It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Museum of Vancouver’s latest exhibit examining sex in the classroom, bedroom and on the street is an intimate affair.
Visitors to Sex Talk in the City, which opened Feb. 14, can peer into peepholes, delve into drawers, listen to commonly asked sex phone line questions and read “sexts,” or salacious text messages, to gain insight into how sexuality has and is being learned, repressed and expressed in Vancouver.
The exhibit recognizes that children learn about sex from a variety of sources that include their parents, other children, “dirty” novels, porn and late night TV.
“By age 11, 70 per cent of children will have accessed pornographic material online,” noted Viviane Gosselin, the exhibit’s curatorial lead.
Peepholes cut into a depiction of a black cougar, an image that originated in Vancouver and for decades warned moviegoers about sexually explicit content, give visitors views of responses to sexually explicit material in the city.
The exhibit also includes a history of sex education in B.C. “It’s a very reactive curriculum,” Gosselin said.
The focus in the 1950s was on preventing teen pregnancy. In the ’80s it was sexual abuse. Later in the same decade it was HIV/AIDS and now it’s sexual exploitation and harassment in relation to social media.
Turn a corner in the museum and you enter the bedroom section, or what Gosselin called “the pleasure zone.”
Rows of drawers flank one wall.
“The advisory committee told us that many of them share that experience of learning about sex going through their parents’ dresser, opening drawers and discovering things about their parents’ sex life,” Gosselin said.
One drawer features female-to-male gear that includes a tank top that flattens breasts and a “stand-to-pee packer,” that looks like a penis and can be used in a men’s washroom.
Another contains sex toys an occupational therapist helped adapt for men and women with disabilities.
The same room features a history of the vibrator with implements that look like a hair dryer, a blender and a mini missile.
“We have the oldest one that was developed in the 1880s. This one comes from the Bakken Museum [of Electricity and Magnetism] in Minneopolis,” Gosselin said. “The Bakken is so pleased because they have lots of school programs and they can’t really have them on display.”
The vibrator segment of the exhibit draws on the work of technology historian Rachel Maines who dug deeper after she discovered 1880s ads for body massagers in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.
“Even today if you look at vibrators, it’s never called masturbation aid,” Gosselin said. “So she called this social camouflage. It’s always called a body massager.”
Doctors and midwives used to treat various symptoms of hysteria in women that included headaches and depression with a vulva massage, which could be tiring for the practitioner.
“As electricity became a way to power house appliances, it just happened that the vibrator became the fifth to be powered by electricity,” Gosselin said.
The street section focuses on the history of the sex trade in Vancouver, protests about sex work and abortion, the history of different forms of contraception and campaigns about HIV/AIDS.
Sex Talk in the City was created with the help of an advisory panel of 17 individuals, design studio Propellor, a writer, filmmaker, several historians and a youth curatorial team.
“Sex is everywhere, in the newspaper, on the radio, the film that you’re going to go and see, the conversation that you’re going to have with your co-worker and it goes at different registers constantly,” Gosselin said. “I’m hoping that visitors when they visit this exhibition will think of that, where are my ideas about sexuality coming from, and what is normality.”
The exhibit is recommended for museum-goers aged 15 and older, although younger people are welcome.
The Sex Talk in the City exhibit will be complimented by events that include a design your own vibrator session and a talk by Maines, a panel of sex workers and activists talking about sex work in Vancouver and a session entitled “Hot Times for Seniors.”
More info at museumofvancouver.ca.