Sex, Morals, and Academic Freedom

A fucksaw.[First, some backstory–this post concerns a controversial event at Northwestern in which the professor for a class called Human Sexuality held an optional live demonstration that showed a man penetrating a woman with a sex toy. The story, which was first reported by our campus newspaper (the Daily Northwestern), quickly blew up and was featured in media outlets all over the world, including the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Here are the NYT and CNN articles on it.

Second, I wrote this piece for the blog of Northwestern Sex Week, an annual event that I’m on the planning committee of. Here’s the original post.]

Much has already been written about the infamous Professor Bailey and the optional sex-toy demonstration he held for his Human Sexuality class. I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.

First of all, I’m not in the class and did not witness the demonstration. From what I’ve heard, I’m not sure that it would’ve had educational value for me, personally. That said, I am a member of SHAPE (Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators) and the Sex Week committee, and therefore, I already know quite a bit about sex. And yes, I know that women have g-spots and can potentially ejaculate. I also know that the range of human sexualities and sexual proclivities is virtually limitless, and that each individual views and experiences sex differently.

However, not everybody realizes this. For much of my adolescence, I didn’t either. Like some of the people I’ve met here at Northwestern, I freely labeled others’ sexual behaviors as disgusting, weird, abnormal, pathological. I didn’t realize how wrong this perspective was. The impression I get of Professor Bailey’s class and this demonstration is that they aim to eradicate this perspective. To that end, I can only endorse them both with complete confidence.

Second, even supposing that this demonstration had no educational value for anyone–which I highly doubt–we enter dangerous territory when we advocate banning something simply because we, as individuals, do not see its value. This is especially true in the academic realm. The concept of intellectual freedom does not exist to protect someone’s right to claim that the sky is blue; it exists to protect someone’s right to challenge existing norms and assumptions. It does not exist just to protect my English professor’s right to interpret a Dickens novel in a particular way; it exists to protect a human sexuality professor’s right to teach controversial material to his students. Even if Professor Bailey’s demonstration ultimately taught nothing, he should have the right to try unorthodox teaching styles, just like he has the right to conduct unorthodox research. Even if he failed, he has learned. That’s what academic life is all about.

I am also disappointed to read the numerous online comments from Northwestern alumni claiming that, because they disagree with this demonstration, they will no longer be donating money to Northwestern. This is, to put it bluntly, incredibly selfish and narrow-minded. In my opinion, one donates to an institution to support its overall mission, not because one agrees with every policy, every professor, every class, and every lecture. I, for instance, do not agree with some of the things that Northwestern faculty and administrators do–quite a lot of things, actually. Yet you can be sure that after I graduate, I will be donating money to this amazing school, probably for the rest of my life.

Third, this entire controversy, in my opinion, was started by a campus media given to sensationalism. With the media firestorm that has ensued, you would think that there had been some high-profile complaint from a student or parent, some allegation that the demonstration deeply disturbed a student–something. To my knowledge, there was not. In the article that broke the story, the Daily Northwestern failed to quote even a single person, student or otherwise, who had been offended or displeased by the presentation. Yet the article’s headline referred to this event as a “controversy.”

Finally, I would like to challenge all those who oppose this demonstration on moral grounds. Professor Bailey himself said it perfectly in his statement of apology:

Those who believe that there was, in fact, a serious problem have had considerable opportunity to explain why: in the numerous media stories on the controversy, or in their various correspondences with me. But they have failed to do so. Saying that the demonstration “crossed the line,” “went too far,” “was inappropriate,” or “was troubling” convey disapproval but do not illuminate reasoning. If I were grading the arguments I have seen against what occurred, most would earn an “F.” Offense and anger are not arguments.

Students were warned multiple times of the graphic nature of the presentation, and told that they were free to leave at any time. The individuals who staged and participated in the demonstration were all consenting adults. The course itself involves watching videos of people having sex, and no controversy has arisen because of that. The course, and this demonstration, involves an act that is as normal and natural as breathing, eating, and sleeping. Like Professor Bailey, I have yet to find a convincing argument for why this should not have happened that does not hinge on personal values, and that does not seek to impose one’s personal values on others.

In short, the fact that Professor Bailey was forced to apologize for the world’s closed-mindedness is tragic. And it means that we, the Sex Week committee, have our work cut out for us this year.

Let’s not forget that there was a time when you couldn’t say the word “pregnant” on television. There was a time when discussing sexuality in a classroom setting would’ve been impermissible. There was a time when a play like the Vagina Monologues could never have been staged in public, and there was a time when Sex Week could never have happened on a university campus.

Apparently, there is also a time when demonstrating the use of a sex toy on a consenting woman in front of a hundred consenting adults is unacceptable, too. That time is now. But we should remember how strange–how silly–yesterday’s taboos seem to us today.

Middle Class Sexuality

I saw this interesting op-ed at the New York Times’ website today. It talks about the “Viagra for women” (flibanserin) that was recently rejected by the FDA and how the sexual problem for American women isn’t medical but societal, because the “white upper middle class” has essentially become uptight and frigid.

I agree with the op-ed in some ways, because it’s true that American culture is actually extremely Puritan despite the gratuitous amount of sex present in its media (including advertising and entertainment, of course). Once when my grandma came from Israel for a visit, she was shocked that at the swimming pool, men wear huge, baggy trunks rather than the tight little briefs they wear in Israel. That’s a rather trivial example, but it showcases one of the many strange contradictions in American culture. Nearly-naked men abound in the movies and in advertising, but they’re unacceptable at the pool (which, one would think, is a place where people go to be nearly naked).

In any case, there are probably better examples of this, like the fact that the government spends millions of dollars on teaching junior high students that one should never have sex before marriage, and high schools will make students call their parents and ask them to bring a different shirt if they wear one that bares–gasp–their shoulders. (The fact that schools try to send such a strict message when kids are bombarded with highly sexualized media every day is nothing short of ludicrous. It’s media literacy they should be teaching, not abstinence till marriage.)

The fact that all of this eventually leads to a complete lack of sexuality is unsurprising. When you spend your entire life being told that sex is sinful and shameful, I can see how you’re not going to get terribly enthusiastic in the bedroom. However, where I take issue with Paglia (the writer of the op-ed) is her suggestion that this is all attributable to “white” culture. Christian culture, maybe. But white culture? The op-ed uses the example of female celebrities to argue that since Latinos and African Americans seem to be more sexualized, the overall sexual deficiencies of American women can be attributed to white women:

Furthermore, thanks to a bourgeois white culture that values efficient bodies over voluptuous ones, American actresses have desexualized themselves, confusing sterile athleticism with female power. Their current Pilates-honed look is taut and tense — a boy’s thin limbs and narrow hips combined with amplified breasts. Contrast that with Latino and African-American taste, which runs toward the healthy silhouette of the bootylicious Beyoncé.

I’m just not sure about this generalization. After all, Beyoncé may be African American, but plenty of white people love her, too, and it’s pretty much universally agreed that she’s gorgeous. Does the fact that black women tend to be curvier than white women make black women more sexual? And aren’t there plenty of thin black women and curvy white women?

I suppose I’m just uncomfortable with the idea that women of color are somehow more sexual than white women. I think Paglia takes it too far there. However, white culture has been the dominant culture in America since its inception (due to demographics and discrimination), so I guess you can blame most of our societal quirks on it.

Aside from that, though, the op-ed made many great points. This paragraph struck me as very insightful:

In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.

I can’t say I could offer up a solution to that, but it’s a keen observation all the same. Yes, in terms of sexuality, American culture is downright boring, and no pill can fix that. Or rather, I’m sure they’ll find a pill to fix that eventually, just like they find pills to fix everything else, but it’d be nice if we didn’t need pills.

Paglia ends the op-ed by writing, “Pharmaceutical companies will never find the holy grail of a female Viagra — not in this culture driven and drained by middle-class values. Inhibitions are stubbornly internal. And lust is too fiery to be left to the pharmacist.” No one would suggest that we return to all being poor and leaving 99% of the nation’s wealth to a few elites, but clearly, a culture mostly controlled by the middle class has some unfortunate drawbacks.

Exhibitionist Journalism

So, yesterday this little gem was posted on, an online news magazine that I generally like a lot but that, unfortunately, frequently falls into the trap of sensationalism. The piece, by Holly Kretschmar, describes the author’s experience with cooking and eating her placenta after giving birth to her first baby–a course of action recommended by her doula, which I understand is some sort of earthy midwife whose services Kretschmar was inspired to engage after she miraculously conceived despite fertility problems and a doctor’s estimate that her chances of conceiving naturally were .0001 percent. Apparently, this arbitrary, albeit fortuitous, glitch is reason enough to throw out the concept of science entirely and resort to all manner of cuckoo rituals.

Anyway, the doula recommended a placenta recipe and Kretschmar enthusiastically tried it, chronicling her experience in this article that Salon for some unknowable reason decided to publish. The piece went into terrific detail about how the placenta tasted and what texture it had, and Kretschmar, a vegetarian, pontificated on the joys of eating of oneself: “It occurred to me that this meat of mine was truly sustainable, a renewable resource created without killing. In a way, our culinary experiment was the ultimate act of consumption: eating life without taking life.”

I’m not even going to go into the numerous reasons this entire enterprise is repulsive (for instance, that silly little taboo called cannibalism), because, when it comes down to it, Kretschmar made a personal choice to eat her own placenta. Okay. It’s a free country. But the more important question (at least to me) is this: why the hell write and publish an article about it?

The fact that she finds it interesting is not (or should not) be enough. Plenty of people find their bowel movements interesting, but I’ve yet to see a published article about that. Websites like Salon generally have standards for publication, the standards we all learn in journalism school–newsworthiness, timeliness, and impact, for instance. Articles about personal experiences that ought to be kept private, like bowel movements and, yes, placenta eating, just don’t make the cut. Usually.

To me, it seems that this article served a dual purpose for Kretschmar and for Salon. The author gets to exhibit herself to the world as some sort of new-age open-minded hippie and satisfy her own need for attention, and Salon gets to drive up pageviews by disgusting and angering its readership. (A quick peek at the comment thread of the article confirms this result.) The only party that doesn’t win in this scenario? The readers.

This is exactly what’s wrong with journalism nowadays. It used to be that publication was reserved for the best of the best–articles that could inform or inspire. Then blogs and other social tools appeared on the scene to fill the niche of personal media. And then, respectable publications like Salon decided to steal blogs’ audience by publishing just the sort of self-serving drivel they’d previously (and rightfully) ignored.

I’m not saying blogs don’t serve a purpose. They do. Perhaps Kretschmar’s friends would’ve loved to read about her foray into placentophagy. But the rest of us don’t need to know, and most people who read websites like Salon are intelligent enough to know a blatant publicity stunt when they see one. Give us more respect, Salon.

A (Very) Belated Reaction to the Helen Thomas Fiasco

Yes, this is extremely belated, but somehow I didn’t get around to writing about it.

Anyway, everybody knows by now what Helen Thomas said, but what very few mainstream media outlets (aside from Jewish blogs and Wikipedia) have mentioned is that the person to whom Thomas made her now-infamous comments was a rabbi wearing a kippah (Jewish skullcap) on his head. In light of this, what Thomas said wasn’t just culturally insensitive, ignorant, and crude–it was an uncalled-for personal insult to a Jewish individual. It would be equivalent to saying that Muslims should “get the hell out of Europe and go home to Iran, Iraq, and everywhere else”–to a woman wearing a hijab. (The notable difference being that Iran and Iraq, while dangerous and unstable, are at least Muslim countries, while Germany and Poland, the two most enthusiastic perpetrators of the Holocaust, certainly aren’t Jewish ones.)

In light of this, I’m frankly shocked that so many people have defended Helen Thomas and bemoaned the fact that she decided (or was asked/forced/persuaded/coerced) to resign. This is especially “feminist” bloggers who seem to feel that people should be able to say anything they want, no matter how reprehensible, without having to face the consequences–as long as they are women. Feministing is guilty of this, though it at least refrains from going a step further like some others have by claiming that Thomas’ remarks were perfectly acceptable and in fact, accurate.

(There is also much to be said regarding the fact that Feministing regularly and enthusiastically denounces intolerant remarks made about women, blacks, Hispanics, the LGBT community, and many others–as it should, of course–while mostly excusing intolerant remarks made about Jews. This, however, is a topic for a future, very scathing post.)

Anyway, the particular circumstances in which Thomas chose to reveal her views on Jews make a terrible comment even worse, and it’s unfortunate that the media has largely ignored those circumstances. Thomas was right to resign. Journalists are free to hold whatever views they choose, no matter how intolerant or controversial, but journalists who crudely espouse those views to the very subjects of their prejudice have no place in the field.