Essays

J. Michael Bailey:  Why It’s a Big F*&king Deal

 

Warning: I’m not editing this much at all.

J. Michael Bailey, a professor of clinical psychology at Northwestern University, recently allowed a live-sex demonstration in in his Human Sexualities class.  If you’d like to read more about it before reading my take — here’s SalonNYT’s, Mel from Stirrup Queens, and Jezebel‘s take on it.

I used to teach English Composition at the University level.  Don’t laugh, I know my grammar here is atrocious and have even been personally humiliated by the former fiction editor of The Atlantic in a workshop to prove it.  I turned my class into more of a course about reading texts and interacting critically with them — focusing particularly on subjects regarding race/class/gender/sexual orientation — those borderlands where so many of our deeply held beliefs reside.

I grew up understanding that the greatness of our democracy is the difference of opinion and the ability to voice it freely. —Jane Alexander

Dare to think for yourself.—Voltaire

I would stand up on my first day of class and give a little spiel.  I would ask:  When the then Soviet army moved into Czechoslovakia – or in Nazi, Germany — or  Stalin’s dictatorship, in Pinochet’s Chile —  who were among those silenced?  In South Africa during apartheid? In pre-90’s South Korea, in Turkey, in post-communist Ukraine, in the Arab world?*

The writers. The artists.

This was life or death business.  This was the stuff that fed our souls, connected us to one another, raised us above the primates.

This is the thing that, when my father had been murdered and my mother felt I was alone and disconnected she went to the librarian and asked for a recommendation and the librarian gave her Judy Blume’s title Tiger Eyes and how I remembered vividly reading the chapter where she reveals that her father was murdered in his convenience store — and how she kept his bloodied clothes high on the shelf of her closet — and even now, writing this, I can picture my sixth grade handwriting on the fly-leaf — my home room number 206 — with the big, looping six —  and my heart races — I can see that girl, Blume’s character — from New Jersey and spirited away to Los Alamos, NM — I can see her as clearly now as I did when I first read that in 1983 or 84. She knows. She sees me.

I told my students how when I went back to all of the books that I’d read a child — that sad and isolated little girl — two of the most pivotal had girls who hit the road and made a life for themselves in towns in the shadow of wild and beautiful places, fashioned a family out of friends — the very thing I’d done for myself when I was old enough to leave.  I would quote C.S. Lewis’ character in Shadowlands– “We read to know we are not alone.”

See, I had to sell them on the fact that words mattered, that the written word in particular, mattered … and I’d explain to them that yes, this was a composition course — and yes, it was required of them that they learn the five paragraph essay, among other forms of persuasive argument — but what I was mostly about was having them interact with their texts — to enter a text, reflect about their own lives — articulate that — open a dialogue with the class — that, now that was more important to me than comma splices. (And infinitely more interesting.)

Because this was college: encountering material that was difficult, that was challenging — that challenged you and forced you to think critically about yourself, your beliefs and what informed them.  I am not going to stand up here, I told them, and pretend as if I don’t have a bias.  None of us can claim we’re without one.  The best I can do is tell you upfront what informs the lens through which I view the world — and I’d ask you to do the same.  I’m the child of a single-parent, a mother who, though she’d had her graduate degree, was in and out of work for years. I am the sibling of two gay men. I consider myself part of the GLBT community — and I’d lay out, as honestly as I could — my biases. (One of my greatest compliments as a professor was actually from a student who thought that I was a Republican — because I managed, somehow, to keep bringing up every side of the issue.  They would eventually forget what I’d told them about what shaped me — and come to be at ease in my classroom even though this was a community-college that drew from a very conservative-christian base  — but also had a strong urban influx of Somali muslims, working class joes and janes from the northern part of the city; an eclectic mix.

This is a long way to get to this story: because I was committed to opening a dialogue on GLBT issues — and this was over ten years ago now — I chose to teach Boys Don’t Cry. I didn’t consult anyone, not my dean or other faculty members.  The first year I made it mandatory. We’d been talking on a broader scale about hate crimes — the case of James Byrd had just happened in Texas. I spoke about living in Montana when I heard the news about Matthew Shepard and about my trip to Laramie.  They were supposed to write one-page responses.  I remember one young woman who wrote “its one thing if you’re dragged behind a truck because you’re black and another if you’re tied to a fence because your a damned queer“(emphasis mine.)

Now this I did take to other faculty. To my dean. How did I respond to this.  It hit me so viscerally, offended me so personally — stood out so violently as unacceptable…(it went on, but those words are the ones still emblazoned in my mind.)  I sat with it for a while.

Meanwhile the class saw Pierce’s film.

Some of my students were so distraught by it that now, ten years later, I feel the weight of guilt and responsibility.  I began to ask myself — as I continued to show the film — what responsibility did I have to my students?  Was this pushing them beyond their limits?  I hadn’t taken into consideration that some of my students may have been rape victims themselves, had come from war-torn countries with a legacy of rape as a war tactic.  I remember in particular one woman — and these girls were tough girls — they would have liked you to believe they were street smart.  They showed no vulnerability in class with their lazy smiles and their feet kicked out, chewing gum … and she said “Ms. Ken.nedy I just like, keep seeing it.  It keeps coming back time and time again.”

I don’t know if, that first year, I did anything more than warn them of the explicit content. I was clear. They all stayed glued to their seats.

The second year I showed it also had to urge them to leave the room if they felt it was going to get too intense; if they so chose they could skip it altogether. I gave them an alternative to come to me with another film I had to approve.

By and large they all stayed.  They stayed because they respected me and felt that if I had chosen the film, I’d done so because it was part of their education.

In many ways it stands out to me as one of the proudest moments for me as an educator — I know absolutely that in showing that film and in opening the topic of GLBT studies — that some of my students were changed forever. Some came out to me.  Some came out to the class.  I’d often have that one moment where the boy or girl who was shy and spoke to no one raised their hand, turned bright red — and explained that they had a sister, an aunt, a brother, a mother who was gay.  It was powerful stuff.

But I never have been able to shake the weight of that power and responsibility I had to those students.  It only took a scene like that one to reveal to you just how young nineteen still is.

***

Cut to J. Michael Bailey and the recent events at Northwestern.  He’s a polarizing figure.  In the GLBT community some champion his work, some dismiss it — I simply can’t believe the kind of stereotypes he continues to support — my brother, the championship diver, captain of his High School football team will be surprised to know he loathed football. I digress.

Here’s what the Times explains as the facts of the case:

The demonstration had been arranged by J. Michael Bailey, whose Human Sexuality class has an enrollment of nearly 600. On Feb. 21, after concluding a lecture at a university auditorium about sexual arousal, Professor Bailey brought onto the stage a man whom he had invited to participate in a discussion of “kinky people,” according to an e-mail the professor later sent to his students that was reprinted byThe Daily Northwestern.

On the way to the stage, Professor Bailey wrote, the man, Ken Melvoin-Berg, the co-owner of a business called Weird Chicago Tours, “asked me whether it would be O.K. if one of the women with him demonstrated female ejaculation using equipment they had brought with them.”

After receiving what the professor called “explicit” warnings of what they were about to see, about 100 students watched as the woman was penetrated by the device.

Professor Bailey, who has taught at Northwestern for two decades, said in his e-mail that the presentation was part of an informal series of events — each “entirely optional” and “not covered on exams” — that had previously featured “a transsexual performer, two convicted sex offenders” and “a swinging couple.”

In his statement, Morton Schapiro, the university president, said: “Although the incident took place in an after-class session that students were not required to attend, and students were advised in advance, several times, of the explicit nature of the activity, I feel it represented extremely poor judgment on the part of our faculty member.”

Mr. Schapiro said the university would “investigate fully the specifics of this incident, and also clarify what constitutes appropriate pedagogy, both in this instance and in the future.”

In his e-mail to his class, Professor Bailey expressed no regrets.

“Student feedback for this event,” he said, “was uniformly positive.”

***

What stands out to me here is the University President stating the need to clarify:what constitutes appropriate pedagogy, both in this instance and in the future.

As I wrote in Mel’s comments — Universities are set up with so many rules in place to protect students — this idea of  — in the absence of parents — in loco parentis — and places of Higher Education are treading that tricky ground of opening young minds —  and in my mind this man has violated that very principle baldly and without remorse and at best it represents poor judgement, at worst an egregious breach of ethics that reveals a man more interested in manipulating his students than teaching them. Students are not his equals. Even if there by choice I guarantee you — even if they stated otherwise, those students were there because of the power of their professor.  The believed that what he condoned, in his classroom albeit in an “after-class session,” was important to their learning.

When a child is introduced to explicit material beyond their stage of understanding we consider this akin to sexual abuse.  We would never think this appropriate in a high school — yet somehow that year or two beyond high school?  Its fair game?  These are consenting adults?  Do you think there was a young man or woman in there who went home feeling queasy?  Do you suppose they would share this with their peers?

Maybe it is truly a new world — and with a young generation growing up online they’ve already seen this in the privacy of their unsupervised laptops.

I know that if that were Z and she called to tell me that her professor had urged them to stay — let me tell you I’d have something to say about the place where I was spending nearly FORTY THOUSAND DOLLARS A YEAR.

This is all circuitous and I know there’s been a movement for a long time now — rather than the second-wave feminism that most of my instructors taught us from –purporting that  no holds-barred sexuality is in and of itself powerful — that it can be divorced from elements of power and relationships — but I don’t buy it.  I think this is sexism at its worst.  He turned that woman onstage into an object. He violated each one of his students, and he did it in the guise of intellectual freedom.

That’s the rub, isn’t it?

One person says intellectual discourse — another says rubbish.

You?

Sources consulted:*Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds, Revised Edition/Copyright © 2006 by Nicholas J. Karolides

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s