by Joseph Bernstein
In three years as an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I only saw one professor argue with his students. It happened several times in the same class, Human Sexuality, and I will never forget the first time it happened. It was the winter of my sophomore year, 2005. The professor, J. Michael Bailey, had been leading us through some provocative research, which suggested that if you control for a whole variety of factors, adults who were sexually abused as children are not much more likely to have psychological pathologies than adults who were not. The implication, that the sexual abuse of children might not be as damaging as our culture has long assumed, naturally upset some members of the class, and Bailey, as was his practice after introducing a controversial topic, halted his lecture for ten minutes of questions and answers.
A dark-haired young woman in the back of the class stood up right away. This was not an insignificant act; Human Sexuality was one of the most popular courses at Northwestern and hundreds of people gathered in the huge lecture hall on North Campus every winter to attend, so hundreds of heads turned to look at her.
“You’re talking about sexually abusing children,” she said, in tone that would have been hectoring if it hadn’t been so surprised. “No matter what the research says, that is morally wrong.” Bailey said that his moral judgment had nothing to do with the matter, that he was presenting research and that was all. This was clearly unsatisfactory to the young woman, who asked in response, “What would you say if one of your daughters was molested?”
Everyone has taken a class where the lecturer loses the respect of the students. This, I thought, was on the verge of happening. If Bailey responded defensively or, worse, derisively, he would lose the audience, maybe for the rest of the semester. I was sure that he would take the temperature of this woman’s voice, deflect the question and move on.
“If one of my daughters was molested, I would be devastated,” he said. “But I would take comfort in knowing that the molestation would not necessarily ruin her life.”
The young woman sat down. Bailey got back to his lecture.
Why am I telling you this story? J. Michael Bailey is the person at the center of the controversy currently burning on the Western shore of Lake Michigan, fed by gusts of air from every prurient corner of the Internet and every red-faced moralist who can sit through the Fox News or MSNBC or CNN makeup chair long enough to release his outrage.
What happened is this: Bailey, as he does several times every semester, organized an after-class demonstration, which in this particular instance took the form of one non-student Chicagoan applying a device known as a “fucksaw” to the vagina of another non-student Chicagoan, who apparently reached orgasm, though we have made the collective mistake of assuming so. (If “Seinfeld” has taught us nothing else, it is that only she knows for sure.)
Pardon the digression; commence the defense. I arrived in Northwestern in the fall of 2003, smart-assed and smug, from the halls of a criminally overpriced prep school in northwest Washington, D.C., which for all of its faults taught me that everything should be questioned, that good argument dignifies everyone and that being intellectually boring is sort of a sin. Let us say that these were not the values I encountered at my new home.
To understand Bailey’s worth to Northwestern, you need to understand a little bit about Northwestern. First, it’s full of very smart and very driven people. Second, it’s not a place where young people go to have their assumptions challenged. It’s not the sort of university where young people go to experiment and find themselves and dabble in campus radicalism and psychedelics and maybe let someone of the same sex or someone in a body suit rub up on them. Due to its prestigious undergraduate programs in theater, journalism, engineering and business, it has an entrenched and sometimes suffocating pre-professional streak. In every way, geographically, intellectually, socially, psychologically, it’s the opposite of our South Side rival for academic supremacy. It’s also really, truly, appallingly cold. Which is all a way of saying that it’s the sort of place that might benefit from a fucksaw every now and then.
I was adrift there. I know, I know: poor little me, paying $40,000 a year to be intellectually alone and sad in picturesque north Chicagoland. But let me say in my defense that 18 to 20 is a really awful age to feel like there’s a good conversation going on somewhere and you aren’t having it. The early classes for my English major didn’t help. Sure, I learned how you can interpret The Matrix through a Lacanian lens, but I never heard anyone argue why you should. The students didn’t care and the professors didn’t notice. There were no stakes.
So now you can maybe see why that moment in Bailey’s class was so revelatory for me. I was watching an academic defend his field in the context of his life. There were stakes. It wasn’t life-altering or anything quite so neat as that. But it was an educator taking seriously enough the intentions of his students to expect that they could handle facts that made them uncomfortable. I felt, more than anything, respected.
It certainly wasn’t his presence that made Bailey the best professor I had at Northwestern. He lacked the performer’s intuition that the great lecturers have, the sense of drama, of revelation. He spoke in a monotone and in class would basically shuffle around the stage with his microphone. But he taught major, contentious areas of sexuality research that we all have a stake in: about the genetic basis for sexual orientation; about the evolutionary costs and benefits of rape; about real, observable differences in male and female arousal patterns; about case studies of people who can only achieve sexual pleasure by cutting off their own limbs. Bailey assumed that we were not in the class just because it was about sex or, worse, to fulfill some silly course requirement. He assumed we were in class because we were as interested in the mysteries of human sexual experience as him.
I won’t comment on the most recent demonstration. I wasn’t there. But the fact that these events have been going on for years leads me to believe that the current controversy has a lot more to do with the word “fucksaw” than anything else. These demonstrations clearly existed to expose a group of smart but sheltered young people to the staggering spectrum of human sexual behavior. Sometimes people need to be shocked out of their assumptions.
I only remember one demonstration from 2005 well. It was just a panel of gay men, longtime friends of Bailey’s, who sat in front of the class and answered any question the audience could come up with. I simply didn’t know very many gay people when I was 20 years old, and I had a whole host of assumptions blasted by the commonsense, funny, sad answers provided by the men on the panel. There was a moment late in the demonstration when it became clear to the class that the removal of women from the sexual equation results in a lot more, well, sex. Someone asked the panel: “How many of you have had sex with each other?” The men, who ranged widely in age, looked at each other, and it was clear some major mental math was happening. All at once, the men on stage started just shaking with laughter, and the audience did too. I didn’t leave the lecture hall changed in any fundamental way, except I knew a little bit more about the three or ten (depending on who you ask) percent of men who have sex with other men. I can say that no other professor’s class at Northwestern taught me that much about the way actual people live in the world.
It has barely been reported that the “fucksaw” demonstrators led an hour-long discussion after their shocking act. Can we extrapolate from this fact that some knowledge about human sexuality may have been gleaned? That some 19-year-old from Peoria might not think his new girlfriend is weird or disgusting when he stumbles upon her leather closet? That we all got here from fucking, that we do it in a lot of different ways, and someone should probably be studying it? Or would it just be easier and more satisfying to be scandalized?
Joseph Bernstein does not own a fucksaw.