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Thursday, May 19, 2022

And now for a song about the clitoris! The joy of sex education | Theatre

‘I remember the tampon dipped in Ribena,” says Josie Dale-Jones, her fingertips pressed together as if holding on to the string. “The way it swelled up immediately.” In school, Dale-Jones recalls her sex and relationships education as being “near to non-existent”. There was the purple-soaked tampon, the classic condom rolled on to a banana and the “general fear-mongering” of pictures of STIs pinned up on a board. “But never a mention of why you might want to have sex,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Never anything about empathy or pleasure, or how any of it might impact other people.”

With a team of eight performers, Dale-Jones is making a show about sex and relationships for ages five and above. Accompanied by workshops and panel talks, The Family Sex Show tackles topics including boundaries, gender, relationships and masturbation. Through a series of artistic responses and conversations, the group want to help make it easier for anyone, of any age, to talk about these sticky, tricky topics. “I don’t know another subject that we only talk about once and then we tick it off as if it’s done,” Dale-Jones says. “The learning is never over.”

The argument against sex education for younger ages has repeatedly been that education is indoctrination: the more we tell our children about sex, the more tempted they will be. “But there’s so much research that shows the complete opposite,” Dale-Jones says. Avoiding conversations about our bodies and how we use them, she suggests, is far more dangerous. “Knowing your body is about knowing your rights. The more we know, the more we can protect ourselves and each other.” Children aren’t anxious about the idea of the show, she insists. “It’s the older people who feel discomfort in something that’s challenging their preconceptions.”

Her argument is that our understanding of our bodies is critical, for lots of reasons besides sex. “More than half of all children have already experienced body image-based bullying before they leave school. If we’re teaching ideas of ableism and homophobia and racism and queerphobia, why can’t we teach the opposite?”

Early on, the team made the decision for the production to only explore the positive aspects of sex and relationships. “We get the negative and the complex every day. If we make the choice to only put forward positive role models, what impact could that have?” They don’t shy away from the humour that inevitably comes with talking about sex. “Sex and relationships should be full of joy,” Dale-Jones says. “There are so many things that are so brilliant about all this. Why don’t we talk about them?”

Josie Dale-Jones, producer of The Family Sex Show.
‘It’s the older people who feel discomfort in something that’s challenging their preconceptions’ … Josie Dale-Jones

Alongside the performance, the team have created a podcast for older audiences, this time with the negative and messy bits included. As well as offcuts from the show – such as a reckoning with ableist language and an operatic song about the clitoris – it includes longer, more in-depth discussions about ideas of queerness, pleasure, friendships, and what they all mean to us as individuals.

The Family Sex Show doesn’t pretend to be a lesson telling you everything you need to know, Dale-Jones explains. Instead, it comprises personal stories, movement and song, which serve as confident conversation starters about topics that are too often clumsily handled. “Kids pick up on awkwardness really quickly.” To counter this, the team are working with the School of Sexuality Education, who call their work “unembarrassable”. By encouraging curiosity, Dale-Jones says, they hope to rid these conversations of the associations of shame and fear.

Some parents and guardians, she acknowledges, might be anxious about what to expect. “There’s a lot of trust that an audience member has to give you to come and bring their family,” she says. “That’s why the outreach and wraparound activity for the show has been as big a project as the show itself.” Working alongside the organisation Outspoken Sex Ed, as well as the School of Sexuality Education, there’ll be free workshops available for families a few weeks before the shows, with sex educators on hand to answer questions and build confidence.

It’s no secret that talking to children about sex, relationships, and their bodies can draw negative attention. When Birmingham’s Parkfield community school attempted to integrate an inclusive programme teaching their students that families can come in all shapes and sizes, including with same-sex parents, protesters picketed the school gates. Incidents like this have been fairly frequent over recent years. “We know we will get people who don’t want it to happen,” Dale-Jones says. “There aren’t many of them, but they shout loudly. The main thing is looking after the company, the venues, their staff and the audiences.”

When sex education is boiled down to its core, she says, it’s about “people, and difference, and equality. It all starts with how we look at each other, and how we respect each other.” The need and desire for discussion are far greater than any opposition to it. “If we don’t talk about these things,” she says, “who are we protecting?”

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