National Post Barbara Kay: ‘Porn exhibit’ is titillation, not education

National Post - Tuesday June 12th, 2012

David Kawai/Postmedia News

One of the exhibits in “Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition,” hosted by the Ottawa Museum of Science and Technology.

Last month, Ottawa’s Museum of Science and Technology was criticized for hosting “Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition.” PEN Canada asked two journalists to debate whether the exhibit was appropriate. The following is Barbara Kay’s response:

In On Liberty, the Ur-text for many free speech libertarians, John Stuart Mill argues that the demands of liberty and authority will always struggle, because the one cannot exist without the other. And so “some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed — by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law.”

Many of Mill’s devotees would be surprised to learn how much weight he gave to social opprobrium in matters that cause “offence” to the public. By “good manners,” Mill was clearly thinking, at least in part, about community standards of decency. Which brings us to the recent controversy over “Sex: a Tell-All Exhibition” at Ottawa’s Museum of Science and Technology.

As anyone familiar with our culture’s obsession with unfettered sexual freedoms could have predicted, the issue was framed as a battle between the crabbed impulses of censorial puritans and the enlightened progressivism of disinterested pedagogues. That’s why, when I first wrote on this issue last month, I chose the course of least resistance in adducing the argument that the exhibition did not fall within the museum’s mandate.

But in truth my deeper concern is the exhibition’s indecency, and the harm it will likely do by titillating children’s imaginations in a way that runs counter to a natural sense of personal modesty.

What do I mean by indecency? Consider the most egregious element of the exhibit: animations of a male and a female masturbating.The stated rationale, that this was in some way educational, is simply risible. Through the ages, a great deal of wicked ingenuity has been pressed into the service of repressing masturbation from children’s behaviours — but nobody has yet succeeded. Masturbation is not something anyone needs to be taught, any more than we need to be taught how to void our bowels.

But for the sake of argument, let us assume children do need be taught about masturbation. What principles should guide our choice of materials and context for such teaching, if we are truly thinking of imparting knowledge for its own sake? We should above all be sensitive to the fact that masturbation is first, foremost and universally a private, intimate activity, not unlike sexual intercourse. Anyone, especially an adolescent, discovered and publicly exposed while masturbating would be mortified — i.e. “harmed.” Certainly adolescents brought to the exhibition under the aegis of school boards might be said to be harmed when their right to contextual privacy in learning about their own intimate behaviour was violated by people in positions of authority and trust.

Here is the nub of my vexation: Private sexual activities exposed to the public gaze have de facto left the arena of education and entered the realm of voyeurism. Consider who will be attracted to such an exhibition. Consider the adult who not only takes pleasure in watching masturbation depicted on a screen, but even keener pleasure in standing beside real young people in order to observe them watching this video. Does one need a degree in curatorship to understand that such an exhibit is pandering to highly questionable elements of human nature, and to people in their thrall, the kind of people we are normally at excruciating pains to protect our children from?

It could be argued that because the entry age for an unaccompanied minor was raised from 12 to 16, and because the masturbation video was not shown as intended, decency standards have been met and critics should back off. No, we shouldn’t. The masturbation video revealed a tainted agenda amongst those who conceived the exhibit. And even apart from its voyeuristic tendencies, this exhibition is not ideologically innocent.

One exhibit on unplanned pregnancy and what to do about it urges swift abortion and no other option. Another celebrates the joys of promiscuity without mentioning its risks or well-known emotional sacrifices (particularly to women). A third exposes the viewer to 12 different kinds of sexuality, none of them heterosexual, promoting the politically correct fiction that there is no such thing as a sexual norm. These assumptions are deeply offensive to many Canadians on grounds of intellectual objectivity alone.

As a society we have become so numbed to the aggressive sexualization of culture, so cowed by our “progressive” cultural elites into the suppression of justifiable indignation — out of fear of being labelled prudish or “uptight” — that we are afraid to trust our instincts. The relentless contempt for morality-based approaches to sexuality — in our superior courts, on campuses, throughout the liberal media — has eroded confidence in the common sense that yet lurks in most ordinary people’s hearts.

Still, when the subject was finally raised in the media, many ordinary citizens did find their voice, which is why the age of unaccompanied entry was raised.

The standards are there, but they are dormant. We have the freedom of speech to say we are appalled by the indecencies to which we are daily exposed, but fearing ridicule from those who have seized the cultural heights, we have lost our confidence to use it, even on our children’s behalf.

Barbara Kay is a National Post columnist.