CHICAGO _ There’s a new class on human sexuality at Northwestern University, but it’s safe to say that this one won’t feature any live sex-toy demonstrations.
A year has passed since school officials, amid a firestorm of embarrassing publicity, canceled another sexuality class after psychology professor J. Michael Bailey hosted an optional lecture on female arousal that concluded with a woman being penetrated by a motorized sex toy.
The new class, “Sexual Subjects: Introduction to Sexuality Studies,” is taught by Lane Fenrich, a popular history and gender studies professor who also teaches yoga on the side.
He’s quick to emphasize that his course is not intended to replace Bailey’s, but he expects it to grow to be just as popular. Fenrich’s class was capped at 95 this first quarter; Bailey’s at one time enrolled 600.
“That class was much more geared toward sexual practices. This is more broadly gauged,” said Fenrich, 49, whose course also focuses on sex in culture and history. “This introduces them to the major questions, the major thinkers.”
Open to all undergraduate students, it also serves as an introductory class within the gender studies program, which until 2000 was called women’s studies.
Faculty members were already developing the course “when this whole debacle came with the psychology class. That was our opportunity,” said Mary Weismantel, program director.
It comes at a time when sexuality studies are gaining legitimacy nationally, Weismantel said. Northwestern’s program has helped establish it as a leader of the field, she said. The university launched the new course with the intention of showing that sexuality classes can be taught responsibly. That doesn’t mean that sexually explicit material will be censored, she stressed.
“The one thing we feel strongly about is, the controversy isn’t about should you deal with very sexually explicit material or shouldn’t you,” Weismantel said. “It’s about teaching students the ethical treatment of subjects.”
On the first day of class, Fenrich asked students to define sex, which he said “turned out to be a lot more complicated, and fun, than many had been expecting.”
The session touched on how some acts are viewed as sexual in some cultures but not in others, what makes someone male or female, and why it matters so much.
The course is intended to prepare young people for today’s sexually diverse society and culture, Weismantel said. Freshmen arrive on campus confused from the mixed messages in a society that glorifies sex through imagery but also censors it, she said.
Fenrich, who also teaches “American Gay and Lesbian History,” is hugely popular among students, who thank him during their graduation speeches, Weismantel said. His research reflects interest in the Holocaust, AIDS policies and the arts, and he also serves as a freshman dean.
“One of his gifts as a teacher is his ability to lucidly translate and convey rather dense and sometimes theoretical considerations,” said Michael Sherry, a Northwestern history professor who was Fenrich’s dissertation director. “That’s very hard to do.”
Fenrich is openly gay and lets students know that from the beginning.
“I don’t think they have to be told, but I do (tell them),” said Fenrich. “It’s important to what I teach. I don’t talk about my sex life, but I do openly identify. It’s just a matter of fact, and who I am.”
Times have changed since Fenrich attended college at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., in the early 1980s. He recalled reading an announcement left in the school dining hall about a gay and lesbian group.
“They gave you a phone number to call for information,” said Fenrich. “I was in the closet. It was like: ‘Oh, there is no way I am going to call that number. It’s a secret society.’ … I never did.”
While gay students today find more acceptance, they still struggle with their sexuality and cultural expectations.
“It makes a huge difference for them to have role models,” Fenrich said.
On campus, Fenrich has seen a broader variety of students enroll in sexuality classes. At one time, administrators balked at even listing his “Gay and Lesbian History” class by name in the university catalog.
“Coming to college, having learned very little to nothing about gay studies, their hunger for that information is huge,” he said. “That’s straight students as well as gay students. They just recognize there is this whole arena of information they don’t know.”
The new “Sexual Subjects” class covers topics ranging from “Queering the Color Line” to “The Politics of STD Prevention.” One day, he had students dancing in the aisles, to show why parents were alarmed by the changing styles, from ballroom dancing to the bump-and-grind.
One recent lecture focused on the gap between public views of sexual morality and private behaviors. Fenrich discussed a New York Times article that caused a national scandal in 1968 when it revealed that a Barnard College student was living with a man. The young woman was labeled a “prostitute” and “alley cat” in public diatribes and letters, and she eventually dropped out of college.
On a large overhead screen, Fenrich displayed a slide with a quote by then-Barnard President Martha Peterson, who complained: “Public interest in sex on the college campus is insatiable.”
“I guess at Northwestern we’re a little familiar with this kind of controversy,” Fenrich said, with a grin.
One student, freshman Erin Anderson, 19, of Memphis, hadn’t planned to take the course until she read students’ positive reviews of Fenrich.
As a conservative, Anderson said, she “had to step out of my comfort zone.” The class has challenged some of her political positions but helped her to bolster her arguments with logic on “everything from gay marriage to premarital sex to Planned Parenthood,” she said.
Camille Beredjick, 21, of Tampa, said she took Bailey’s class last spring, finding some of it useful and entertaining but not as academically rigorous. She didn’t witness the sex toy demonstration, having left 10 minutes before it began, she said.
Fenrich’s class “is what Bailey’s should have been,” Beredjick said. “This is a much better way of looking at these issues.”
Bailey declined to talk about the controversy that led to his class being canceled. At the time, he issued a statement reiterating that the after-class lecture in question had been optional, that students were adults and that they’d been warned that a graphic demonstration of “kinky sex” was to follow.
Ken Melvoin-Berg was the guest speaker that day, whose lecture included the sex-toy demonstration. He said last week that his lecture, which he continues to give in nonacademic settings, has grown more popular after the notoriety it achieved at Northwestern. The couple who performed the sex act is now married, said Melvoin-Berg, a self-described sex educator, author, psychic and owner of Weird Chicago Tours.
He also complained that Northwestern never paid him the $300 he was owed for the lecture _ a payment he said he would donate to a Northwestern student sexuality awareness club if it’s ever forthcoming.
University spokesman Al Cubbage declined comment on whether Melvoin-Berg was paid.
Fenrich said that he has felt no pressure from school administrators about his class material _ and does not expect to.
“Other than dancing,” he said, “there are no live performances.”