Northwestern University Cancels Human Sexuality Class

Yesterday, Patrick Svitek of the Daily Northwestern reported that Northwestern University has cancelled the popular human sexuality class taught since 1994 by the equally popular Professor Michael Bailey (see this article from the Daily Northwestern that was written about him, weeks before the controversy). The controversy, as you may recall, is that in February 2011, an after-class guest lecturer (at an optional after-class activity), demonstrated the use of a sex toy.

Regarding the decision to not offer the class in the 2011-2012 academic school year, Northwestern University spokesman Al Cubbage has said, “Courses in human sexuality are offered in a variety of academic departments in other universities, and Northwestern is reviewing how such a course best fits into the University’s curriculum.”

I hope that they quickly revisit this decision and offer the course. Having taught human sexuality classes for years at Indiana University, I understand the value of such a course on young adults’ lives. Most of my students take human sexuality as an elective, as it’s rarely a required class for any major or degree program. Most say that they want to take it because they realize that they don’t know much about sex, including how to protect themselves from infection or pregnancy, how to communicate with potential partners, what to do if they are sexually assaulted, or how their bodies work for pleasure or procreation.

Having guest lectured in Dr. Bailey’s optional after-class activities during the past few years, I’m confident that his students at Northwestern are similar to the students I have taught at IU. Many of his students have asked me questions about infections, birth control, orgasm, ejaculation, how to talk with a partner and sexual response. Having listened to Dr. Bailey lecture in class to his students, and to the way his students interact with him, it is clear that they feel comfortable asking Dr. Bailey a number of questions about sex that they may not feel they can ask anyone else in their lives, and that they can count on getting an educated, informed and honest response. It is a shame that Northwestern does not see this value. Many professors can be a “warm body” in front of a classroom. Fewer can be engaging, attentive, interested in their students’ lives and well-being, or as well-liked by their students as Dr. Bailey is. It is notable that in the wake of the “controversy” (which I feel was more media sensation than material concern), no students in Dr. Bailey’s human sexuality class – that I’m aware of – filed a complaint or otherwise expressed being upset at the optional after-class activity.

In response to the university’s decision to not offer the course, Northwestern student Miriam Mogilevsky wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Northwestern. Among her supportive comments about the class, and disappointed remarks about the administration’s decision, Miriam – a self-identified sexual health peer educator – wrote:

“It is also truly unfortunate that whichever “higher academic authority” issued this prohibition has not graced us with any sort of public statement. If, as I suspect, this authority is actually the Northwestern administration, then I hope it is not too presumptuous of me to suggest that perhaps those of us paying upwards of $50,000 a year to study here should be the ones deciding which classes we should be allowed to take. Regardless, a public statement explaining this decision should be released immediately because we deserve to know the whole story.”

I have to wonder what writers from the Daily Northwestern think of this. They were the ones to write the first article about the after-class activity more than a week after it occurred, calling it a “controversy” even though none of the students seem to have ever complained in the first place. I have to wonder to what extent the DN writers covered initially because they saw it as “sensational” or likely to garner attention. They got the attention, but was it worth it?

Readers of the Daily Northwestern can vote on how they feel about the class being cancelled. At this writing, about 3/4 of readers are “outraged.”

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.

  • http://profiles.google.com/hmoyseenko Holly Moyseenko-Kossover

    I’m so bothered by this! Okay, I can totally understand why people had (some) issue with the original demonstration – BUT – it was not required and after class time. Regardless of any of that, why is this class being pulled?? This stupefies and upsets me. I talk to students who have taken my class (also teach human sexuality) and tell me after, that it’s one of the most important classes that they’ve taken. I had so many students ask me this semester why the class is not required (at Kent, it’s a junior level course).