Monday, March 7, 2011

My entirely personal, non-academic opinion regarding the live sex demonstration at Northwestern

Presumably many of you by now have heard of the event linked below, in which a professor at Northwestern held a live sex demonstration at an optional, after-class lecture and discussion that was tied to a human sexuality course:,0,3942305.story

Since I seem to spend all my time these days writing about sex and ethics, I feel as though I ought to weigh in on the subject, for the benefit of the approximately 1 percent of people I know who actually read my (very infrequent) blog posts. Therefore, keeping in mind the appropriate disclaimers --I am neither a professor, nor an administrator, nor a lawyer, I wasn't there and therefore cannot verify the particulars of the event, etc., etc.-- there are conditions under which I would not condemn, and perhaps even encourage, a sex demonstration in an educational context.

These conditions are as follows:

1. All involved parties must be fully informed in advance that they will be witnessing sex acts.

2. The event must be optional-- there can be no coercion involved.

3. Pursuant to the above conditions, all involved parties must explicitly consent to being involved in (whether as witnesses or active participants) the acts in question. This presupposes that all involved parties are of legal age, etc. to be able to consent.

4. Due to the power dynamics involved, students may only participate as witnesses.

5. The demonstration must be directly and demonstrably related to the course material.

Based on the (limited) reading I have done about the specific event in question (and bearing in mind again that I wasn't there), it seems as though all of these conditions were met, though really any demonstration should have been planned in advance rather than added on the spot. Nevertheless, once it was clear the demonstration would take place, it appears that the audience was warned several times as to the graphic nature of the demonstration and given ample opportunity to leave the room. (I do think, however, that the lectures ought to have asked the class specifically whether the proposed demonstration was okay with them.) Since the lecture was tied to a class on human sexuality-- which, according to the course description quoted in the above article, "[treats] human sexuality as a subject for scientific inquiry" (presumably therefore including observation...)-- it was clearly relevant to the course material. Furthermore, "the...demonstrators led an hour-long discussion after their shocking act." [1] Obviously this wasn't performed for the sole purpose of titillation-- the students found the demonstration thought-provoking at the very least.

Obviously I have not touched on-- nor am I qualified to speak to-- the legal issues involved here, or the probably massive headache this has caused for the school's administration due to these legal issues. However, speaking strictly from my own ethical perspective, I don't think it was necessarily wrong. Was it, practically speaking, a dumb thing to do? Most likely. But no one was victimized, no one was hurt, and a bunch of college students (who, as Dan Savage points out, "[have] access to, and [have] accessed worse, via Northwestern's online network." [2]) actually got to have an intelligent, non-judgmental discussion about sex after seeing a sex act. To quote Savage again, "every kid on campus watching fucksawandworse porn should be so lucky as to have that exposure followed immediately by a discussion lead by one of the country's preeminent sex researchers."

(A final disclaimer-- it appears that the professor in question has an iffy history with some trans and other sexual minority communities. I honestly don't know enough about the guy to comment one way or the other, but in any case, I'm not writing specifically about him; rather, I'm writing about the ethics of an action he happens to have taken.)




  1. More disclaimers than opinion means someone's spent too much time in academia.

  2. *thhpt* But you are, of course, right.