do not believe this was appropriate … or in keeping with Northwestern University’s academic mission,” and the college has assigned Bailey other courses while announcing that “Human Sexuality”  will not be offered in the coming academic year. The controversy, which is apparently still raging, features critics arguing that the elimination of the course violates academic freedom, the unfettered search for truth and knowledge in a university setting.

Baloney. The university no longer trusts Bailey not to push the envelope to the next level, featuring, perhaps, beastiality, threesomes, and live exhibitions of proper rim-job techniques in 2012. It has every right to defend its reputation by eliminating a course that appears to tempt its professor into stunts that come perilously close to the line that divides teaching from producing a sex show—a line many of us didn’t know was necessary.

In Bailey’s defense, however, what exactly does a college expect when it offers a class on human sexuality, taught by an instructor with a reputation for pushing the envelope? If Northwestern is going to have such a course, it has to concede that allowing students to watch a live demonstration relevant to the subject matter is within the realm of academic freedom.  Reactions to the contrary are pure examples of the “Ick Factor,” or in this case, perhaps a better term is the “Holy crap!” Factor. It’s not unethical—what’s unethical about it? It may be tasteless, undignified, unnecessary, or weird, but it’s not unethical.

If Bailey had the same exhibition in an algebra class, now that would be unethical.

[Much thanks to Rick Jones, who alerted me to this story. You can read his analysis here, in a broader piece exploring other recent academic freedom controversies.]

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Sex in the Classroom

  1. Wow. Um….. wow.

    Is there any point at all to a class called “Human Sexuality”? Most of my generation have been exposed to various forms of sexuality since middle school. I may have been the only virgin in my graduating class, and even I had seen plenty of porn by then. (Enough so that I’m now scarred for life and unphased by most anything.)

  2. Really Jack? You couldn’t have worked in a reference to Monty Python’s Meaning of Life?

    When I was at UT, Human Sexuality was an incredibly popular upper level psychology class that always filled up the first few hours of registration. There was another class called Animal Sexuality that was cross listed between the biology and psychology departments, and a lot of people who couldn’t get into the first class registered for the latter. About 15 out of the 70 people in the room were pretty shocked to learn that Animal Sexuality was actually a behavioral endocrinology class, and us biology people laughed at the silly liberal arts kids who immediately left and dropped the course.

    It was their loss though. We watched some pretty hot video of garter snakes having orgies.

    Anyway…no college student signs up for a class on human sexuality without expecting to see a few naughty images. Why not just give them what they want? 😉

    • I would note here that in the film you mentioned, this was presented as a comedy device. The comedy derived from the (then) ridiculous improbability of the scenario. Only a crazed lunatic at that time would have imagined that a serious institution of higher learning would present what amounted to a pornographic display under the cover of a college course… and get away with it! It merely serves to illustrate how far the standards of American universities have sunk, education-wise. Back then, there were a lot of insane notions that generated laughs in such a manner… but no longer do. Insanity has become reality.

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