Sex Talk in the City
I’m very excited about the opening of Chosen Family Portraits in the MOV studio. It may be a small exhibition but its message is powerful. Simply put, this inter-disciplinary project is asking us to re-consider our ideas around “what is a family?”
The project started last year when the Queer Film Festival (QFF) invited Vancouver’s queer and allied community-at-large to model with their chosen family and share their stories. Photographer Sarah Race and radio journalist Sarah Buchannan brilliantly captured the spirit of these families in image and sound through a series of photo portraits and oral histories. A couple of months ago, I met with QFF staff, Amber Dawn and Drew Dennis to discuss ways we could work together. I was immediately seduced by the idea of presenting Chosen Family at the museum.
After a couple of meetings between QFF and MOV staff, we decided to play with the idea of the family photo wall, the archetypical motif of traditional households. We felt that the eclectic assortment of frames would hint at the idea of difference, while painting all 28 in bright pink would suggest the idea of shared experience.
Sneakpeek of Chosen Family Portraits photo credit: Jillian Povarchook
Chosen Family @ MOV feels like the first offspring borne out of our Sex Talk in the City project, a full-scale exhibition that will explore issues of sexual diversity, expression and education as it relates to Vancouver. The show is opening sometime in 2013. We have our eyes set on Valentine’s Day . . . but why commit so early to a date? Seriously, starting to plan an exhibition a year-and-a half before opening to the public may seem like a huge amount of time, but we have a lot of work ahead of us in regards to research, design and fundraising to mention a few. We also want to create plenty of opportunities for Vancouverites to contribute their ideas to the project. I’ve already had an awesome all-day brainstorming session last March with our Advisory Committee and some project allies. Options for Sexual Health, Out-on-Screen, the Vancouver School Board, the Queer Film Festival, 10Four Design, activists, writers, historians, education scholars, performing artists and museum staff identified possible themes, messaging and interpretive strategies. Here are some of the keywords generated by the group when envisioning the exhibition:
light & heavy
slick & raw
youthful & mature
serious & humorous
visceral & intellectual
We now have to give shape to these words. We need a storyline. We need a few “big ideas”- because of course we won’t be able to say everything. We also need more artefacts. Ideas about sexuality are not just in our head, they are represented materially. They morph into places objects and events that surround us: clothes, drug prescriptions, toys, laws, public celebrations like Pride Weekend . . . Sex is everywhere!
I’m looking forward to opening the conversation to a broader community, using Chosen Family Portraits as a springboard for discussion.
Stay tuned on the MOV blog for more updates as the exhibition develops.
Viviane Gosselin is curator of contemporary issues at MOV and project lead for Sex Talk in the City.
Join in the conversation on Twitter: @xtalkinthecity #xtalkMOV
Guest Author: Catherine Evashuk
In 1980, my pregnant sixth grade teacher, Mrs. R, decided to explain how babies were made in a straightforward way, and debunk that old myth about storks bringing babies to doorsteps. After she explained how babies were made, she asked if anyone had any questions. My hand shot up immediately: “If sex is to make babies, that must mean you’ve had sex twice,right?” (Mrs. R was pregnant with her second child). I remember her turning completely red and murmuring, “Not exactly!” This confused me, since she had just explained that sex was to make babies. If sex was for anything other than that specific goal, why would people have it?
Fast forward to 2013, to the Museum of Vancouver’s ‘Sex Talk in the City’. This amazing and comprehensively conceived exhibition is divided into three parts: ‘The Street’, ‘The Bedroom’ and ‘The Classroom’. As a Sexual Health Educator, ‘The Classroom’ is of course my favourite. Wandering through ‘The Classroom’ where I can read Sex Ed questions scrawled onto desk, is always a hoot. My favorites include: “If a man gets a boner, what does a woman get?” and “What’s a G Spot and where is it located?”
Things have come a long way since I was a sixth grader in 1980. Many of the questions students are asking today are about the pleasurable side of sex. These days, sex educators are trained to quite differently, and I must admit, do a much better job than Mrs. R. was able to do when teaching their students the basics of sexual health and reproduction . Still, some students’ eyes widen in disbelief when I explain that when people have sex, most of the time it is not for making a baby! In fact, one of the most common questions I find in the anonymous question box after a lesson is “If sex is to make babies, what’s birth control for?”
I like that so many parts of this exhibition focus on the pleasurable side of sex. In ‘The Bedroom’ section, there’s a wall displaying vibrators, including some dating back to the late 1800s! I guess it shows that pleasure is always part of the equation, but the way we talk about it, has changed quite a bit. Of course, the educator in me is also pleased that there is a significant portion of the exhibition - In ‘The Street’ – dedicated to showing and explaining an array of contraception options and condoms, which help people enjoy safer sex.
I wish Mrs. R had explained that sex can feel good and that making babies is only part of it. Perhaps I should give her a call to invite her to the exhibition so we can check it out together!
*Catherine is a Certified Sexual Health Educator based in Vancouver, and is a volunteer at the Museum of Vancouver.
By Craig Scharien
My own sex education at school (in the mid ‘90s) was not exactly memorable, but there are a couple sections of Sex Talk in the City that remind me of that time of my life. The group of white desks with graffiti all over them certainly conjure up memories of boredom and a lack of true sexual understanding. The other is the giant black cougar on a striking red wall.
For anyone who was watching movies in the 1960s all the way to the 80’s in British Columbia it is easy to recognize the restricted cougar icon that once acted as a warning about questionable content in film. When I was a kid all it meant was that I wasn’t able to watch anything with the cougar on it. The cougar and the fact that it was forbidden meant that I spent a lot of time scouring the restricted section at Canadian Tire (they used to have movies to rent, believe it or not) looking for a movie I could get away with suggesting to my parents.
These days there are boring rating systems that include things like “18A”, but back then the cougar was a symbol of coarse language, violence, nudity and obscenity in general for movies. It was developed by the BC Film Classification Board and the BC Chief Censor, Ray MacDonald at the time. The hope was that the iconic symbol would help raise public awareness of R-rated films. The cougar plays a very effective role at Sex Talk, by reminding many of us of the way censorship has been approached in our province.
It is also a vehicle for articulating an important point – that obscenity is often in the eye of the beholder. Within the exhibition, it has allowed the Museum to present sexually explicit material and stories of censorship by allowing the visitor to opt in to that element of BC’s history. If you are curious you can take a peek through the holes in the cougar to learn about pivotal moments in the history of the production, consumption and censorship of sexually explicit materials. Like the red drawers in the bedroom section of the exhibition the decisions are left to the visitor, thus making moments of discovery just a bit more and powerful.
(Guest post by Arleigh McKerlich)
Children’s book “Asha’s Mums” was one of the first books written for elementary age children that portrayed a family with same-sex parents. Written by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse and illustrated by Dawn Lee, it was first published in 1991.
In the book, Asha is told by her teacher that she can’t go on a field trip because her permission slip is filled out incorrectly and that it is not possible to have two mothers. After her mothers meet with the teacher to explain their daughter’s family situation, Asha is allowed to go on the trip. The other children learn of Asha’s mums and a discussion is had about whether this is a good or bad thing. The conclusion offered by the teacher is that it is just fine, as long as your parents take good care of you.
In 1997, kindergarden teacher James Chamberlain applied for approval of this book and two others (“Belinda’s Bouquet” and “One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads”) for use as teaching aids in his classroom. In response, the Surrey School Board issued resolutions that stated resources from gay and lesbian groups were not approved for use or redistribution in the school district.
After these resolutions were passed, resources like library books, pamphlets, and posters that promoted sexual diversity and tolerance were removed from all Surrey schools. Chamberlain — supported by teachers in other school districts in the Lower Mainland where these materials were allowed — launched a court case to challenge the ruling of the Surrey School Board. After much publicity and appeals by both sides, the case was considered by the Supreme Court of Canada and judgement handed down in 2002. The Court found that the Board’s decision was unreasonable and that the Board had acted contrary to provincial statute as well as its own regulations regarding curriculum materials, both of which stress tolerance and inclusion. The Court directed the decision to be reconsidered by the School District, with Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin noting that “tolerance is always age-appropriate.”
(full text of the decision available at http://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/2002/2002scc86/2002scc86.html)
After revisiting its decision in 2003, the Surrey School Board still found “Asha’s Mums”, “Belinda’s Bouquet”, and “One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads” to be inappropriate for use as curriculum material. The Board was critical (among other things) of the books’ depiction of men, problematic and inconsistent grammar, and of the issue of dieting being inappropriate for kindergarden age children.
While 18 of the province's 60 school districts have policies in place regarding anti-homophobia, Burnaby and Surrey School Districts have not been able to develop a policy because of push-back from parents. Recently, protest and submissions from students have led the Surrey School District to say last summer that they would begin developing an anti-bullying policy in the fall that includes anti-homophobia strategies, as well as racism and physical disability
A few months ago I invited Jan Sippel, educator at the Vancouver School Board, to complement historian Mona Gleason’s research. Mona, a professor at the Faculty of Education at UBC, with a keen interest in the history of education had generated some cool exploratory research for the Sex Talk in the City project. Mona’s work (more in a future post) had focused on the 1900-1960s period. Jan was to extend the storyline to the present.
I am not an historian, but I have very recently become one. As a member of the Sex Talk in the City Advisory Committee and the coordinator of sexual health education for the Vancouver School District, I had been asked to research the history of sex education in our schools over the past 50 years. I expected it to be fairly straightforward — reflect on the twenty-five years I have been in the district, check the VSB archives, talk with current and retired colleagues, and canvas schools for ‘artifacts’ (old films, videos, and teaching materials) that may be collecting dust in cupboards and closets.
It quickly became apparent that sex education teaching materials tend to be thrown out when they become obsolete and it is unknown how many of these resources existed in the first place. The School Board archives, which are maintained by the Vancouver School Board Heritage Committee, a dedicated group of retired teachers and school administrators, are somewhat limited in scope by the storage space available. The archives yielded very few sex education artifacts, likewise the request to schools.
Probably the most important thing I have learned from this exercise is that much of the history of sex education in our schools resides with a few individuals, many of whom are retired. My ‘key informants’ thus far been teachers, counsellors, and administrators who have, in the past, had leadership roles in the school district that included responsibility for sex education. All had the task of helping teachers implement the Ministry of Education health and guidance curriculum of the day. Some had been the Elementary Curriculum Consultants. Others had been members of the VSB Family Life Education Team formed in the late 1980s to support teachers of grades 7–12 with the provincial Family Life Education Curriculum, developed in response to the “Aids Crisis”.
I was surprised to learn that sex education, in some form, has had a place in the BC education curriculum since the 1950s. For many years, it was taught almost exclusively at the secondary level, often with no guidebook and teachers sharing what resources they had with one another. Secondary students may have received ‘sex ed’ classes from their school counsellor or from a teacher in science, home economics, or physical education classes. Historically, in the intermediate grades, sex education came under the topic of “body systems” in science and students learned about the reproductive systems of mammals. Although sex education has been part of the BC curriculum, a teacher‘s comfort level with the topic was often the determining factor in whether or not it was taught. In the 1960’s and 70’s, public health nurses and some private sexual health educators began to play a significant role in addressing this topic in our classrooms.
Delving into the documentation and interviewing key people in the field has also allowed me to see curricular patterns emerging, patterns that appear to have been driven by the societal concerns of the time. For example, in the mid-1980s child sexual abuse prevention first appeared in the BC health and guidance curriculum; by the late 1980s, sex education curriculum had a strong focus on the prevention of HIV /AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. The 1990s saw a greater emphasis on healthy relationships, which seemed to reflect an increase in public awareness and discussion of domestic violence. These social issues exerted a strong influence on the curriculum and in some cases, renewed interest in sex education in our schools. The last 10 or more years has seen a move to include themes of sexual diversity and inclusion, and recognition of the need for comprehensive sexual health education at both the elementary and secondary level.
Tracing the history of sex education in Vancouver schools has been daunting and discouraging, at times. The research I have done to date seems to have only scratched the surface! I’m hoping that some keen historians and grad students will continue the process of unveiling and recording how we have taught — and are teaching — this important subject in our schools. It says so much about who we are as a society, and we have much to learn from that history.
Conceptual drawing of a section in the Pleasure Zone. The bed mattress becomes the projection surface. Design by Propellor Studio, February 2012.
We could say that the dust has settled since the announcement from Heritage Minister James Moore concerning Sex: the Tell-all Exhibition and his view that its an inappropriate use of funds for that specific museum. The controversy over an exhibition designed by the Montreal Science and Technology Museum to educaete teens about their sexuality has made one thing very apparent: some interest groups will mobilize a lot of energy to discourage public institutions (schools and museums alike) from relaying valuable information to youth about sexuality. It would be naïve to think that MOV’s 2013 exhibition Sex Talk in the City project will be immune from similar criticism. The exhibition may not be presented in the national capital and in a national museum, but like most museums, MOV relies, in part, on public dollars to provide its services. And that’s usually enough to get some critics going.
We feel completely comfortable with embracing the topic of sexuality at MOV. Developing an exhibition that investigates the evolution of "sex talk" in Vancouver. Addressing issues of sexual health, diversity and education helps us fulfill our mandate . . . in a big way. To put it succinctly:
- People in the city work, play and . . . have sex. Exploring how people think and talk about sexuality is one way, among many, to understand and investigate the city.
- We want a healthy city. The Sex Talk in the City project advocates for more open and public conversations about sexuality. The more knowledgeable people are about their sexuality, the more informed decisions people will make.
Sex Talk in the City project at MOV and the larger museum picture:
Recent practice and studies have demonstrated that museums, with their unique resources, can play an important role as agents of social services. Some museums today take on starkly bolder roles (than the traditional institutions) as a way to influence social change and promote social inclusion. Canadians and international studies have shown the potential for museums to raise public awareness and contribute to attitudinal changes concerning public health, social inclusion and social justice (Sandell, 2005, 2007; Silverman, 2010). What is also important to remember is that studies confirm that museums benefit from an incredible capital of public trust. As a result, the museum, as site of public education, holds a privileged position to convey and engage the public with critical social issues.
A number of museums have taken an active role in fostering new understandings related to the issue of sexual diversity, and in promoting safer sex to prevent infection as well as (unwanted) conception. Close to us we have Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Tacoma Art Museum. In Canada, recent examples include as mentioned above Sex: A Tell-all Exhibition at the Science Centre in Montreal and Hello Sailor an exhibition exploring the lives of gay and lesbian mariners at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. Both exhibitions (as we know more than ever now) were able to stir provocative discussions involving visitors, the broader public, the media and policymakers.
The multi-media nature of museum exhibitions, which includes videography, installation, display of material culture, graphics, text, programming, social media campaigns, soundscape as well as the social quality of museum visiting make up powerful learning vectors in regards to sexual education. And so we have come to view MOV as uniquely positioned to co-produce with community partners, a learning experience that is less medicalized than the visit at the health clinic and less didactic than sex education in the classroom context while promoting meaningful cross-cultural and inter-generational dialogue about sexuality.
From this perspective, addressing the topic of sexuality becomes a particularly compelling way to fulfill MOV’s mission to lead provocative conversations about Vancouver’s past, present and future.
“Our work has made us keenly aware of society’s fears around sexuality” -Andrea Dobbs, Womyn'sWear
As the retail design and display manager of Womyns’Ware I wear a lot of hats. Sometimes I’m buried under a pile of catalogues trying to select tasteful, safe, quality sex toy amidst a sea of cheap, tacky, or disturbing products. Or I’m trolling industrial design sites in Europe looking for innovative approach to sex toys design. I support customers and staff, collaborate with our founders to design and produce fixtures and displays that support our wares, and I participate in the communication efforts. When all is said and done, I feel I’ve developed the skills of a researcher, an educator, and an artist.
So when Womyns’Ware was asked to participate in the MOV Sex Talk in the City project I was overjoyed! Helping to create a visual and tangible feast for Vancouverites to engage in with the goal of enlightenment at its core is right up our alley. What can we bring to the table? How about 17 years of front line work with women and their partners in search of sexual empowerment. Our customers have fundamentally informed our approach to what we do and have given us an understanding of just how vast an arena sex and sexuality is.
As an organization we’ve faced censorship, unwarranted legal barriers, black listing, and fear mongering — and it’s left us keenly aware of society’s fears around sexuality. We’ve encountered wonderful allies over the years such as Options for Sexual Health, midwifery clinics, progressive faith organizations, sex educators in North America and abroad, cottage industry proprietors, and physicians in private practice. Through these welcomed (and even the not so welcomed) engagements we’ve enjoyed an exchange of ideas and information that has made for layers of knowledge difficult to parallel under any other circumstance.
And yet there is so much to learn! We have experiences to share and artifacts to loan —we arguably have a collection of vibrators that rivals even the best sex toy museums! From the early 1900 Hamilton Beach New Life Vibrator donated to us in the very early days of our business by an aged man who understood right away that we’d be the place to appreciate and display his family heirloom to the 1956s Sonoid Spheroid Action vibe (complete with packaging and instruction manual) donated to us by a lovely woman whose mother had passed away and who couldn’t bring herself to sell it at the yard sale!
We’re very much looking forward to seeing the first iteration of the exhibition design concepts, and to continuing this discussion of sexuality and sex education over the upcoming year.
Andrea Dobbs has worked as Design and Display Manager at Womyns’Ware since 2004.
Join in the conversation on Twitter: @xtalkinthecity #xtalkMOV
Where did September go? It feels like we opened Chosen Family @ MOV just yesterday, yet so much has happened since then with the gathering of material and ideas for Sex Talk in the City. Most importantly, we’ve learned (via feedback like that above) that our visitors think we should do more shows like Chosen Family Portraits.
This is great news and it confirms our hunch that our visitors are interested in talking and learning about various aspects of sexuality as it relates to life in Vancouver. It was on this encouraging note that the research phase of Sex Talk in the City began in mid-August. This is such a great part of the exhibition process! It’s all about imagining possibilities, brainstorming with people, and locating stories and artefacts. It’s definitely a non-linear process!
This phase involves lots of reading (from scholarly publications in museum studies and social sciences to school curricula, to graphic novels and historical studies), screening films and documentaries, interviewing people in the city (nurses, writers, LGBTQ youth, historians, and teachers), and following leads. A big thanks to those who have emailed me suggestions about people I should meet or subjects the exhibition should include. I agree with those who suggested I visit sex stores: it definitely qualifies as an educational experience!
To read more see www.xtalkinthecity.com
Join in the conversation on Twitter: @xtalkinthecity #xtalkMOV