Profs. discuss future of sexuality education at NU

Tom Meyer

Six months after a live sex toy demonstration on a Northwestern stage sparked a national controversy, a panel of four NU professors met Monday night to discuss the role of sexuality in the classroom.

Profs. Héctor Carrillo, Nicholas Davis, Mary Weismantel and Lane Fenrich, each a specialist in sexuality or gender studies, spoke briefly and answered questions from a crowd of about 70 students and faculty members in the Annie May Swift Hall auditorium.

The event was organized partially in response to last March’s controversy, Davis said, where an optional after-class presentation for NU’s Human Sexuality course showed students a man using a sex toy on a woman.

“A giant fracas ensued,” Davis said. “But this is a good moment to be in a gender studies class. Having that event in the spring inspired us to have this event … I was very grateful for that.”

While Prof. Michael Bailey, the instructor of the Human Sexuality course, was not present, the topic of the sex toy was addressed by the panelists.

“I found out that now if you type ‘studying sex at Northwestern’ into Google, it comes up in a very bad way,” Weismantel said. “And we think we actually do it very well, so we want to be able to be proud about it. This is a wonderful place to study sex. It’s very obvious from the course enrollment that you guys are very interested in the topic.”

The panelists made repeated references to the sex toy controversy, but larger, overarching topics of sexuality as an academic topic and ethical guidelines dominated the discussion.

“Because sexuality historically became a loaded topic, the discussion of sexuality in our courses must be nuanced and contextualized,” Carrillo said. “There’s much that can be learned about society by focusing on sexuality.”

Carrillo pointed out the sensitive nature of the study of sexuality, adding that just this year he had a student who was not allowed by his parents to enroll in his course, Sexuality and Society, because they felt tuition should not be used to pay for a course on that topic. Event moderator Jillana Enteen, also a gender studies professor, agreed with Carrillo’s point.

“When it comes to sex, things are suddenly very personal and everyone has his or her own opinion,” Enteen said in her opening remarks.

An unplanned guest appearance occurred near the end of the event, when sociology professor Steven Epstein answered an audience member’s question about the recent political controversy regarding states that mandate young girls to receive the human papillomavirus vaccine. Epstein, who recently finished editing a book about the vaccine, related the issue back to the same topics of morality and sex that had dominated the discussion.

“This case is one of many situations where our ways of thinking about health or about technology or about what constitutes progress are so intertwined with our thoughts about sexual morality that we can’t ask the question, ‘How do we keep morality out of it?'” Epstein said.

While the discussion’s main topics ranged broadly within the fields of sexuality and gender studies, the panelists often referred back to the incident that had prompted the event. Weinberg freshman Amanda Torgerson said she thought the professors were able to handle both subjects well.

“I definitely think that they did a good job talking about [the controversy],” Torgerson said. “It was really informative. I thought it was going to be about classes, but it was more about their theory in teaching sexuality, which was really interesting. I’m interested to see if their theories hold out in my class.”

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