Ottawa is no stranger to scandal. But the latest controversy to rock the capital does not hail from the hallowed halls of Parliament Hill. This time it’s the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology that’s ruffling some feathers with their latest installation – Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition.

The exhibit was originally developed at the Montreal Science Centre for youth ages 12 years old and up. It was awarded the prize for best exhibit in 2011 by the Canadian Association For Science Centres and prior to coming to Ottawa, Sex:ATAE received an overwhelmingly positive response after spending several months at the Saskatchewan Science Museum.

With a pedigree like that, you’d think Ottawans would be thrilled to have this exhibit in our midst. But according to some rankled critics, Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition tells youth a bit too much. Even though the exhibit only opened to the public today, the museum has received dozens of complaints over the past week, prompting the administration to raise the unaccompanied age of admission from 12 to 16.

I got a sneak peak of the purported scandalous exhibit last week during a special evening preview. Just like sex: the actual thing, Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition is a sensory experience. There’s a lot of information and the installations and various displays invite young guests to learn about puberty, reproduction, contraception, STIs and safer sex practices by looking, hearing, writing, drawing, touching and discussing.

An exhibit that teaches youth about the risks of unprotected sex and how to use a condom in a compelling engaging way. So why are Ottawans sounding alarm bells?

Perhaps because Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition also teaches youth that sex can be fun, pleasurable and basically okay.

Even Canadian Heritage minister James Moore is upset. According to a ministry spokesperson, the Tech museum has done bad as it has a mandate to “foster scientific and technological literacy throughout Canada. It’s clear that this exhibit does not fit within that mandate. Its content cannot be defended, and is insulting to taxpayers.”

Yeah…how DARE the museum try to pretend this lesson in human biology is somehow related to science!

A recent article in the Ottawa Sun leads off with the following statement:

The capital is known for its museums of culture, agriculture and war — now Canadians can add an exhibit that provides teens advice on anal sex to the list of Ottawa’s attractions.

You have to admire the inflammatory craftsmanship of the sentence, which incites horror on two levels:

1. Holy pants! The entire exhibit is about ANAL SEX ADVICE. I’m sending my kid to see a Snoop Dog porno!
2. Sweet soup! ANAL SEX! That’s the worst, dirtiest, most deviant, most awful sex there is!

Except no. On both counts. Bum sex is actually a pretty fun, clean activity if everyone involved is willing and uses whatever safer-sex practices (e.g. lube, latex barriers) are appropriate. Which is the extent of the “advice” being given to teens on the subject of anal.

The same article goes on to describe:

The exhibit includes floor-to-ceiling photos of nude toddlers, children, teens and adults, and an array of heated, flavoured and textured condoms rolled over wooden dildos. There’s also a ‘climax room’ with a round, low, leather bed, red curtains, a video screen showing animations of aroused genitals, and the voice of a man describing an orgasm.

The nude photos are not floor-to-ceiling. They are life-sized – meaning the toddler is floor to the top of my knees. They are a graphic (but not pornographic) depiction of what an able-bodied person looks like a various stages of life: toddler, child,  adolescent, younger adult, mid-life adult and elderly adult.

There are indeed a variety of condoms, rolled over the most non-descript, clinical, non-penis looking dildos known to man. Behind glass. Heaven forbid that young people actually see what a condom looks like on a penis! Dear god – it could totally increase the likelihood of them putting one on properly – should they choose to use them.

There is no climax “room”. There is an area, totally open to the other areas. There are curtains draped along the back of one wall, which obscure nothing. They are red. But I thought we stopped being scandalized by colour a couple centuries ago . The animation of “aroused genitals” is actually part of a separate video nearby. It’s a very cartoonish video that shows a very cartoonish man with a very cartoonish eretction as part of film about what? How to put on a condom.

The male voice describing orgasm? Textbook and matter-of-fact.  And that bed? It’s low, because it’s not a bed! It’s an ottoman designed to provide comfortable seating for a group, not a mid-museum make out spot for two.

Make no mistake. It is a graphic exhibit. It represents a fairly broad range of sexual experiences and orientations (My favourite part of the exhibit was a series of video clips which included candid discussions of monogamy and non-monogamy). One display encourages youth to express their own ideas and feelings about their sexuality by writing and/or drawing on a video screen.  Another display involves life-size models of male and female figures that light up when you touch their various erogenous zones.

I’m not saying that every 12-year-old is ready to start using condoms and buying lube for anal sex. In fact, I’m willing to wager that most aren’t. But that’s kind of the point. We give young people information before they’re likely to need it, so that when they do need it, they have it.

I wasn’t ready to drive until I was seventeen, but my father let me sit on his lap and steer the car into the garage when I was four. I couldn’t vote until I was nineteen but I learned how the electoral process worked in fifth grade. I didn’t join the workforce until twenty-two but I took my first school-administered career aptitude test when I was twelve.

We don’t expect people to turn sixteen and suddenly know how to drive. A career plan doesn’t magically materialize upon graduation. We’re constantly give youth knowledge long before we ever expect them to apply it.

Why is sex different?

My apologies if I come off glib, because it’s a very sincere question. I understand that there are risks related with sex. There are also risks associated with driving; however I suspect an automotive exhibit aimed at youth would not have prompted a newspaper article about how the museum is giving teens advice about high speed racing!

Again, I ask. Why is sex different?

With the new admission requirements, it’s now up to parents, guardians and educators to decide whether the young people in their lives should be allowed to see Sex: A Tell All Exhibition. I sincerely hope that the media-driven controversy won’t keep people away. Some young people aren’t ready for sex…but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the information.

Thank you to Alexis, Brian and Sterling for keeping me abreast of the media response to this exhibit. Please accept this funny Oatmeal comic as a token of my gratitude:

What we should have been taught in high school.

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Sex: A Tell All Exhibition opens today and runs until January 6th, 2013 at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology. For more information check out montrealsciencecentre.com

Comments

  1. Vick Ko says:

    Good article, Nadine.

    And, contrast that with Ottawa having the highest membership rate for AshleyMadison. We Ottawans want our sex hidden and dishonest.

    • Nadine says:

      I think because a lot of sex is hidden, people wind up feeling a great deal of shame and confusion…which leads to the dishonesty.

  2. Milan says:

    Everyone is going to have sex and it is an important part of life. Also, children have the right to understand their bodies.

    It really annoys me when prudish politicians decide that giving children honest and complete information about sex is a bad idea.

    • Nadine says:

      It really annoys me when people use their own personal values/objections to deny other people information on any subject.

  3. Andrew Power says:

    Great article, very well written.

  4. Christopher says:

    Thanx Nadine, well written and informative. Now I know to take my daughter, rather than send her.

    • Nadine says:

      I think it’s great that you’re planning on taking your daughter to the exhibit. When you do go, be sure to drop back in and let us know what you thought!

  5. Love it, so funny really. If it was in Saskatchewan Science Museum i,m sure Ottawa people can handle it, maybe.

    • Nadine says:

      Now that the exhibit’s been open for a couple of weeks, response from the Ottawa public has been the same as in Saskatchewan and Quebec…overwhelmingly positive.

  6. I’m kinda of jaw-smacked (although I know I shouldn’t be) at the contrast between the Ottawa Sun article’s description of the exhibit and yours.

    We’ve been open about talking about sex to our children here in this household but I have to admit that no, we haven’t discussed anal sex. And I have to admit that I really don’t want to … but that’s part of the whole prudish problem, isn’t it? Kids do have the right to this kind of information — before! — they make a decision to have sex.

    Great piece.

    • Nadine says:

      And that’s why we have schools, libraries, museums, art galleries and other educational resources in our communities. Because as parents we do have a responsibility to take part in our children’s life learning, but even with the best of intentions, there’s no way we can give them all the information they need. Even as a sex educator, I saw a few pieces at the museum that I don’t cover with my Insight youth and that I might not have thought to include in future discussion with my son.

  7. Laura says:

    Excellent article….great comment Vick Ko…and that cartoon—still lol about it!

  8. Danielle Gregoire says:

    My Dad once told me about this interesting program, up in a Nothern community in Manitoba, where the teenage pregnancy rate was especially high…what they did was show birthing videos to kids in the younger grades, and over the next few years they saw a drastic drop in their teen pregnancy rate. I’m all for intelligent, and scientifically correct information about sex. I wish my children were a little older so I could take them. I think it’s important to be honest about sex, it’s awesomeness, but also it’s consequences so that young people can be informed and make up their minds with the facts in hand.

    • Nadine says:

      Exactly! The problem with only telling youth about the negative outcomes of sex is that even if it deters them from partnered sex as teens (which often times it doesn’t), is that it’s a short term solution. Eventually those teens will grow into adults and most adults do have sexual relationships – which are much harder to negotiate, when you’ve spent years thinking of sex as something that’s dangerous, demoralizing, shameful and completely out of your control.

  9. Aria Leroux says:

    If you agree that this is an important exhibit, show your support! e-mail the minister : James.Moore@parl.gc.ca

  10. Von Allan says:

    Thanks for this, Nadine. I thought Kris Sims’ was quite inflammatory so I was quite pleased that you took the time to investigate the exhibit yourself and write a balanced piece based on your own thoughts and experiences with it. I also love (loves says I) how Sims made a nice little editorial rather than just report on the exhibit itself. This a great example of part of the reason why I’ve abandoned much of the so-called mainstream news – editorials passing as actual reporting really tick me off.

    • Nadine says:

      Me too. And people keep saying, “Oh, it’s the Sun so what do you expect?” I expect journalists to do their job and write like journalists. For all the grousing about bloggers and their lack of credentials, Kris Sims’ is a journalist who did less research and more editorializing than I did as a blogger.

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