Academic freedom? Intellectual pursuit? Scholastic investigation? Advancement of knowledge? Do these labels apply to the controversial class demonstration at Northwestern University. Psychology professor, J. Michael Bailey, contends that they do.
Bailey teaches a class on human sexuality. On Feb. 21, he invited a guest lecturer, Ken Melvoin-Berg, co-owner of Weird Chicago, to discuss bondage and sexual fetishes. The subject remains consistent with the purview of Bailey’s class material. Bailey titled the class Networking for Kinky People.
At the conclusion of the lecture, Bailey invited the students to remain for a movie on the topic. He repeatedly warned them that the material was exceptionally graphic. Most of the students left for their next classes, but about 100 of the 567 enrollment remained.
Melvoin-Berg had invited a couple to accompany him to the lecture, Jim Marcus and his fiance, Faith Kroll. The couple considers themselves exhibitionists who enjoy practicing kinky sex for observation. Concerned that the movie presented misinformation, the couple asked Bailey if they could perform a live demonstration. Bailey said that he could not think of a good reason to deny them.
Once again Bailey gave the students an opportunity to leave and some did. Kroll then removed all of her clothing except a bra and down on a towel on the stage. Using a mechanical device, Marcus brought the woman to orgasm in about thee minutes.
The demonstration caused an outburst of passionate reactions from parents, alumni, and outsiders. The University initially issued a statement saying, “The university supports the efforts of its faculty to further the advancement of knowledge.” Later, Northwestern President, Morton Schapiro launched an investigation into the incident, admitting that he was “troubled and disappointed by what occurred.” Schapiro has since declared, “I simply do not believe this was appropriate, necessary or in keeping with Northwestern University’s academic mission.”
With ambivalence Bailey has said he regrets the effects of his decision upon the reputation of the University. He then hastens to defend that decision, claiming that none of the arguments he has heard denouncing the demonstration have been convincing, stating they “convey disapproval but do not illuminate reasoning.” He does not agree with the assertion that the demonstration does not advance research or knowledge. He is organizing a discussion with the students to preserve its intellectual value.
That value will continue to foster debate, but I have another concern. What construct is Bailey using to discuss human sexuality? Does he include the relationship of sexuality to all aspects of humanness? Or in his “scientific” approach, does he reduce it to biology and physiology, truncating the psychological, emotional and spiritual aspects to sexuality? Are its effects upon identity, self-esteem, relationships, marriage, family and other social institutions investigated?
Most experts on this subject would say that the young woman’s hasty orgasm was exceptional. Female responsiveness is much more complex than a man’s, dependent upon a sense of security, esteem and love. This does not mean that when these are absent, sexual pleasure is negated. A woman can reduce intercourse to nothing more than a physical act that uses techniques to maximize pleasure. Experts would probably agree that this approach will result in a high rate of diminishing returns.
The trajectory of our culture has been fragmenting sexuality from humanness for decades. Movies and television treat casual sex like drinking iced tea on a hot summer day. The way couples jump into bed on first dates implies that intercourse does not really differ from kissing or holding hands. It merely expresses the attraction to another person. Only physical complications such as STD’s should restrain or regulate the experience.
The Bible views sexuality very differently. Sexual intimacy affects a person’s sense of worth and acceptance, identity, ability to bond with and trust others, and capacity for giving and receiving love, to mention only a fraction of its impact. The author of Genesis links it to the mysterious union of a man and a woman becoming “one flesh.” The depth of this union requires an exploration that transcends the shallow display of two exhibitionists or a quick romp in bed to cap off a good date.
Fragmentation of sexuality is producing waves that will sweep through American society, eroding the foundations for healthy social institutions. On a personal level, the casual, disconnected treatment of sex stunts human growth. One would hope that the educational system would introduce persons in their most formative years to an intelligent and comprehensive examination of the sexuality. The decision of the Northwestern professor suggests that we cannot hope for this kind of examination.
How will the church respond? We desperately need a thorough and nuanced theology of sexuality. John Paul II has offered his “theology of the body” in material that he wrote when he served as archbishop of Krakow. Later, as the pope, he delivered it as a series of catecheses. In his seminal work, Man and Woman He Created Them, he shows the integral relation of physicality and sexuality to humanness, providing a much more extensive understanding of personhood that current cultural trends.
Jesus called his church to live counter-culturally. The kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated offers a healing environment for those who are ravaged by the effects of cultural norms that sever spiritual reality from the human experience. The church must recognize its mission to a suffering world in this area of sexuality, and strive to fulfill it with confidence, transparency and an integrity of theology.