The Magazine

Lower Education

Sex toys and academic freedom at Northwestern.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Professor J. Michael Bailey has a sex lab at the university, which turns out to be not at all like Masters and Johnson’s lab, set up to do intricate physiological recording—“a blow-by-blow account of the clitoris in action,” as one of their critics once described it—but a room with a few computers in it. A somewhat softish-looking man, balding, he was recently photographed in open-necked shirt and jeans (leisure cut, to be sure). But then perhaps a sexologist ought not to be too elegant, or even comely. Mrs. Johnson, of Masters and Johnson sexological fame, looked like nothing so much as a prison matron, and Dr. Masters resembled a little the evil Dr. Sivana in the old Captain Marvel comics. One of the founding fathers of sex studies, Alfred Kinsey, a serious masochist who in his spare time went in for self-circumcision, after a hard day at the office measuring the intensity of male orgasms, used regularly to be seen in Bloomington, Indiana, watering his lawn in a bikini. 

On his Northwestern home page, Professor Bailey provides a picture of himself in his high-school graduating class, when he wore his red hair shoulder-length. He lists his favorite albums—“I think you can tell a lot from someone by the kind of music they listen to,” he writes—the symphonies of Shostakovich or the Beethoven late quartets not among them. Divorced and the father of a son and daughter, he also offers a picture of his former wife, whom he describes as “a generally cool woman” and Dave, her new husband or boyfriend, it isn’t clear which, “who is equally cool.” Thanks, professor, for sharing.

Professor Bailey wrote a book called The Man Who Would Be Queen, which apparently argues that homosexuality is innate, not the result of nurture, and which caused some controversy among politically minded homosexuals. The section of his book on transgendering especially inflamed transgendered readers, arguing as it did against the standard view that men who wish to cross genders are really the victims of a biological mistake; Bailey’s view is that such men are instead motivated by erotic fantasies of themselves as females. The heat he took for this, mostly played out on the Internet, was hot and heavy. 

The sex demonstration controversy is not the first to have visited Professor Bailey. Earlier a transgendered woman complained that she had had consensual sex with Bailey after discussions having to do with his research. Two transsexual professors on Northwestern’s faculty filed a claim that he, who is not a registered psychologist—where, one wonders, does one go to register?—inappropriately wrote letters evaluating whether candidates were ready for sex-reassignment (happy phrase) surgery. In another instance four women claimed he failed to alert them that he was using discussions with them about their sexuality for a book. In each case, Northwestern concluded that Professor Bailey either was being harassed or was operating within scientific guidelines or else chose not to press the matter. A man with a penchant for smashing taboos, Professor Bailey enjoys pushing the envelope, but, like many another radical academic, prefers not to pay the postage. 

As for the most recent controversy, Professor Bailey’s first defense was to go on the offensive. “I think that these after-class events are quite valuable. Why? One reason is that I think it helps us understand sexual diversity.” (Ah, diversity, the leading buzzword of the contemporary university.) “Sticks and stones may break your bones,” he said, “but watching naked people on stage doing pleasurable things will never hurt you.” 

“I regret upsetting so many people in this particular manner,” he said. “I apologize. .  .  . In the 18 years I have taught the course, nothing like the demonstration at issue has occurred, and I will allow nothing like it to happen again,” he said. Getting in a last shot, though, he added, “Thoughtful discussion of controversial topics is a cornerstone of learning.” And for Fox News he noted, “Earlier that day in my lecture I had talked about the attempts to silence sex research, and how this largely reflected sex negativity. .  .  . I did not wish, and I do not wish, to surrender to sex negativity and fear.”

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