CHICAGO — Northwestern University found itself at the center of a furor Thursday after a sexuality professor known for racy lessons allowed students to stay after a lecture to witness a couple using a mechanized sex toy.
The school's president promised an investigation after news of the demonstration appeared in local media reports and set off a blizzard of comments on social networking sites.
"I am troubled and disappointed by what occurred," President Morton Schapiro said. "I feel it represented extremely poor judgment on the part of our faculty member."
The demonstration took place on Feb. 21 after professor John Michael Bailey's human sexuality class, which focused that day on kinky sex. Bailey, a popular professor who teachers what some students say is one of the university's most popular classes, often ends sessions with an invitation for students to stay after regularly scheduled lectures to hear from sex therapists, swingers, transgender women and others.
According to students and one of the participants, Bailey had invited a guest lecturer named Ken Melvoin-Berg, the co-owner of a group called Weird Chicago Tours, to discuss bondage and sexual fetishes.
Also there to answer questions were a man named Jim Marcus and his fiancee, Faith Kroll, who, according to student Justin Smith, was introduced as an exhibitionist "turned on by the thought of sex acts in the nude in front of large groups of people."
Students were warned repeatedly that they were about to witness explicit material and that they could leave. Smith and another student, 22-year-old Nicholas Wilson, said most of the students left to get to their other classes. Those who stayed saw a movie, and the couple, concerned that the film contained misinformation, asked if they could give a live demonstration with a mechanical device.
"The main guy (Melvoin-Berg) said, `Are you ready for a sex show?'" said Smith. He said the professor repeated to students that if they were uncomfortable, they should leave. Most of the roughly 100 students didn't go anywhere.
"If you stay, don't complain later," Smith said Bailey told the class.
Within seconds, Kroll had taken off all of her clothes except a bra, climbed on stage and lay down on a towel as Marcus operated the motorized device.
Students said they could not see very much because the couple was fairly far back on the stage and Marcus was in the way.
But, said Wilson, "A fair number of people tried to get a better view."
Marcus, an acquaintance of Melvoin-Berg, said he was surprised that the demonstration had created such a stir, though he added that the outcry illustrates a larger point.
"People say it's not necessary to demonstrate sex acts," he said. "That's one of the things that's kept research in some of these areas hobbled, there is a squeamishness about this conversation."
Human sexuality classes often include the showing of graphic and explicit films, and are offered at several universities. Bailey did not respond to an e-mail message asking him to comment, and his voice mail box at the school was full Thursday afternoon.
But in a message that was posted by the university's newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, he defended his decision to allow the demonstration, saying it was relevant to the day's discussion of kinky sex.
"The demonstration, which included a woman who enjoyed providing a sexually explicit demonstration using a machine, surely counts as kinky, and hence is relevant," he wrote.
But he also seemed to recognize that he might have gotten himself into some trouble.
He wrote that as he watched the demonstration, "I was worried that there could be repercussions that would threaten the valuable speaker series that I have built over the years."
Schapiro, NU's president, said that many members of the Northwestern community were disturbed by the incident. And university officials said they had received many emails from upset parents and alumni.
"I simply do not believe this was appropriate, necessary or in keeping with Northwestern University's academic mission," Schapiro said.