Explicit exhibit, reasonable reaction?

Perhaps you saw the news headlines in May about the controversial sex education exhibit at the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa. "Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition" was originally developed in Montreal before traveling to other Canadian cities, and while it appeared for months in Regina apparently without controversy, there were immediate outcries when it arrived in Ottawa.

At the forefront were evangelical and social conservative groups who expressed concern that the exhibit was pornographic and/or inappropriate for teenagers, the target audience of the exhibition. And indeed, the museum quickly raised the minimum age for unaccompanied teens from 12 to 16, and a spokesman for Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore, the Minister of Canadian Heritage,said it "cannot be defended."

Since I hold a membership to this museum anyway, I went and saw the exhibit for myself. Much, and I can report that much of it is indeed graphic and explicit. It would undoubtedly make many people uncomfortable, and I can't help but observe that—– as with many things—–what's acceptable in Montreal isn't always in the rest of Canada (except, apparently, Regina).

But at the same time, I'm not willing to just issue a blanket condemnation on the museum organizers, or tear up my membership the way some people have threatened.

It's pretty easy for Christians to condemn this sort of explicit material, because it is shocking, uncomfortable and leaves no room for the concept of sex as a sacred gift from God. But the secular organizers of the exhibit argued that their whole point was educate young people about sexuality, using nudity and other methods to break through and grab their attention. They argued that young people can get all the explicit stuff they want on the Internet—– much more than a museum display—–but without the education and facts they need.

And they've got a point. While some social conservatives argue that sex education encourages teens to go ahead and experiment, research suggests that isn't true—– sex education doesn't necessarily lead to sex, and plenty of young people have sex despite minimal sex education.

On the other hand, the absence of proper sex education can lead to higher unplanned pregnancies, sexually-transmitted-diseases, and other problems. It can also take a high emotional toll, particularly on young women who don't have the knowledge and confidence to stand up for themselves.

Now as I mentioned, The Ottawa exhibit has nothing to say about biblical views of sexual morality. But it does emphasize the emotional and relationship connections of sex, that sex is more than just mechanical, and good sex is informed, consensual sex. It says a lot of things that young people desperately need to hear, even if they don't get the full biblical picture.

The exhibit has shocking elements, and it's not surprising it raised an outcry. But knee-jerk reactions by conservative Christians don't always help here. The message of morality gets lost in a larger impression that Christians are always anti-sex and will oppose any attempts at responsible sex education. And to me, that's shocking.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.