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Northwestern will be hearing sex show talk for a long time

Two words:

Kent State.

What comes immediately to mind?

Shooting, right? “Four dead in O-hi-o.” The National Guard firing at protesters. That photograph of a teenage girl spreading her arms in horror over a lifeless body.

At least for those my age or older. I suppose if you ask younger folk what they think when they hear “Kent State,” they may answer, “Cheetos — I always think of Cheetos,” the way some must assume that Pearl Harbor is a Chinese restaurant.

It doesn’t matter the shootings were 41 years ago, doesn’t matter the school wasn’t responsible. Life isn’t fair, and once your reputation is tarnished, it’s tarnished for a long, long time.

Trust me on that one.

Which sums up my approach to the kerfuffle over the public sex act performed for 100 students during an after-class session of Professor J. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality course at Northwestern.

I know times are changing — I knew that in 2003, when a pair of Australian gentlemen twisting their genitals into various shapes on stage had its press preview at the Georgian Room of the Drake Hotel. Though we aren’t quite at the point where everything is OK everywhere all the time. Certain settings — say a college classroom — require a higher standard.

This isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about an employee ignoring the welfare of his boss, his colleagues and his institution by presiding over a sex show better suited to a Bangkok bar than a great university.

In the professor’s defense, the live sex wasn’t in the lesson plan, apparently. He was bringing deviants in to talk about their kinks, which falls under the purview of his curriculum.

That said, the professor failed the “and how will this look?” test. A major university requires massive infusions of money, both from students ponying up $52,000 per annum (that’s “each year,” which I must spell out now that everyone’s studying orgasms instead of Latin) and from grateful alumni — gratitude that could conceivably be dampened by the image of Miss Kink being pleasured on a towel with a device called . . . called . . . well, I’m not allowed to even hint at its name.

Left to my own devices, I would. But a newspaper, like a college, still has conventions. I can push those conventions, but part of my job is to keep my boss from angry phone calls.

So while I still believe in the First Amendment, I also have a respect for the newspaper and its reputation, not to mention my own, what’s left of it. Were I to — oh for instance — write a column urging readers to drown puppies and then mail their damp carcasses to the governor to protest state finances, I would have enough savvy to pop into the editor’s office and give him a heads up. Sure, he might snip a line or two — but better to talk it out ahead of time than sweat it out later, as Professor Bailey is discovering.

The professor knew enough to hesitate, to warn any students who might be squeamish about watching a couple have sex. (Imagine that!) He should have also had the sense to clap his hands together and say, “Wellllll, this has been a learning experience for EVERYBODY, but I think we’ll end here . . .”

Would the cause of education truly have been harmed?

I’m not saying that a sex show is the Kent State shootings, nor that as the decades unfold, the word “Northwestern” will automatically draw a bleat of . . . of . . . well, I still can’t say it, which is frustrating.

The risk is there, however. Northwestern toils under a perpetual sense of inferiority as it is, and as an alumnus (Class of ’82, hail to purple, hail to white . . .) I can attest to that sense being not entirely unwarranted.

But I also know the school is home to some outstanding professors and diligent students, working like plow horses to master their various fields. Were I advancing nano-technology at NU, or sitting in my carrel preparing my thesis on Old Church Slavonic, I might look at Professor Bailey with not a little resentment. Northwestern just made strides fighting Alzheimer’s, but the news was eclipsed by an unmentionable sex toy.

Let’s just say this: the Wildcats better get to the Rose Bowl again, quick, because Northwestern is going to be hearing the whine of that, ah, device for a long time. Life isn’t fair — you’d think a professor would know that.


Speaking of unfair. In my column on Peter Sellars’ production of Handel’s “Hercules,” which opened at the Lyric Opera Friday, I wrote regarding last week’s dress rehearsal: “Also helpful was Sellars’ introduction beforehand — it’s a shame he can’t do it for each performance.”

The only shame here is mine, because that is exactly what Sellars is scheduled to do: deliver a 30-minute lecture before every performance. Frankly, it was beyond my imagination that the busy director, who had such a hit at the Met earlier this season with the revival of “Nixon in China,” would take the time. But he is, and kudos to him.

I also referred to Handel’s “endless, repetitive oratorios.” I meant “endless, repetitive arias.”

I apologize for the errors.

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