“What did you learn in class today?” I chatted to a friend in John Michael Bailey’s human sexuality course last Monday. Her answer was straightforward and did not include mention of anything unusual in the after-class demonstration. Like most students here at Northwestern, she did not make much of a stir over the event that is now on the front page of Chicago Tribune. The entire world is picking up this story, and sadly, they aren’t painting a thorough picture.
I don’t wish to deliver any moral argument about this demonstration. My goal is simply to illuminate the educational experience of Bailey’s course for those outside of NU who would otherwise only see a negative and foreign account of the story due to the state of modern journalism. Am I surprised that the press has sensationalized the story? No, but if this story is going global, it ought to take all the details along for the ride.
To better understand Bailey’s course, consider the material. The textbook featured in the class is Human Sexuality by Simon LeVay, a researcher who discovered and isolated biological differences in the brains of gay and straight males. It is undoubtedly the best textbook I have ever encountered — in fact, I have refused to return it to the lender for a full year so that I could keep it on my coffee table. I believe that anyone can pick it up, read any portion for ten minutes and discover a new perspective and/or feel better about their place in the world.
This is because the book, like the class, objectively and empirically approaches subjects rarely discussed in a classroom or even in academic discussion. You might open to the right page and find that the typical number of sexual partners per person is significantly lower than you thought (0-1 in the past year), or that popular sexual dysfunctions are far more common than you would guess (nearly a third of women have a lack of interest in sex), or that a full 20 percent of pregnancies end in abortion and that less than half of all pregnancies result in a birth. Or, you could never open your mind to such a course and feel isolated and distressed based on inaccurate social norms. Human sexuality educates by exploring the topics that are most relevant to college students but are rarely touched upon with such formality.
Those who attend the after-class discussions always seem thrilled by whatever they’ve learned. I remember the gay guys panel and swingers panels fondly, and this year all of my younger friends currently in the course rave to me: “Can you believe how many partners of both genders these men have had?” The convicted sex offender’s speech is memorable as an emotional, insightful journey into someone’s thought process that would otherwise never see the light of day. The act in question today is obviously different due to its graphic nature. I would be surprised to see that in a lecture room all the same, but as Bailey said, he didn’t think it would hurt anyone — and he was right. (Chicago Tribune: Stop trying to use this quote this to make Bailey seem reckless, you’re better than that.) The demonstration is consistent with a key message of that class: People are attracted to certain things and are not perverse or deviant for feeling that way. Discussing kinkyness allows kinkier students to open up and feel comfortable and lets everyone else understand them on a deeper level.
My favorite takeaway from human sexuality is that there are many others like us, and yet many are entirely different, and these differences are the result of a complex interaction between nature and nurture. Bailey teaches us to understand and empathize with our fellow humans, a lesson lost on the outraged masses of distant adults who insist that they know what’s best and how their children would feel if they were at Northwestern in such a class.
I’m reminded of a discussion in another psychology course this year where I debated a younger student who insisted that he would feel outraged if he had participated in Stanley Milgram’s famous electroshock studies — studies that revolutionized our understanding of obedience under extreme authorities by challenging a dangerous idea. This fellow student seemed certain that he would have resented participating in the study even though 91 percent of actual participants were glad they did it. This student granted himself an exception from probability and extrapolated a prediction of his feelings given a situation he had not actually experienced, so how could he be so sure?
In short, one can’t be sure of how they would feel about something they haven’t actually experienced. The 600 students a year that compete to squeeze into Bailey’s class, suffer through difficult exams, attend his after-class demonstrations and emerge fascinated can tell you what this education is like to them. If they aren’t disturbed by these demonstrations, why are you? If you are concerned that students should never be exposed to these things, instead listen to the students who have seen them.
Spelling of “they’re” corrected to “their.” Thanks to commenter grammar for pointing out the mistake.