By the time the three teenagers reach the condom cluster, they already know this is not your typical museum visit. They have practised the art of seduction, watched an animated video on how to put on a condom and tried out an interactive site that more somberly demonstrates the risk of infections from various sexual activities.
Pointing out the coloured condoms, displayed on phallic-shaped moulds, Faith Thomson, 15, and Leah Careless and Danica Brockwell, both 16, have a good giggle over the label proposing: “You can match it to your outfit.”
In fact, there is generally a lot of laughter while walking through the new Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition at the Canada Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, though it certainly hasn’t been all laughs for the museum since it began previewing the material to the public.
Designed by the Montreal Science Centre, with a committee that included scientists, doctors, teachers and public-health educators, the exhibit that explores the science of sex came and went in Montreal and Regina, with hardly a fuss.
But in Ottawa, critical e-mails started even before most people had seen it – and officials stopped counting the complaints after the Institute for Marriage and Family Canada declared it “erotic and titillating” and Heritage Minister James Moore suggested it wasn’t museum-appropriate. In response, the museum removed a video on masturbation, and raised the age for unaccompanied admission to 16 from 12 years old.
It’s fair to say the exhibit has an edgy sense of humour, and plenty of nudity. But to get an assessment from its target audience, The Globe toured the show with three teen members of the theatre group Insight, which presents plays on sexuality and peer pressure to about 30 Ottawa high schools a year (unfortunately, none of the boys in the group were able to make it). Their conclusion? Take your teen – you'll have plenty to talk about.
Naturally naked: “Girls’ side first,” Faith declares, and the group heads left, to where life-sized portraits of naked average-looking females progress from childhood to old age. The figures stand straight, their gazes direct (except for the little girl, who, like her peer on the boy side, is looking to the side, face obscured). “All these people look proud to have their picture taken,” says Leah. “There aren’t many times we get to see naked bodies not posed in a sexual way.” Especially, the girls agree, two people old enough to be their grandparents.
Missing masturbation: The display is still there, declaring in writing that “masturbation is a normal activity,” but the TV monitor is dark – which seems to undercut the message. The animated video was removed in response to criticism that it was too graphic – it was the closest the entire exhibit came to portraying an actual sex act. “Personally I think that it’s ridiculous,” says Danica. “It’s the most safe sexual act, you can’t get an STI, you can’t get pregnant, and it helps you to know your body. … And nobody will talk about it.”
Mannequins, hot and bothered: “Ouiiiiii! Yessssss!,” the girls chime together, reading one of the phrases displayed around the figure of a naked woman posed on her side, under blue light. (There’s a male counterpart on an adjacent stand.) In the background, under the heading, “Why does Kissing Feel So Good?” a television displays a stream of heterosexual and same-sex couples making out. There’s not much “science” in evidence here; the theme is clearly desire. The girls agree that the emotional side of sex often gets short shrift in education. But “once you open the floodgates for discussion,” says Leah, “you get kids asking the questions they really want to know, and that’s not the science.” In her case, she says, her parents prompted “the talk” when she was about 10: Her dad mainly handled the facts, her mom took care of the feelings.
Danica says sex was often raised naturally as a subject in her house; when her family played the board game Life, “my mom used to, on principle, marry a woman instead of a man.” Rather than a one-off conversation, Danica argues, “it’s better if you are raised with it, then it’s not suddenly strange.
The Climax Room: Not its official name, but the one the girls quickly give it. There’s a round Austin Powers-style leather couch in the corner, and a large television screen, on which a male voice is narrating, complete with scientific diagrams detailing the stages to an orgasm.
They giggle when a phone rings, and the words: “poorly timed distraction” flash on the screen. They point out that the displays are matter-of-fact and punctuated by humour – which hasn’t been their experience in sex-ed classes at school, where the bias and comfort level of the teacher (and their peers) tends to freeze up the conversation. In a classroom setting, they say, the real questions don’t get asked: “The problem is people aren’t getting educated,” says Leah, “so they’re like, ‘Oh I will watch porn and I will totally know what to do.’ ”
Performance pressure: Faith stands inside the dark telephone-booth-type display, listening as voices bombard her in French and English. “You’ve never done that before?” a male voice asks incredulously. “If you don’t do it,” a female voice says, “I guess you don’t love me.” Faith emerges: “I felt really small,” she says. “But it’s very accurate. Guys usually just say anything to get some.”
The subject of peer pressure sparks a lively conversation; the girls describe how teens are trapped between polar pressures that are difficult, if not impossible, to balance. The old stereotypes persist, they say, with boys pressured to want sex, and girls expected to say no. “For girls, it’s either be a whore or be a prude,” says Faith. “Dress like this, or completely cover up.”
“There is no middle ground,” says Leah. “And there’s no safe side for guys, too. They aren’t going to talk about it as much.” Would the exhibit shift those perceptions? The girls say it would, at least, expand the conversation. Danica points to one display that offered different examples for how to say no to sex – and how to say yes, which wasn’t gender-specific.
So, did it Tell All?: Perhaps, the girls conclude, it could have had more diversity, more same-sex or transgendered representations and a more explicit discussion on peer pressure. While there was a theme of equality in relationships, Leah suggests it dodged what she calls the “ Twilight Problem,” a reference to the Bella-Edward love affair of the hugely popular book series, in which “some guy following you around and hiding in your bedroom is romantic.”
But over all, the exhibition provides teens with expertly vetted information without passing judgment, says Nadine Thornhill, a sex educator from Planned Parenthood who directs the theatre group and joined the tour.
“Youth may see so many sexual images in a day, but in a way they are seeing the same thing over and over again,” she says. The exhibition challenges the notion that sex is some “mystical” one-size-fits-all Hollywood-style event, in which science plays no part. When sex is everywhere, Leah asks, how can it be wrong “to teach someone to do it safely?”
“Knowing about it,” argues Danica, “is not going to make you run there any faster.”