The Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa recently bowed to pressure from members of the public and Heritage Minister James Moore and censored an educational show called Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition. The same exhibit ran unedited in Montreal and Regina.
The museum removed a video animation depicting men and women masturbating and upped the age limit for entry from 12 to 16.
Moore said he respected the museum’s independence but didn’t think children under the age of 16 should be exposed to such material without their parents’ consent.
By the time I was 12, the only sex education I had received was one very uninformative class in which the instructor illustrated the proper use of conditioner and deodorant. I vaguely remember a male teacher telling the boys in my class that masturbation was “when you rubbed your penis on the wall.” Even educators can get it wrong.
Once, my mother did attempt to ask me if I wanted to know anything about sex. I met her noble gesture by saying “no” about one thousand times in an attempt to send her screaming from the room. What she didn’t know was that 12-year-old me had been sneaking encyclopedias late at night, one book at a time, to reference any questions I had about sex and the human body.
I did not want my budding sexuality to intermingle with my parents in any way.
I’m certain there are a handful of kids under 16 who are able to discuss sexuality with their knowledgeable parents without wincing as if they’d just eaten a raw lemon. However, I’m also certain most kids that age would love to be able to visit this exhibit without their parents.
Experiencing the frank and honest depictions of sexuality found in Sex: A Tell-All in the presence of parental units might be even more uncomfortable than sitting through The Talk. (Or as uncomfortable as sitting through an episode of The Talk.)
It is true that studies have shown kids who get comprehensive talks from their parents put off having sex until later in life and have fewer sexual partners. But this exhibit could easily stand in for The Talk, letting both kids and parents breathe a collective sigh of relief.
I’m not trying to discourage parents from informing their kids about sexuality, but there is also evidence that The Talk is frequently inadequate or comes too late.
A 2009 study by The Journal of Pediatrics found that 40 percent of teenagers had already engaged in sexual intercourse by the time their parents sat them down for The Talk.
Some parents are reluctant to have The Talk because they believe that if they mention sex to their child, he or she will immediately run out and bang the first person in sight, which, as we know, is utterly false.
Meanwhile, issues affecting queer teens frequently get left out of sex education altogether, along with abortion and proper condom use.
The exhibit does not address abortion, but it does define same-sex relationships and thoroughly explains how to use a condom.
A 2001 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that gay, lesbian and transgender youth who received gay-sensitive instruction reported fewer sexual partners, less frequent sex and less substance abuse before having sex than those who endured traditional sex education classes.
So imagine a few queer 13-year-olds, some mix of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans. When they sit through a traditional sex education class, their specific sexual identities will not be addressed. Their parents, most likely, will not know how to discuss issues around sexual orientation during The Talk. Moore is saying these teenagers should not have the freedom to be educated without the awkwardness of having an older person around.
If 12- to 15-year-olds were permitted to enter the exhibit solo, some would snicker; a small number might even be horrified and flee the museum. Yet those who are clamouring to understand their bodies, without sneaking encyclopedias past their parents’ rooms at night, would be thankful that Canada is a progressive and honest country that values their intelligence.
Sex education is a contentious issue, but I believe kids gripped by the unforgiving storm of puberty should have access to all information if they choose, especially when it comes to their own bodies.
One thing we can all agree on: removing an animated film about masturbation is not going to stop kids from doing just that. It’s the one constant not even the minister of heritage can rub out.