Arguing with Myself: Tastefulness, Censorship, and the Sex-Toy Demonstration

Patrick Malone

Was the now-infamous sex-toy demonstration at Northwestern a consensual experience among students on a college campus or a pointless display that left all sex ed open for attack? Maybe it was both.

Maybe I’m just getting old.  As my 32nd birthday looms ominously at the end of this month, I have started to see some of the telltale signs that I can no longer count myself among the ranks of the young.  If I don’t get at least 7 hours of sleep, I’m ruined the next day.  I select food at the supermarket with a much greater focus on trans-fat than flavor.  I drink tea.  Tea!  My only consolation is that at least I, unlike some others, recognize that I am getting older and have attempted to gracefully hang up my shiny clubbing shirt in favor of my comfortable, stained sweatshirt.

It is within this context that I have tried to approach the recent controversy at Northwestern University.  To briefly summarize, Professor John Michael Bailey, who teaches a large human sexuality class at Northwestern, held a supplemental session after one class, where a naked, non-student female was stimulated with what I have seen described alternatively as a “high-powered” or “motorized” sex toy.  That’s really all the detail we need to get into on that.  About 100 students, who were completely informed on the explicit nature of the content, chose to stay and watch.  Surprisingly, Bailey was shocked when protests and complaints appeared almost immediately, as he saw the exercise as completely in tune with the mission of his course.  He viewed the reaction as a division between people like him who “see absolutely no harm in what happened, and those who believe that it was profoundly wrong.”

I don’t think Professor Bailey is quite right here.  There has to be a middle ground between “absolutely no harm” and “profoundly wrong.”  I have always been proud that progressives are often able to see things in a nuanced way, not just black or white, or right or wrong.  What happened at Northwestern is neither a great victory for sexual liberation and education, nor the last step in the downfall of human civilization.  It’s somewhere in between.  And yet, my own opinion on whether this was appropriate, or how appropriate it was, depends on whether you ask this new (almost) 32-year-old version of myself, or the 22-year-old version who had never heard of trans-fat.

The 32-year-old version of me is, admittedly, a little shocked that this kind of exhibition would happen in a classroom in a large, national university.  I say “exhibition” instead of “demonstration” because the purpose of the activity was not to teach the students how to use the motorized sex toy. This type of presentation is clearly different from the practical knowledge that a condom demonstration, for example, is designed to impart.  Bailey claims that the display was appropriate because that day’s class had been focused on kink, and the display “surely counts as kinky, and hence as relevant.”  But this explanation strikes me as a bit of a stretch.  I think it’s much more likely that Bailey thought that the presentation would be edgy, cool, and push the boundaries of what is traditionally acceptable in the classroom.  His decision to allow this to happen was a lapse of judgment that has come back to bite him in the butt.  And, at the risk of sounding judgmental, the idea of watching a naked woman perform a sex act in the name of education seems a bit, well, juvenile.

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My 22-year-old self, however, would be more than a little disgusted with me at the moment.  How dare a university, uptight right-wingers, or Old Man Malone tell me what consenting adults can and cannot view?  Everyone in the classroom knew exactly what they were in for, and they saw a legal act that harmed absolutely no one. Furthermore, college students are perfectly capable of determining what enriches their educational experience.  Just because this demonstration didn’t fit into a traditional idea of what education should look like doesn’t mean that is has no value.  New and different experiences have value in and of themselves, unless you’re just too closed minded and prejudiced to see that… Gramps.

Obviously, I think that both of these versions of ourselves exist in all of us, and have less to do with our age than with the reality that sexuality is a tricky issue.  Questions of appropriateness, judgment and, yes, even tastefulness are natural, and it’s ok to struggle with them and to have different opinions.  Part of me worries that decisions like the one Professor Bailey made in allowing this presentation actually set back the cause of sexual health, rights, and information because they make us appear fringe and give ammunition to those who want to marginalize us and shut us down.  This is not just a hypothetical concern that I have; I follow controversies across the country as part of my job, and see how they incite opponents of sexuality education and can cause real harm.  However, another part of me is terrified of the restriction of information on college campuses, which are supposed to be the last bastion of open thought and exploration.  Censorship is a very real threat, and can destroy the foundation of education.

These two concerns may seem mutually exclusive, yet here I am, able to hold onto both.  The goal should not be for one side to win out over the other, but to achieve a balance that lets us make reasonable decisions without becoming too extreme in any direction.

In fact, I’m wearing my shiny shirt under my sweatshirt right now, and it feels just fine.

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