Know your enemy
“Art is individualism, and individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.”
Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
“Hiya, my name is Camille and my pronouns are she/her.
Hello, my name is Joe, my pronouns are he/him.
My name is Greta, my pronouns are she/her.
I’m Aaron, my pronouns are he and him.
I’m Kimberly Harvey, my pronouns are she/ her
My name is Keziah, my pronouns are she/her and they/them
Hi there my name is Amelia… my pronouns are they/ them
Hello! My name is Lucy and my pronouns are she/her.
My name is Mark and my pronouns are he/him
Hello! My name is Katie and my pronouns are she/her and they/them.
Hi! I’m Miller and i use she/her pronouns
Hello, my name is John and my pronouns are he/him……..
Transcription of the opening of the Intro episode of The Family Sex Show Starts Here podcast.
This week a story broke in the UK about a forthcoming theatre production, to be aimed at five-year-olds and older. The somewhat surprising title of this venture was The Family Sex Show. The theatre company responsible had impeccable-looking credentials, with breathless reviews and several awards for earlier productions. This new project, originally commissioned under the auspices of a Leverhulme Arts Scholarship, had been funded to the tune of £82,784 via two separate project grants from Arts Council England, and was developed in a number of prestigious venues including Battersea Arts Centre, the National Theatre, the Southbank Centre, and Theatre Royal Bath. The show’s mission, as described on the associated website, was to provide:
“a fun and silly performance about the painfully AWKWARD subject of sex, exploring names and functions, boundaries, consent, pleasure, queerness, sex, gender and relationships.”
There would be skits and dressing up. There would be “real life bodies, personal stories, songs and movement”. There would be “intersectional, feminist, non-binary, anti-racist & sex-positive take on Relationships and Sex Education.” And there would be full-frontal nudity on stage for at least five minutes.
As it turned out, there would also be outrage on Mumsnet and Twitter, a petition to close the show, tabloid stories, and broadsheet columns. The company eventually self-cancelled, at least for the present, and issued a statement hand-wringing about “structural and societal attitudes towards Relationships and Sex Education as well as art, culture and who is allowed to create and what we are allowed to engage with”.
As it happens I share these concerns, though for probably different reasons.
Most of the discussion online concerned the fact that adults would be naked on stage, and also focused on a few particularly bizarre details of the associated website. At one point this site instructed children how to model a penis and a vagina out of playdoh; at another, there was an invitation to look up pictures of “animals that masturbate” on the internet in order to draw them. (In a spirit of open inquiry I completed the first part of this latter task, and was directed to a video of a zoo-keeper manually stimulating a dolphin.) But though it got less press attention, equally startling material can still be found in episodes of the podcast associated with the show, called The Family Sex Show Starts Here, and made by the company - in their own words - for “young people (maybe 16+ (but really that's up to you))” and “parents / guardians / interested adults to have conversations around sex and relationships.” (Yes - in a rare moment of insight here, the show-makers apparently recognise that “interested adults” may wish to pursue such conversations with vaguely pubescent teens).
Not least, this podcast furnishes material for a fun new family game: “song lyric or transcript of a police sting operation?” Here for instance is an extract of a sound collage called “Questions” from the episode on “Bodies”, and assuming a whole new light when you remember the bit about “interested adults”:
What does it feel like to be kissed there?
What does your body see when it looks at me ?
What can I do to make it hurt less?
Do you want to try it?
What do my lips feel like?
Can I make that part of you smile?
If you lose a sense, do you actually get another ‘spidey’ sense?
What does it feel like to love your body? / What’s it like having someone to talk to?
Will it unnerve you if my body misbehaves?
Am I sexy to you?
If not, why not?
Do you miss me?
And then there’s the musical number “Opera”, set to harpsichord and which inadvertently answers a question nobody has ever wanted to ask: what if Handel wrote an opera about Pornhub?
(A soprano voice, very high)
(An alto voice)
It’s wet and warm
Wet and warm
So wet and warm
Why can’t I find it?
Why can’t I find it?
Why can’t I find it?
(Soprano and alto together)
Why can’t I find it?
Why can’t she find…
Why can’t I find it?
Why can’t she find…
Why can’t I find it?
(A new bass voice)
I have a penis in my pants!
I sometimes have a fiddle with my penis
And my balls.
(All three sing together)
(Oh, I want to touch it
Oh, I want to touch it
Oh, I want to touch it
I want to touch myself)
Oh, go on then and touch it
Ah ah ah ah ahhhh
Oh, go on then and touch it
Touch it where you like.
In one of the head-spinning changes of register which apparently characterises the show’s overall approach, “Opera” is immediately followed by a melancholy poem about vaginisimus addressed to a psychologist called Diane, discussing the medical use of a dilator in great detail and rhyming “a quick bum squeeze” with “a really good sneeze” . And then there’s an ode to sexual intercourse from a virgin … and then a long rambling anecdote from a woman about getting a haircut and then discovering she’s queer and having a threesome … and then a guy called Joe imagining out loud what he will say to his as-yet-unborn children about masturbation; and so the lunatic narrative goes on and on, in weird and disjointed fashion, like a terrible sex dream which even as you’re having it you know is too bizarre to be real, but which you’re still quite relieved to wake up from. I don’t know a 16-year-old who would be willing to sit through any of this, with or without parents present. At times it’s tempting to suspect that the Catholic Church sponsored the podcast as a clever way to make teenagers take vows of abstinence.
As this story unfolded online, I became fascinated by the question of how exactly things could have gone this far. How did a successful theatre company with a good track record arrive at this material - never mind that, arrive at a show title likely to be blocked by internet parental controls - without the intimation of possible red flags, reputationally or otherwise? And how did several professional arts bodies wave all this through, apparently enthusiastically?
Jokes aside, critics have been quick to point out the dereliction of child safeguarding in this material. They are right to do so. Adults who try to normalise sexual contact for children so explicitly and recklessly risk making life easier for predatory opportunists in future. Helping kids to escape from feelings of bodily shame is not the same as getting them to talk proudly about arousal. But some of the reactions I saw on Twitter went further than this point, suggesting that the intentions behind the show could only be nefarious: that the company must contain bad actors who deliberately and knowingly wished to lower children’s bodily inhibitions. Actually - though of course it's only speculation on my part and I don’t know for sure - having looked at what is on public record about this company, I think a puppet-master interpretation of their actions is farfetched. Several clues suggest that these are not people whose primary objective is to break down the sexual boundaries of children. Possibly more terrifyingly, I think their doing so is just a by-product of their actual aim, which is the perfectly banal one of doing well in the contemporary theatre scene according to prevalent cultural norms there.
Let’s consider the evidence. For one thing, there’s the fact the company belongs to a young woman, and seems mostly composed of other young women (or as they would put it - but of course they would! - young womxn). By the law of averages about sex, this is a group more likely to be found anxiously and conscientiously taking cues from the social world around them than forming sociopathic plans to corrupt minors, though of course there are always exceptions.
And then there’s the company’s collective tin ear for the explicitness of some of the material they produce, rendered all the queasier by its bright tone and ostentatiously didactic intent. Some commentators have questioned whether people who judge this sort of material appropriate for children could possibly have kids of their own. I would question, more fundamentally, whether they have ever had sex. There seems to be a strange disconnect here, possibly borne of too much thinking and talking and emoting and workshopping and not enough doing. The material of theirs that is publicly available tends to mix up basic bodily functions, sexual practices, and social justice concepts as if each had exactly the same emotional and moral weight - sometimes to a near sociopathic-sounding degree. (So for instance, one baffling couplet from the song “Questions” excerpted earlier goes: “What's it like to give birth? What’s it like to have a fist in your ass?”)
Had there been a smoother connection between loins and brains here, surely this sort of material would have given its creators pause. The experience of strong sexual feeling is a visceral reminder of sex’s capacity to corrupt as well as to delight, in a way that mere verbal descriptions of such feeling are not. These people remind me of the philosopher I once met who was writing about “five categories of pornography”. When I asked him what he had watched in order to reach his conclusions, he said he had deduced it all a priori. And indeed, in the podcast we find one contributor to the discussion of "pleasure" saying she is asexual - though on the other hand, she also says, her dissertation was on “pornography and the presence of orgasm in the work of Angela Carter”.
This cerebral tendency to flatten out the meaning and power of sex reaches its peak (sorry) in the project’s “Glossary”. In this incredible document, someone thought it would be a good idea to teach young people about sexually explicit terminology, social justice-speak, and stagecraft, all at the same time. “Aisle”; “Backstage”; and even “Box Office” will never look the same to me again. And thanks to alphabetisation, this glossary also gives rise to some beautifully bathetic juxtapositions, which I defy any writer of satire to beat. I reproduce a few here in all their glory:
Once again, given the hilariously robotic framing of the material here, there’s a distinct sense that sex was actually the last thing on anyone’s mind. Perhaps what they were really after was money.
A further bit of evidence that the Family Sex Show project is the product of systemic cultural forces rather than sinister machinations can be found when you look at other projects Arts Council England has funded this year, in addition to this one. There’s Let’s Talk About Sex and the Museum of Sex Objects; theres’s the Genderland Festival and Genderblending Storytelling. There’s Poetics of Trans and Trans Creative and Transgender People of Colour Take Charge and Reclaiming Proto-Trans Folk Narratives and Transcultural Visions and the Black Trans Digital Response Archive.
But by far the most popular theme is queerness. Enter “queer” into the search bar and you find: Do Cyborgs Dream of Electric Queers?; Queer Change Talent Development Partnership; Loud and Queer Arts Festival 2022; Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Festival; The Cocoa Butter Club: Queering the Space; Exploring Queerness and Street Dance; The Queer House; The Magic Clock - A Queer Tale; Queer Space Bristol Winter Programme; Queercircle Organisational Development; Queer House Party; Queer Bodies; Queer Bruk; How Queerness Moves; Queer Country Community Events; Queer Spaces; Coast is Queer; R&D for a Disability and Queer-led musical; Feminist Queer Library Archiving; Fleshqueer festival; Queer Circle Launch; GREY MAN: An Accessible Digital Theatre Tour & Mental Health Project Relaunching Queer Disabled Company & Employing 25 Freelance Artists; Queer Historical and Online Spaces; and the (somewhat misnamed, in the circumstances) Queer New World.
Or take a look at the Art Council’s style guide which - despite an expressed commitment to “the principles of Plain English” - also exhorts applicants to use “gender-inclusive” language and to replace “he/she” with “they” wherever possible. In its extensive appendix on “Gender and Sexuality” - full of the usual Stonewall-approved guff - it tells applicants “It is usually best to report on transgender people’s stories from the present day instead of narrating them from another point, thus avoiding confusion and potentially disrespectful use of incorrect pronouns.” Obviously I have well-rehearsed issues with all of this from an ideological point of view, but my main point at the moment is how clearly this section signals to applicants what sort of project is likely to be funded - i.e. one which hits all of the standard progressive marks. And it also illustrates how unashamed funders are these days to prescribe rules for art.
In this light, Art Council funding looks less like a reward for inspired flashes of individual creativity than the attainment of a Girl Guide Badge for services to progressive sexual ideals. And what else is a a female-led theatre company fronted by a white woman and founded in a middle-class Cambridge Sixth Form to do these days, except announce itself as “queer”? Unlike being black or disabled, saying you are queer or do queer work is a completely unverifiable proposition. It’s entirely compatible with being straight and conventional in practice - but at the same time, it apparently gives you endless cultural clout. So it would be kind of stupid not to, no? I’m not saying that anyone deliberately sets out to mislead people here. I’m saying that you probably come round to thinking of yourself that way, little by little, and the world starts to reward you for it.
This, then, is the background which, I imagine, produced The Family Sex Show: not so much a sweaty hotbed of writhing bodies rebelliously exploring liminality through kink, but a group of utterly conventional and pedestrian strivers trying to get the rules right. Time and again, moreover, these rules (whether it’s for fundable art projects, or grant-friendly dissertations in the humanities, or successful pitches to the Guardian Comment Is Free section ) are grounded in hackneyed old stereotypes taken from another time, and apparently immune to revision. These say that young women don’t know the names for their own body parts; that British people are generally very repressed about sex; that right-wingers automatically hate gay and trans people; that the only possible objection you could have to sex education for young people is because you are (if a man) madly right-wing or (if a woman) a buttoned-up prude out of touch with her own probably filthy desires. Never mind that there isn’t a middle-class, theatre-going girl in the country by now that doesn’t know the name for her own vagina; never mind that the Tory party has been Stonewalled up to the nines for years and that their own Prime Minister is Britain’s Leading Libertine; and never mind that there are plenty of genuine reasons to worry about the rising influence of internet porn and kink on the developing sexualities of young people that don’t make you a censor or a prude. Still the left-liberal fantasy of a 1950s Britain persists, propping up its own self-image as coolly rebellious and counter-cultural in the process. As in so many areas, the focus is on breathing life into long-dead political enemies rather than facing newer and more pressing social problems - which saves a lot of energy, because dead enemies are really quite easy to beat.
Back in reality, there’s only so long that progressives can carry on pretending that the only possible objections to things like The Family Sex Show must come from prudes who don’t like sex, or bigots who don’t like queer people. Supercharged by the internet, contemporary sexual culture is spiralling off a cliff and taking a lot of young people with it, and increasingly large numbers of ordinary parents and teachers are finding this objectionable for very good reason. Some of these even vote Labour - or would do, if they could get a clear sign from their party that it’s prepared to make a distinction in public between its own position and “what Owen Jones thinks is OK”. If it can’t do this, it faces problems at the ballot box. Meanwhile, since nobody votes Arts Council members in or out, for theatre-goers there are still many long evenings ahead, sitting on uncomfortable chairs and watching white people with interesting haircuts talk earnestly about squirting.