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J. Michael Bailey and his Classroom Orgasm at Northwestern

You know how some ideas leave a film on you, and you can either wait for enough time to pass for it to rub off, or you can write it out and take the equivalent of a verbal shower?  I was going to do the former when it came to the topic of Professor Fucksaw, but after reading Jezebel’s write-up today, I decided to aim for the latter — it’s faster, and I really want this off of me.

For those who don’t know what I’m referring to, J. Michael Bailey, a professor at Northwestern University, had a demonstration after his human sexuality class where he brought a woman on stage and had another man bring her to orgasm with a dildo attached to a power tool (which he calls a “fucksaw” — which I think is our first warning about his motivations, but more on that in a moment).

The professor gave a half-assed apology afterward (apologizing only for the fact that people are upset, but not for the act itself), stating that “he thought critics had not made reasoned arguments.”

Saying that the demonstration ‘crossed the line,’ ‘went too far,’ ‘was inappropriate,’ or ‘was troubling’ convey disapproval but do not illuminate reasoning.

So I’d like to try my hand at an argument.

This is personal for me because I’ve actually been in the position of his students, though in my case, that part of class wasn’t optional; it was mandatory.  I say this first and foremost because I can see J. Michael Bailey dismissing these thoughts as an emotional reaction based on my own personal experience.  Of course, it is an emotional reaction based on my own personal experience BUT I think that strengthens my argument — not negates it.

Because I can actually tell you how it feels to have your professor show you something like this.  I am going to hazard a guess that he has never been on the receiving end of a lesson like this.  But I have.  So I think, Mr. Bailey, I win in actually having a leg to stand on when discussing whether or not this is troubling having had experienced it.  Whereas you don’t.


I think first and foremost, regardless of whether he allowed students to leave the classroom before the demonstration began, when we are talking about a student/teacher interaction, there is a power dynamic that negates all choice.  There is a reason why universities have rules again students dating their professors — because it can’t ever be a fully consensual relationship when someone holds power over the other person.

This act wouldn’t bother me in the least if it had occurred at a conference amongst equals.  It wouldn’t bother me if it had occurred in a theater performance at the university.  The point is not the watching of a person being brought to orgasm.  The point is that when there is a teacher-student dynamic in place, an act like this becomes an abuse of power — even if you tell them that they have every choice to leave.

It becomes then the educational equivalent to statutory rape — the older party or — in this case — the person with the power — can claim it was consensual, that the other person wanted to engage in the act too.  But how consensual can it be when the two parties are on completely different playing fields in terms of power or decision-making capabilities?

Which is not to liken the act of showing a woman orgasming to rape.  I don’t think there is anything in what J. Michael Bailey did that equates showing a woman being brought to orgasm as a similar act to raping a woman.  BUT, I do think that if we were going to create an analogy, similar to the ones on the SAT, we could say that real education is to J. Michael Bailey’s class as sex is to rape.

real education : Bailey’s class :: sex : rape

Rape is an act of violence.  It’s a power struggle.  It’s not about sex at all.  And I think likewise, Bailey’s class was not about education at all.  I think it’s about his own show of power over students — and I think he finds this titillating, especially since he followed up the presentation by saying,

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but watching naked people on stage doing pleasurable things will never hurt you.

Which leads us into his motivations, which I think is an important factor in whether we look at this as educational or an abuse of his power for his own ends.

This wasn’t black-and-white research, this wasn’t learning for learning’s sake.  If we want to talk about the vagina for medical reasons, we call it a vagina.  When we want to talk about the vagina in order to shock, we call it a cunt.  I think the moment he called it a fucksaw instead of a phallus on a power tool, he revealed exactly why he was doing this.

I think when he points out that “this story has been a top news story for more than two days,” he also tells us exactly what he hoped would happen.  Especially in an Internet age where we all know that our actions easily have a chance of transcending our own small circle and expanding out rapidly across the world.

If he did this 15 years ago pre-Twitter, I could accept his surprise at it becoming national news.  I think when he points it out, it is to draw your attention to it as an accomplishment rather than an admonishment.  Unless we’re supposed to believe that this professor doesn’t know how the Internet works?

I hopefully have made it clear over the last almost-five years of this blog that I am a huge proponent of sex education.  I believe that the only way to make good decisions is to be well-informed, and I intend for my kids to be well-educated.  I hope they take a human sexuality class when they get to university — I took several.

I also hope that they only encounter people in their education whose aim is to impart knowledge and not to use their position in order to fulfill their own fantasies.

I hope they don’t run into power-hungry professors who wield the gradebook like a gun in order to compensate for their own inadequecies.  I hope they don’t run into self-absorbed professors who are so in love with their own mental capabilities that they can’t concede that education is a two-way street and that students often have a lot to teach professors.

And I sure as hell hope that they never run into a smug, small-minded, self-titillating professor like J. Michael Bailey who mistake where their classroom begins and their fetish ends.  I hope my kids are never put into a situation where they are used to fulfill someone else’s fantasy in this manner.

As J. Michael Bailey said in his “apology“:

I certainly have no regrets concerning Northwestern students, who have demonstrated that they are open-minded grown ups rather than fragile children.

Nothing says strong argument than belittling your naysayers as fragile children.  So in taking a page from his book, I say to this professor, grow-up.


1 Audrey { 03.07.11 at 11:40 am }

Wow. I had totally missed this story. I can not imagine that man keeping his job given the circumstances.

2 Sushigirl { 03.07.11 at 12:05 pm }

What a weird bloke. I’m not familiar with the case, but I’d have been really uncomfortable with the “You might not like what’s about to happen, so may want to leave the room” aspect of it. It’s not a fair choice unless the students knew what was going to happen before they entered the class, as I can imagine there’d have been a lot of peer pressure to stay – not to say some students would be worried about leaving and losing face in front of their lecturer (and that bloke sounds like exactly the sort of person who would internally judge a student for not wanting to sit through something like that).

I’m also wondering what the woman’s motivations to take part in this were.

Also, in my experience that universities nowadays have some sort of approval procedure in the event that a student or academic wants to do research on human beings, even for fairly innocuous projects, and the ethics of whatever your field is are covered in the course. I find it incredible that his stance appears to be that there should be no ethical implication for the students and/or participants, and if there are then it’s just down to them not putting their big boy or girl pants on.

3 manymanymoons { 03.07.11 at 12:13 pm }

This post could not have been more well thought out or intelligent. You were concise and thoughtful and your point is crystal clear. Good for you for bringing light and dignity to this situation. Thank you!

4 Cattiz J { 03.07.11 at 12:13 pm }

I have heard about this and it’s creepy, worrying and very uncomfortable. There are weird things happening in todays world but this – how can it be approved in the first place? And what about the people doing the “performance” in front of the students, it’s just so very strange.

5 Josey { 03.07.11 at 12:30 pm }

Oh my gosh, I have totally missed this story somehow. What in the WORLD was that man thinking?!! I like your analogy – so true, so true. What an abuse of the professor/student dynamic.

6 Willow { 03.07.11 at 12:31 pm }

I’m not a fan of this demonstration, but I think it’s important to gets the facts straight. The professor didn’t coin the term “fucksaw”–the presenter did. Bailey didn’t ask the couple to perform a live sex act–they offered, and he decided it would be worthwhile for his Human Sexuality students to see. Perhaps he should have said no, but he made the call and again urged students to leave if they were uncomfortable–this was already an optional event, not a regular class lecture, that students had already chosen whether to attend or not based on repeated warnings of its explicit nature. If I’d been in the class, I would have skipped this supplemental event–but then, when i was at Northwestern, I never made the effort required to secure a spot in this extremely popular course known (& sought after) for its controversial subject matter. The students who attended this demonstrationmade several informed decisions–first, they chose the course and pursued a coveted spot in it; next, they chose to attend an optional event that they knew would be extra-explicit and that was purely supplemental/unrelated to their grade; and third, to stay when this demonstration was added to the docket at the last minute. Many students in the course made the choice not to attend, so it would seem they did not feel pressured. These are extremely intelligent adults at an excellent institution of higher learning. If they aren’t able to make their own choices by that point in their lives, we have a much bigger problems a society than this strange demonstration. I found this article from Salon useful in explaining more of what happened: http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2011/03/03/sex_ed/index.html

7 Lollipopgoldstein { 03.07.11 at 12:34 pm }

Thanks for linking to the Salon article. Off to read it.

8 Pam/Wordgirl { 03.07.11 at 12:36 pm }

I am so beyond absolutely livid its unbelievable. My head my explode. As a former academic who has been in that position of power — as a woman with a minor in Women’s Studies — I simply cannot believe he hasn’t been thrown out on his ass.

It violates so much of what being in a University classroom is about — and as far as the NW students showing themselves to be adults — well that’s ridiculous. There’s the idea of in loco parentis — and Universities are granted the difficult task of ushering young people through a maze of ideas and experiences in order that they might embrace their full adulthood — but as anyone who has endured a broken heart at that age knows — you are not fully an adult in the world — and what a violation of ethics this man has committed. Honestly, I’m almost glad I had missed it…now I think I’m going to have to blog about it.


9 Lollipopgoldstein { 03.07.11 at 12:45 pm }

So I read the Salon article and now I have even less respect. When he says, “What has happened reinforces the fact that a significant portion of society is very sexually conservative and I knew that, of course, but this reinforces it. Part of that is being outraged by sexual interactions that have no clear harm to anybody” it goes back to the same point I make in his argument on this post. Just because you disagree with someone not being careful with that professor/student dynamic doesn’t mean you’re sexually conservative. I think I’ve proven myself to be fairly sexually open (does my speech in BlogHer’s community keynote ring any bells?). And I’m still bothered by this simply because of the position he placed his students in by not thinking this through.

I think the fact that he can’t see the harm that could come from this is reason enough for why he shouldn’t be in front of the classroom. Because people are trying to tell him the harm and rather than hearing it and trying to become a better professor because of it, he’s belittling every point people make against it, writing off all naysayers.

10 Pam/Wordgirl { 03.07.11 at 12:47 pm }

I still believe, regardless of whether or not this particular ‘offering’ was a required part of the course — every instructor knows the weight of their “urging” students to seek out a particular venue on campus — and as far as the adulthood and consent question — we now even understand that the human brain doesn’t even stop developing until the mid-twenties. Universities institute policies to protect their students — curfews at dorms, policies for substance use, cohabitation rules — again, acting in the absence of the parents.

Thanks for the additional links. I’m going to read what I can on this before I write about it. Camille-fucking-Paglia is probably having a field day.

11 Sunny { 03.07.11 at 12:51 pm }

As usual, Mel, you have said this way better than I ever could. I think it’s sick what some professors do and hide behind the word “education.” No.

I actually took this exact class, taught by Prof. Fucksaw, nine years ago as an undergrad at Northwestern. Back then, the optional experience was to sit in on a panel of gay men and women and ask them candid questions about their experience living as homosexuals. I thought it was illuminating.

12 Michelle { 03.07.11 at 1:12 pm }

I can’t even begin to articulate where I’m at with this. I’m all for sex education. I’m very open to my students when I have to teach them ‘how to make a baby’. But there is always a line, and yes they are minors so the line is very thick, dark, and firm. Regardless of what else is out there in society, it is my role, as a teacher, to NOT cross that line. Not everyone is ready or prepared for what one person deems ‘appropriate’. But in a teacher/student relationship power does exitst and lines MUST be drawn. And yes, it’s because of the power dynamic…hands down.

I originally had no idea what was involved in this when I heard about it. I’ve taken several courses as well, as I majored in Women’s Studies, so sexuality was openly talked about at times…but always with some perametres.

I’m just left here wondering the PURPOSE of all of this. Tact and respect for all is so important in education. And dammit, reflect on the feedback. Think about it. Maybe you went too far.

I believe in lots of information being shared, but for me, as an educator, in a structured class setting, …this really does not sit well with me.

13 Willow { 03.07.11 at 1:55 pm }

Again, I don’t love the choice this prof made, but I do think he had the right to make it, just as his students had the right to stay and observe if they chose, or leave if they didn’t. I found this article interesting regarding the overall tone if the class: . It doesn’t defend this particular instance, but it does provide some context. I don’t know if Bailey if a good or bad guy, but it does sound like he challenges his students intellectually (again, not convinced of the educational value of this demonstration, but in general), and that, it seems to me, is what college is for. I’m glad I didn’t see this demonstration, but if people chose to inthe context of gaining greater understanding of human sexuality, I don’t see why that’s so wrong. Thanks for the interesting discourse.

14 Sushigirl { 03.07.11 at 2:28 pm }

Willow – having read everything you posted, I’m not sure that he did have the right to turn a panel discussion, which presumably was what students were expecting, into a live attempt at female ejaculation. Perhaps the difference between “the authority” and “the right” come into it.

If it was meant to be a scientific demonstration of female ejaculation, then it seemingly failed on that front. It wasn’t a lesson on voyeurism, because presumably in that case it would have been planned as such.

Fair enough, experiments and demonstrations are part of research in any field, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that one person, acting on their own, can make an on-the-spot decision to convert what was meant to be an event based on discourse into one that was a lot more graphic.

In any case, it’s not credible that anyone halfway intelligent wouldn’t realise that FuckSaw was going to create a fuss!

15 EC { 03.07.11 at 3:24 pm }

I think he used poor judgement, and while I was surprised to read about it, I have mixed feelings about it overall. Maybe the articles I read had a different slant on it-
and http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chibrknews-northwestern-to-pay-for-live-sex-toy-demonstration-20110302,0,3942305.story

I didn’t see the term fucksaw, and it sounded to me like he made a split second decision about whether he would allow the couple to do it or not. It may have been a poor decision, but I can’t say that a violation of the student/professor relationship jumped out at me when I read the articles initially (and I have also taught college students). I can see where you’re coming from, but since over 500 students are enrolled in the class and only 100 stayed for the presentation/panel/whatever you want to call it after class, it seems clear that there was an option to leave, which is what most students seemed to do. I still think it was a bad decision, and your comments, as well as the others here, have given me another perspective, but I still have mixed feelings about it overall. Maybe reading the other articles will change my mind!

16 Megan { 03.07.11 at 5:58 pm }

It blows me away that he can act like the whole thing was no big deal. If it was so harmless, why didn’t he do the fucksawing himself?

17 a { 03.07.11 at 6:22 pm }

Well…um…hmm. I suppose it’s more valuable than watching porn?

Having never really been subjected to a power-mad professor (there was the one Biochem teacher, but he shared the teaching responsibilities with a laid-back hippie type, so impact was minimal), my reaction is “not that big a deal.” However, I can see where this behavior would be more questionable based on the personality of the professor.

This brings up a larger question that has been plaguing me since the Bill Clinton era: Does the fact that we have less privacy (due to 24 hour news stations, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) mean that we are now required to be make different decisions than we would without the constant search for new controversies? Should I finally read 1984?

18 loribeth { 03.07.11 at 7:41 pm }


19 Kir { 03.08.11 at 10:02 am }

I must be living under a rock because I heard nothing of this story until right now and I’m on twitter. GAH.
I don’t know how I feel, except that I want to wash some of this off me too…I don’t have words for how offensive I find this whole thing, but I am afraid that it is my inner prude talking. SO I am going to give myself sometime to read the articles, and think about this and then come back to comment.

20 tash { 03.08.11 at 10:04 am }

I’m a bit uncomfy about this whole thing and I can’t really articulate why. Part of me gets your argument, and sadly part of me gets his. (I’m frankly more interested in whether there’s equal time for men being nude and vulnerable in front of everyone because otherwise this turns into a v. skewed heterosexual + sexist course — but I’m not particularly interested in reading everything out there.)

But here’s the thing with your argument, and I really only pose this out of curiosity not with any ill-will because like I said, I’m a touch iffy about this whole thing too: I taught college kids, and I had “optional” classes. Granted, we discussed history in context of contemporary media (e.g., current events having to do with history that we had discussed), but it was “optional,” on say a Friday before break where I knew everyone would be gone. I made it perfectly clear that it wouldn’t be on the exam, and I wouldn’t take attendance (I didn’t anyway — it was a 150-kid, 101 class). So maybe 30 people showed, which blew my mind and made me so happy, and we had a lovely one hour discussion. So was I using my power to force kids to come to this class? Did they feel compelled to attend and talk about this subject? Or is it simply the subject matter that throws the power relationship into a loop? Curiously, we discussed the then-new discoveries re: Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings. So it was kinda about sex/power relations. Hmm.

21 Denver Laura { 03.08.11 at 10:21 am }

About a year ago I saw a news article about a man who used a device he created with a sawzaw and a dildo. Needless to say, she went to the ER with horrible wounds. Charges were not filed as the police said the husband did not intend to cut his wife in half. I can’t read these articles as I am at work, but anytime I see the word “f.cksaw” the situation above comes to mind.

22 aisha { 03.08.11 at 12:10 pm }

Wow- I only just heard of this story this morning but not the full details. Unbelievable. And yes- “option of leaving” is a joke in a class- like you said the power dynamic is awkward and do you want to be the one who leaves?

23 Heather { 03.08.11 at 4:52 pm }

I’m trying to wash my brain out with soap…

Because this threw me back to high school. Sex Ed–via the Local Nun who was also the Head Nurse at the Local Hospital. She put a blue condom on a banana. I vowed celibacy.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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