America has long had a complicated relationship with sex and sexuality. On the one hand, sex sells in this country. The adult film industry grosses just as much money or more than the mainstream film industry ($9-13 billion (estimated a few years ago) v. $11 billion last year). Television and film continue to push the borders of what actions and areas of skin are acceptable to the regular audience. There are reams and reams of magazines, both hardcore and more “gentlemanly”. One of Sports Illustrated‘s most anticipated editions of the year is the Swimsuit Issue, which seems to feature less and less swimsuits every year. Sporting events are punctuated by provocatively-dressed women leading cheers, tossing promotional items out to the crowd and even clearing off loose ice from the playing surface of hockey games.
However, against this backdrop, breastfeeding women are frequently marginalized and shamed for feeding in public, actual discussions about sex and sexuality are shunned or pushed aside (because heaven forbid that we actually teach our children about sex. We should just let them learn about it from proper places, their friends on the street), and when Janet Jackson very briefly exposes a part of her nipple (the part that wasn’t obscured by what appeared to be an intricate and painful decorative apparatus) and bare breast before a national television audience, the FCC gets wound into a tizzy and starts levying gigantic fines for improper transgressions of any kind.
I am not sure who gets their attitude about sex the most correct (if there even is such a thing.) In some parts of the Islamic world, women are required to be fully covered except for their eyes. In Europe, there are images of topless women in regular newspapers and magazine. In America, we seemed to mash both conservative and liberal views into a contradictory morass. Pornography is cool but breastfeeding is not? Come on!
One of the headlines in yesterday’s online Chicago Tribune was “NU President Troubled By Sex Toy Demonstration on Campus“. At first glance, this seemed to be a rather non-sensical headline in which there were multiple possibilities for this story to go. (Sex toys that came to life and were demonstrating for better work conditions? NFL players demonstrating against a possible lockout using an interesting choice of props to show dissatisfaction? Some adult oriented company hocking their wares on the campus quad?) So I read the story to figure out which of these possibilities was actually happening. As it turns out, it was none of these.
In the course of a class on Human Sexuality, there was an optional, after-hours demonstration. Apparently during the course of this demonstration there was an impromptu and unscheduled performance of a sex act. My gut response to reading the article was that this was a bad idea on someone’s part. However, over the course of the day and after hearing multiple people comment (almost always negatively) on this incident, I started to think about this a little more deeply. (It was probably my contrarian nature. The more people are against something, the more I become for it and vice versa.)
Where was all of this animosity and negativity coming from? After all, this was a class about Human Sexuality. I know that Purdue had a class like this and I am guessing that many other universities do as well. Was the outrage really about whether a class like this should even exist? I suppose that would be an interesting debate, although I would tend to think that for people who are studying to be family therapists, counselors and psychologist this would probably be a rather important topic to be knowledgeable of. (Then again, who knows how many of the people in the class are actually going into those fields versus how many are taking it for the thrill of it.)
Is it because the sexual act was not exactly “traditional”? (I am not going to get into specifics. If you really want to know more, feel free to use the above link to get to other related Trib articles which provide more (although still “safe for work”) details.) If it was just two people having intercourse or some other less kinky activity, would that have been more or less problematic?
Maybe it was that there was a real live sex act of any kind. Although I would think that from a scientific standpoint, despite feeling a bit taboo, this would actually be preferable to watching pornography. (which was supposedly a staple of Purdue’s class. I don’t know, I didn’t take it. I was too busy taking Bowling and Greek Mythology.) My limited experience with pornography is that it is not exactly a realistic depiction of much of anything. Seeing real and true responses and activities would seem preferable if you were trying to truly learn about human sexuality. If you someone really want to learn about animal mating patterns and mating rituals, what does that researcher do? They go out and observe. But maybe that gets closer to the root of the problem.
We aren’t just animals. Maybe thinking of human sexuality as something that should be observed, poked and prodded in a laboratory setting is the part the deep down bothers people the most. For humans, sex has an element of intimacy and privacy that is different from anywhere else in the living world. Maybe boiling it down to a cold and objective science is what really bothers people the most about this incident, even if they won’t openly acknowledge or identify that feeling?
Clearly there should be a line when it comes to sex and sexuality in the public sphere. But where is that line? Does it move when it is in an educational setting versus at halftime of the Super Bowl? I believe that we need to be doing a much better job educating more and exploiting a whole lot less, but try telling that to a multi-billion dollar industry and a country that does one thing but says another. Maybe we should have more classes on Human Sexuality. I think I’ll take mine without the sex show, please.