Northwestern University, Sex Toys and the Female Orgasm
When I was 15, I went to my first and last sex education class. By this point, I had already developed an interest in sex and as a result, had spent countless hours in the library doing what I do best: researching. From anatomy and physiology texts to historical classics like the Kama Sutra and Ars Amatoria, I’d devoured everything that was available and I wasn’t impressed with the dumbing down of material, giggling and general discomfort that permeated the class. Mind you, I went to a very progressive and rather fearless school and most of us, by that age, were able to hold our own in political and philosophical debates. But sex? For the first time, our instructors were closed off, hoping to God we wouldn’t ask any questions.
When she got home that evening, my mother wouldn’t leave me alone. She’d signed the permission slip for me to attend the class and she was sufficiently excited about for all students and instructors combined. She’d attended an all-girls Catholic school where the pages of the anatomy and physiology texts relating to sex were stapled together. The most eye-opening thing relating to sex that she’d experienced in school was a comment made by a transfer student, the daughter of a French (of course!) diplomat, who, during religion class, had informed a nun discussing the virtue of virginity that the notion of gauging women by their sexual inexperience was sexist and backward and she couldn’t wait to extinguish hers.
My mother told me that several years later, at a high school reunion, she’d encountered old friends and, recalling this incident and how times had changed with regard to people’s perception of sex, many had confessed that they were not sure whether they’d ever had an orgasm.
“If we’d had a sexual education class, I don’t think so many of them would be wondering if they’d ever orgasmed,” she said. “How could you be uncertain of an orgasm? That’s just cruel and unnecessary ignorance.”
I gently broke it to her that my sex ed class was not about orgasm, but rather, focused on safety.
“Safety?” she asked.
“You know, unwanted pregnancy and all the diseases.”
“That’s important,” she agreed. “But how long does it take to cover all that?”
“The whole semester,” I responded. “A baby takes nine whole months to form, you know.”
“A baby?” she was aghast. “Can’t you learn about that in biology? And aren’t diseases better suited for health and wellness class?”
“Americans aren’t allowed to talk about sin and shame anymore,” she mused. “But that’s OK: instead of putting the fear of God into the hearts of young adults, they can put the fear of illness, death and obligation there instead. It’s not much different. In the end, no one orgasms.”
I’ll never forget that conversation. That’s why, when I write about sex, I try to write as much about the pleasures and fun as I do about the problems and politics. And, as much as possible, I try to employ personal narrative. Those marketers are onto something when they talk about word-of-mouth marketing. People listen to their friends and to people they see as having authority. The numbers and dates never matter in these discussions -- but anecdotes live forever. Experience is king.
Experience is hard to come by -- even while everyone is touting the power of sex in selling products, sexual content itself, no matter how well written, is impossible to monetize. Erotica is largely disregarded when it comes to the assessment of literature and those who do allow their imaginations to venture there are held up to such ridicule as to make it advisable to abstain unless the plot absolutely demands it, and even then, with only the utmost care.
We’re left with the internet, which hosts a glorious variety of stories, but as Audacia Ray has pointed out in Naked On The Internet, “sex blogs occupy a very definite Internet ghetto”—one that Google will not easily help you find.
So naturally, when I read about the controversy surrounding Northwestern University’s Human Sexuality class, I’m utterly dismayed. Here is a professor, John Michael Bailey, who is offering, at last, some semblance of a full sexual education to students who are interested. The class focuses on the science and diversity of sex and offers events for students to explore sexual issues with panels and presenters who have experienced the things being discussed. The events occur after class; they are optional and the content is not covered on exams.
Some examples of presenters have included, as Bailey notes in the Daily Northwestern, “a panel of gay men speaking about their sex lives, a transsexual performer, two convicted sex offenders, an expert in female sexual health and sexual pleasure, a plastic surgeon, and a swinging couple.”
On February 21st, Bailey invited Ken Melvoin-Berg to speak about sexual diversity and suggested he bring other people to share their experiences. The lecture that occurred before the after-class event had touched on female arousal, the g-spot and female ejaculation. Melvoin-Berg asked the professor whether he could demonstrate female ejaculation with one of the women who had accompanied him for the event. Bailey agreed and proceeded to warn the students present, all adults, that this after-class session would be graphic.
Melvoin-Berg spoke to the class for a while, then announced the demonstration would begin and issued another warning about its graphic nature. Then in five- to 10-minutes time, Melvoin-Berg brought a woman to orgasm employing a motorized dildo on stage before some 120 students who had chosen to be present.
The students who did not wish to see the event had trickled out and many of those who remained told the Daily Northwestern that they found it educational to witness. Even so, all hell has broken loose over the incident.
I, for one, applaud Bailey for having the balls to take a stand against sex-negativity. Writing about sex, I receive many questions, and none of them are as frequent as whether female ejaculation is true. Even 30 years after sexologists Beverly Whipple and John Perry tackled female ejaculation and proved the secretions were not urine but something closer to the fluid released by the male prostate gland, female ejaculation continues to be a heated topic. And just last year, the media went into a frenzy wondering whether or not the g-spot was real.
How far, really, have we come in terms of understanding sexuality, specifically female sexuality, since Freud uttered the words almost a century ago, “The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is, What does a woman want?”?
In almost one hundred years, we have made little progress into understanding female desire and female orgasm. Whatever progress is made is continuously subject to scrutiny over its value -- educational, societal and moral. I, for one, would like to scrutinize why that is, not why a celebrated professor should be free to decide what else he can do to educate willing adult students after class.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.