4BS Wednesday, October10, 2012 // The Statement
Wednesday, October 10 2012 // The Statement B
It's On: Professors accept the challenge to teach sex at the 'U'
By Haley Goldberg
What do an expert on South American freshwater
fishes, asex therapist and a classroom of 230 under-
graduate students shouting "penis" and "vagina"
have in common? Last winter, they were all part ofthe Biology
116 course Biology of Sex, one of many courses at the Univer-
sity that discusses sex, sexuality and the academics behind
gettin' it on.
In an office buried deep in the back hallways of the Muse-
um of Natural History, Prof. William Fink, who is also a
curator at the University's Museum of Zoology and known
for his work with fishes, sits at a desk near a shelf of books
with titles related to human sexuality, love and evolution.
Fink said he, uh, conceived the Biology of Sex course in
2008 with Sallie Foley, an adjunct faculty member in the
School of Social Work, a certified sex therapist and director
of the University's Sexual Health Certificate Program. The
pair met through their sons, who attended the same middle
Fink's work focuses on evolutionary biology and diversity
of sex in animals, and he thought partnering with a special-
ist in human sex and biology could create a unique experi-
ence for non-science students.
"For me," Fink said, "it's an evolutionary biology course
and a biodiversity course, but it also is a course that helps
people in their late teens and early 20s try to understand
what's going on in their minds and their bodies."
For many of his students, Fink said the idea of sex biology
and evolution is a foreign concept.
"I start the class by telling them they are the results of
three and a half billion years of successful reproduction,"
Fink said. "(It) puts a framework around all of our behavior,
and most people don't know that. They think dinner and a
movie is about dinner and a movie, but it's about babies - it's
about making babies."
Discussing "baby making" in an academic setting, how-
ever, does come with different rules.
The topic of sex education has been a controversial one,
with politicians and parents trying to control what is appro-
priate for adolescents and teens. While most institutions of
higher education have no formal regulations on this topic,
outside pressure from politicians and the media make teach-
ing a university sex course different from teaching a course
on, say, astronomy.
An act of indecency, or academia?a
The date is Feb. 28, 2011. It's after lecture ina Northwest-
ern University human sexuality course, and the professor
has brought in two guest speakers - a man and a woman -
for an optional demonstration for students.
The woman undresses in front of an audience of about 100
students, and the two speakers engage in a sex toy demon-
stration. The woman lets the man, who is her fiance, "pen-
etrate her with a device that looks like a machine-powered
saw with a phallic object instead of a blade," according to a
Chicago Tribune article on the class. She orgasms, and the
after-class demonstration is followed by a discussion on
"kinky sex and female orgasm."
So that's the same as an astronomy class heading outside
at nighttQoview the stars in acton, r ghtThe event launched
a medja asm. -
While Northwestern initially stood by the professor's
decision to show the exhibition, they later launched an
investigation of the event, with Northwestern President
Morton Schapiro denouncing the demonstration.
In a statement to the Chicago Tribune, the psychology
professor who taught the course, J. Michael Bailey, said he
couldn't think of a reason not to show the demonstration to
students, as his course focuses on "controversial and unusual
aspects of sexuality."
To show or not to show? That is the question
The expanse of sex education at the University is evi-
dent in the courses provided to students. One simple search
of "sex" in the Fall 2012 LSA Course Guide produces 167
results, with the departments offering these courses ranging
from Arabic, Armenian, Persian; Turkish, and Islamic Stud-
ies; Afroamerican & African Studies; American Culture; and
One course that appears, a Comparative Literature
class entitled Sexual Revolution, trades in Fink's biological
approach to sex for a political framework. Rackham student
Rostom Mesli teaches this first-year writing requirement
course, which he said offers a view of how sex is considered
Mesli guides his students in analyzing the role of sex
duringthe AIDS epidemic, civil rights movement and other
key political moments in history. With a full class of 18 stu-
dents, mostly comprised of freshmen, Mesli said he has
to consider the academic validity in the texts he brings to
"When I assign a text like the 'Myth of the Vaginal
Orgasm' or when I assign a text, say, about masochist prac-
tices or coprophilia (a sexual fetish involving feces), I need
to think twice about what I'm doing," Mesli said. "Students'
feelings might be offended, and that's something I need to
take into account."
Mesli initially said he doesn't feel pressure from the Uni-
versity to censor the materials he brings into class.
But then he paused and reconsidered his stance.
Any pressure he feels about his curriculum, according to
Mesli, doesn't come from the University or his department,
but outside political forces and ideas regarding sex education.
"I'm not enjoying total freedom," Mesli said. "But as far
as the University is concerned, I think the University does
everything they can to give us as much freedom as they can
afford to give us. The pressure that I do probably experience
is more coming from outside the University than the Univer-
Mesli's ambivalence is emblematic of the struggle to
approach sex in an academic setting.
He isn't censored, but he isn't enjoying total freedom. It's
almost as if sex education sits in a gray area, where profes-
sors must self-regulate and justify their methods or risk
beckoning apolitical and media storm to the University.
Mesli said the actual incident at Northwestern didn't
shock him as much as the mediaand public's frenzied discus-
sion of the event did, adding that sex should be approached
like any other academic topic.
"When it comes to sex, we have to be extremely care-
ful," Mesli said. "If the goal is to show people getting off on
stage, then that doesn't belong to the academia.Now, if the
goal is to talk to students about female orgasm ... and you
want to show how it happens biologically, physiologically,
then I do think that a case can be made that it belongs in
what we should do."
When asked ifhe would show a similarlive sex demonstra-
tion for academic reasons, however, Mesh said he wouldn't.
The media frenzy that followed the Northwestern incident,
accordingto Mesli, is not something he wants to replicate at
"No matter how much I might think that this could be
academically useful in a certain class ... one of the things that
this (incident) does is make sure I wouldn't do it," Mesh said.
"And in a way, it's very cowardly what I'm saying. I should
say, 'Yes, I would do it. I don't care, I'm going to struggle.' But
no, I'm not. I'm not in a position to do it. I'm a GSI, and I'm
not a professor."
While Mesli is comfortable with the content he brings to
class, the idea that there are things he wishes to teach that
cannot be taught reveals an invisible censor unique to con-
troversial subjects like sex education.
And it raises questions about why sex education can't be
viewed fully in an academic light. You couldn't study a solar
eclipse without viewing footage of a solar eclipse. Yet a dem-
onstration of the female orgasm to study the female orgasm
is deemed "disturbing" by the Northwestern University
We're not interested in titillating'
Fink said he doesn't feel any political pressure regarding
the material he presents in his "Biology of Sex" course.
His course, however, was questioned when he first sug-
gested it to LSA. They. couldn't understand what kind of
class a biologist and sex therapist wanted to teach.
"That was a little confusing to me," Fink said. "But when
we explained what we were going to do, they went ahead
and gave us the go-ahead."
Fink said the demonstration at Northwestern wouldn't
have academic validity in his biology course, and he feels
the amateur nature of the demonstrators, who he said were
in an S&M group, didn't provide value to the students.
"Every professor makes decisions about what's appropri-
ate in his or her class," Fink said. "And in my case. I don't
see any reason why I should bring in some amateurs. Hell,
I've got enormous professional resources here (at the Uni-
For Foley, the class is not only a chance to make students
more knowledgeable about sex, but to also look at it in a
"People walk in and they say that when they tell people
they are going to take a course on sex, people laughed and
teased them," Foley said. "But after the first class, they feel
completely empowered to go back to those people and say,
'This is serious; this is interesting, and enlightening ...' It's
One of Foley's techniques to desensitize the students is
a shouting match involving the names of male and female
genitalia. Yes, they play the penis game.
But for Foley, getting students comfortable with sex is
only one aspect of the course. More importantly, it allows
students to consider pursuing scholarly work in the field
of sex research, whether as sex therapists, educators or
"We're not interested in titillating," she said. "We're
interested in informing and helping people thinkcritically."
It's on like Donkey Kong
So how does Fink take 230 students and help them view
and analyze college students' favorite pastime academical-
ly? By starting with examples of sex from other species in
the animal kingdom.
"There's an amazing array of animal sex variety videos
on YouTube, and I use them because they're fun," Fink said.
"Second of all, they're really informative to help people
understand how their behavior compares to the behavior in
the rest of the animal world."
Fink said showing animals reproducing helps students
become more comfortable with discussing sex. When asked
if he extends his video examples to humans, Fink said he
doesn't feel the need.
"I don't show humans," he said. "To tell you the truth, I
think human sex is so readily available on the Internet that I
don't need to do that. What I do need to do is tell students the
stuff they see on the Internet is for the most part staged, and
that's not the way that most people do it."
LSA senior Christina Sbrocchi, who took the course last
winter, said Fink brought in animal parts to demonstrate the
anatomical differences amongspecies.
"We were talking about male gorillas' genitalia and peo-
ple would imagine that they would be verylarge, butthey are
actually very small compared to their bodies," Sbrocchi said.
Sbrocchi echoed that from the student perspective, the
content was viewed in a scholarly way.
"The only thing that was a little uncomfortable were the
STDs," Sbrocchi said. "But it was all very clinical in the way
it was presented, and I think it was all very acceptable." -
The course also discusses why sex is fun, and goes into
some detail about non-normative sex practices, such as
BDSM, but Fink said he doesn't feel the need to go into
graphic detail. For the most part, Fink said the course is
able to establish the sex education some students never
"We have people coming from (foreign) cultures," Fink
said. "I had a student come to my office a few years ago, and
she said a bunch of her and her friends are taking a class
and never in their lives had they heard any of this stuff.
They were so grateful to be able to find out all the answers
to these questions they've wondered about since they were
After taking the course, Sbrocchi said she walked away
with a new perspective on biology and sex, as well as a vari-
ety of fun facts to share about doing the dirty. She plans
to work as Fink's teaching assistant when he teaches the
course this winter.
"I think, frankly, a lot of students find out they don't
have to feel guilty about stuff," Fink said. "A lot of students
come in from cultural or religious backgrounds that say sex
or masturbation or looking at porn is really bad and you
should feel guilty, and by the end of the class, many of them
are relieved of that burden."