Seeing that it was recommended for people as young as 12, I didn't have high hopes for Science World pushing the envelope in their Science of Sexuality exhibit this summer. How graphic, how detailed, how varied could it be? Could adults take something away from it? Would it prove to be entirely heteronormative? Or try to consist purely of the "hard science" facts and leave out sociological considerations of sexuality? I decided to find out.
Before I tear the whole endeavor to pieces, I want to be clear: I understand that its target audience was young people. I understand that it was supposed to be "science" and not some paradigm-shifting sociological analysis. In fact, this is why I want to tear the whole inaccurate, Freudian, phallocentric, heteronormative thing to pieces. Young people learn that crap from somewhere; dressing up tired values and calling them science gives them powerful, but false, legitimacy which should not be shielded from critique. Especially when that crap is being spoon-fed to eager-to-learn children.
Let's start in the first room. The first display shockingly establishes that sex and gender are the same thing, that there are only two gender/sexes, and those are determined by chromosomes. This is later followed up by the statement that as one matures, one realizes that one's gender "does not change." Huh. I guess right off the bat we're leaving out intersex folk, and that sex and gender are not the same thing -- this has been established for over twenty years. Gender is a term for identity and expression that can be different from one's assigned sex and can, in fact, change over time through a myriad of different forms. And when it comes to assigned sex, of course it can change. But I guess science is for talking about the bodies and identities of, you know, "normal" boys and girls, not trans or otherwise non-cisgendered folk. Privilege is sweet.
Next room. "Just like the colour of my eyes, I have no control over my sexual orientation." It's really nice that tolerance of anything other than heterosexuality sometimes successfully follows the whole "they can't help it" argument. What about those who can "help it" but are so audacious as to make choices about their sexuality? And nothing like the colour of one's irises, what about when orientation changes, is explored, is fluid, is complex? This not on the table, apparently.
Shyness about one's body is then touted as "normal" development called "modesty," and it's made clear that one first feels "one" with one's mother and then later discovers and bonds with one's father. Pretty problematic assertions considering some people, families, and cultures aren't into the same kind of "modesty" that is presumed to be natural, and that mothers are still human and applying some kind of spiritual woo-woo to the ever-sacred mother-child bond doesn’t make it correct or scientific. Much like the bond with a biological mother, the presence of a father is not a scientific certainty, but it sure is nuclear-family normative. Moving on.
Oh good. In the next room I watch a movie about orgasm with an excitable male narrator. I discover that female orgasm is that thing that happens spontaneously around the same time as a male orgasm, and that giving orders ("Vulva, you contract, too!") seems to help.
I also learn that "most women" are attracted to men with broad shoulders because they're good providers and stuff. Men like wide hips because of fertility and stuff, and for the same reason young women are "more" attractive. (Because "Milf" isn't one of the most common searches on the Internet.) Around this time I start to feel nauseous.
I trudge on. Next, vaginas are defined as the canals that penises go in. I checked and strangely enough, penises are defined as stand-alone items rather than defined as existing for the servicing of women. Freud would be so pleased. Additionally, the clitoris is the "equivalent to the man's penis," because how else could we describe something on a female if not in reference to the standard male body?
And now here's some talk about vibrators, hurrah! And, haha, what use is it to mention vibrators without insecure jokes that women (and only women) who use them are objectophiles threatening the continuation of human connection? (Quote: "sometimes relegating humans to a secondary role!") Indeed, there was some knee-slapping. Not from me in particular. But some knee-slapping nonetheless.
Since it's offensive and not really related to sex, sexuality, bodies, science or reproduction, there was a less-than 10 second clip in a growing-up movie (where the male narrator's voice got kicked up into a fast-forward chipmunk octave to get through the ordeal faster) wherein menstruation was acknowledged to occur. This brevity is okay because a mere half of the population might experience this first-hand -- and we all know which half. Meanwhile in the next room, a huge, automated inflatable display is dedicated to demonstrating the incredible sponge-like material of the penis.
I guess that consent -- the whole concept behind not sexually assaulting nor pressuring someone -- got cut from the budget. Instead, the example of talking to your partner about sex is quoted as "I want you to touch me now," which we are told we'll get used to as our presumed long-term relationship grows. Next to it there's a game you can play wherein you're encouraged to "be the hero" and only do the sexy things that feel right to you emotionally. But there's no talk whatsoever of what responsibility a partner might have to "be the hero" and ask first. And what about the fact that not all hook-ups are promises of long-term relationships wherein you can get used to all of that being told rather than being asked?
Since consent got left out of the conversation (isn't sex is so much more magical without, anyway?) there is a telephone that has a recorded professional answering questions, one of which was of what to do if you "think" you've been sexually assaulted. Being quite the champion of survivors of sexual assault, the doctor on the line bluntly states that "You have to speak about it ... You have to go where there are specific services." I'm so glad that we're finally getting it through traumatized and stigmatized people's head that they are responsible for what happens next and that people of authority are still vehemently telling them what they "have to" do.
So how was it heteronormative? If you consider lip-service to same-sex coupledom via plastering the place with gratuitous little bubbles of same-sex couples holding hands and making out to be equitable, then it wasn't. But was there any placard, board, interactive game, or room about what those folks might actually do in bed? No. And were there instead horrifying statements such as that making babies is, "after all, what sex was invented for?" Yeah. Queer children get to see that and figure that there was no mention of queer sex because, well, there is no such thing. And besides, it would be against the intentions of whoever "invented" sex in the first place.
You may feel, as I did for a moment, that some things were left out perhaps because of their graphic nature or because there simply wasn't enough time or space. Larger-than-life-size photos of naked girls, boys, men and women line the walls, along with graphic animations of masturbation and much more -- this exhibit was not shy about most things. And the scope of topics, too, ranged further and more sociological than I expected: a large central section skimmed through various issues of body image, social pressures, gender stereotypes and self confidence.
This leaves me to sadly conclude that the failings of the displays were due purely to normative, sloppy, outdated values getting in the way of what could have been an otherwise broadening experience for children, parents, caregivers and everyone else who paid $26 to get updated on the cutting-edge "science of sexuality."
Clay Nikiforuk is a recent Creative Writing graduate from UBC and lives in Montreal. She is currently writing her first book exploring and critiquing the sociology of sexual assault. When not reading, writing or getting into vehement debates with strangers, she is dancing, taking pictures, and an avid potluck-attendee. To help fund her book you can go to http://www.gofundme.com/jenniesbook
Clay has a new relationship advice blog here at rabble.ca, Love 2.0, tackling all that is unconventional. Using an anti-oppressive, adventurous and practical framework she will help shed light on the endless possibilities that love, sex and attachment present to us in complicated times. You can send questions to agirlnamedclay[at]gmail[dot]com