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Sex on display

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SEPTEMBER 19, 2014

Everyone remembers their first sex talk.

Current college students can likely recall elementary gym or science classes turned “sex education” sessions, where pamphlets were distributed and short movies played as teachers doled out the dirty details. Some had condoms on bananas, others, extensive diagrams or unnerving conversations with parents.

Now, sexual education has forced itself into the heart of UC Berkeley at Doe Library’s newest exhibit: “Birds Do It, Bees Do It: A History of Sex (Mis)Education in the United States.” The display, which includes an abundance of condoms, drawings of naked bodies and readings that span from early scientific manuals to faculty member Thomas Laqueur’s history of masturbation, will inhabit the north entrance of the campus’ main library through February.

The exhibit forms a sort of sexual timeline along the walls of the library’s entrance. Photos of Freud and early 20th-century books with scientific approaches to sexuality are quickly replaced by a ’70s poster showing off Zodiac Sex Positions. A T-shirt from the 2000s features an image of the Campanile swathed in a condom. “Roll on You Bears,” it reads in boldface print. Students enticed enough to keep looking will find a speculum — a plastic contraption women began to use commonly in the ’60s and ’70s to see their vaginas up close and personal. Decades prior, this act that would have seemed entirely alien.

“As long as people have been procreating, they’ve been talking about sex,” said Margaret Phillips, one of the exhibit’s curators, on a tour with the Weekender. “One of our emerging themes is that in fact they did talk about these things in the olden days.”

Developed and organized by a group of UC Berkeley librarians and researchers, the exhibit is meant to track how the United States has taught and reacted to sex over the past 100 years. Progress was slow but evident in the twentieth century — the museum curators described the general progression as a move from “Don’t Have Sex” to “Don’t Get Pregnant” to, finally, “Have Safe Sex” dialogue as American culture crept toward the 21st century. The latest discourse, “Have consensual sex,” is so new that the librarians hardly recalled finding the issue of consent in their research.

“It goes with the entire ethos of the material,” said William Benemann, a curator for the Bancroft Library who helped create the exhibit. “Which is (to) only have sex when you’re married, and once you’re married, the wife has no consent. If you weren’t married and you were having sex, you both were consenting to do something that you shouldn’t.”

Librarian Michael Sholinbeck, a public health specialist who also contributed to the collection, says the dialogue of consent may be opening up now because of what he referred to as a newly “sex-positive” culture.

“The discourse used to just be ‘Always say no,’ ” he said.

The eight or so unassuming glass cases that make up the exhibit feature considerable weaknesses in American understanding of sex and how it has been taught over the years, including mishandling of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and pervasive mistreatment of homosexuality in sexual knowledge and discourse.

Many of these practices have improved vastly, and the collection of sexual artifacts follows this progression. This is seen mostly in the Berkeley-specific parts of the exhibit, which even features photos of students in penis costumes — sights that have become an unastonishing facet of the makeup of Sproul Plaza.

Most interesting, perhaps, is where current UC Berkeley fits in this sexual history. Fornicating in the library and campaigning for consensual sex look even more radical compared to readings branded “A Catholic Parent’s Guide to Sex” and “What To Do On a Date.” The new exhibit reminds us to be mindful of this evolution. And to always wear a condom.

Contact Libby Rainey at [email protected].

SEPTEMBER 20, 2014