Listening In

Interesting, educational, and candid conversations about sex don’t happen nearly as often as they should, but you might not even realize this until you have had the opportunity to engage on the subject with a cadre of intelligent yet varied individuals; including, among others, an affiliate from the Roman Catholic Church, a Métis public health worker, two historians, a madam, two sexual health educators, and a few staff members from Options for Sexual Health.

It was my role as producer of the “Listening In” stations for the Sex Talk in the City exhibition that brought me to the table and the conversation helped shape the content for three recorded dialogues I was to produce. The Listening In station will invite visitors to pick up the phone and take a listen to three (simulated) conversations between callers and a respondent at the Sex-Sense phone line. Sex-Sense is a confidential sexual health referral and information service provided by Options for Sexual Health for people living all across BC.

Check out the sound bites! Below, I describe the process of creating the three calls.


First stop: the Options for Sexual Health offices. 

I learned that on average, Options for Sexual Health (OPT) receives about 9,500 calls and 2,000 emails each year. The majority of calls are about contraception, STIs, sexual health concerns, and emergency contraception. There are also many calls about abortion, pregnancy, and pleasure. Male-identified callers have increased recently as have questions regarding male sexual health. In terms of age groups, the numbers vary with those between 17–19 representing 17% of the calls; ages 20–24 representing 19%; and youth aged 16 or less being 15%.

Together, a staff person and I came up with three potential scenarios that would best represent the phone calls fielded by staff.        

Little tidbits of the conversation stuck with me for days afterward. Apparently, there are over 8,000 nerve endings on the clitoris, which is also the only part of the body, male or female, whose only biological role is to produce pleasure.

Check out this link for more:


OPT staff wrote three scripts (Herpes, Pleasure, Contraception) true to discussions they had with callers. Scripts were then reviewed by curator Viviane Gosselin, rewritten by me, reviewed by OPT staff, and rewritten once again. Professional actors were secured by one of the staff at OPT and asked to ad-lib during the recording.


The mock phone calls were recorded in the basement of the MOV using a digital recorder called a Zoom H4, along with two shot gun microphones plugged through a mixing board and recorded as two separate channels. The actors, all highly talented individuals, spoke to each other on their cell phones. Each of the actors revealed a vulnerable and inquisitive side to their character — all through voice.  We did each conversation in two takes. This meant that the “staff” actor did six (well-done) takes in a row. Then I took the raw audio and posted it to a Sound Cloud for the advisory committee to review.


Initially (keeping in mind that visitors tend to move fast in exhibitions) Viviane and I had thought that the conversations should be about three minutes in length. However, after listening to the tape it was apparent that not all the stories would work that way. The call about contraception was easily shortened but leaves out (sigh) 10 steps detailing how to put a condom on correctly. The call about herpes and the other about pleasure were left such that each has a natural arc but retains valuable and interesting information. 

All editing took place in Pro Tools. Once done I used the 7-band equalizer in Pro Tools to make the recordings sound as though they were recorded over a phone line. I basically followed these instructions: 

The Phone Sound Effects (Phone Hang Up, Phone Calling Tone, Phone Hang Up), were found here:

Teresa Goff is an independent radio journalist based in Toronto

Heard It Gets Better- RCMP (BC)  for the first time this morning. It is an incredible step forward for the RCMP to have members of their staff sharing their “coming out” stories. And bonus, this is a local production. Wouldn’t it be great to incorporate video excerpts of this piece in Sex Talk!

Sexual Ed in Vancouver: extending the storyline to the present

A few months ago I invited Jan Sippel, educator at the Vancouver School Board, to complement historian Mona Gleason’s research. Mona, a professor at the Faculty of Education at UBC, with a keen interest in the history of education had generated some cool exploratory research for the Sex Talk in the City project. Mona’s work  (more in a future post) had focused on the 1900-1960s period. Jan was asked to extend the storyline to the present.

I am not an historian, but I have very recently become one.  As a member of the Sex Talk in the City Advisory Committee and the coordinator of sexual health education for the Vancouver School District, I had been asked to research the history of sex education in our schools over the past 50 years.  I expected it to be fairly straightforward reflect on the twenty-five years I have been in the district, check the VSB archives, talk with current and retired colleagues, and canvas schools for ‘artifacts’ (old films, videos, and teaching materials) that may be collecting dust in cupboards and closets. 

It quickly became apparent that sex education teaching materials tend to be thrown out when they become obsolete and it is unknown how many of these resources existed in the first place. The School Board archives, which are maintained by the Vancouver School Board Heritage Committee, a dedicated group of retired teachers and school administrators, are somewhat limited in scope by the storage space available. The archives yielded very few sex education artifacts, likewise the request to schools.

Probably the most important thing I have learned from this exercise is that much of the history of sex education in our schools resides with a few individuals, many of whom are retired. My ‘key informants’ thus far been teachers, counsellors, and administrators who have, in the past, had leadership roles in the school district that included responsibility for sex education.  All had the task of helping teachers implement the Ministry of Education health and guidance curriculum of the day.  Some had been the Elementary Curriculum Consultants. Others had been members of the VSB Family Life Education Team formed in the late 1980s to support teachers of grades 712 with the provincial Family Life Education Curriculum, developed in response to the “Aids Crisis”.

I was surprised to learn that sex education, in some form, has had a place in the BC education curriculum since the 1950s.  For many years, it was taught almost exclusively at the secondary level, often with no guidebook and teachers sharing what resources they had with one another. Secondary students may have received ‘sex ed’ classes from their school counsellor or from a teacher in science, home economics, or physical education classes.  Historically, in the intermediate grades, sex education came under the topic of “body systems” in science and students learned about the reproductive systems of mammals. Although sex education has been part of the BC curriculum, a teacher‘s comfort level with the topic was often the determining factor in whether or not it was taught. In the 1960’s and 70s, public health nurses and some private sexual health educators began to play a significant role in addressing this topic in our classrooms. 

Delving into the documentation and interviewing key people in the field has also allowed me to see curricular patterns emerging, patterns that appear to have been driven by the societal concerns of the time. For example, in the mid-1980s child sexual abuse prevention first appeared in the BC health and guidance curriculum; by the late 1980s, sex education curriculum had a strong focus on the prevention of HIV /AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. The 1990s saw a greater emphasis on healthy relationships, which seemed to reflect an increase in public awareness and discussion of domestic violence.  These social issues exerted a strong influence on the curriculum and in some cases, renewed interest in sex education in our schools.  The last 10 or more years has seen a move to include themes of sexual diversity and inclusion, and recognition of the need for comprehensive sexual health education at both the elementary and secondary level.

Tracing the history of sex education in Vancouver schools has been daunting and discouraging, at times. The research I have done to date seems to have only scratched the surface! I’m hoping that some keen historians and grad students will continue the process of unveiling and recording how we have taught and are teaching this important subject in our schools. It says so much about who we are as a society, andwe have much to learn from that history.

Jan Sippel, Sexual Health Education Coordination - VSB

Thanks to acclaimed sexual educator Meg Hickling, MOV has now a “wooden penis” to display in the exhibition. Up to 1990s (but yet impossible to find now) this type of sex ed prop was used at local high schools to demonstrate how to properly put a condom on.  

Thanks to acclaimed sexual educator Meg Hickling, MOV has now a “wooden penis” to display in the exhibition. Up to 1990s (but yet impossible to find now) this type of sex ed prop was used at local high schools to demonstrate how to properly put a condom on.  

Loaded Tweets: at the intersection of law, social media, and the dissemination of sexually explicit material

Let’s face it; the Internet has become the most popular “sexual educator” for people of all ages. In light of this, we’re using the section of the exhibition dedicated to exploring the ways people learn about sexuality to address the question of media literacy and the need for children and youth to cope with the barrage of sexually explicit material online (as consumer and creator).

In working on this, a Vancouver-based law firm offered to cover the cost of having their articling students look at the intersection of law, social media, and the dissemination of sexually explicit material. I just received the last version of their text and LOVE their idea of re-packaging key information in the form of tweets!

Here are couple of examples:

Text messages that describe sexual activity, or “sexting”, is only illegal if it describes unlawful sex. [105 characters]

Teens can be charged with a criminal offense for taking pictures/videos of obscene sexual activity and sending them to friends. [130 characters]

If you don’t teach your teens about privacy, sexuality and social media, where will they learn? [98 characters]

I asked the two law students to reflect on their experience working on this project:

This summer we were asked to do some legal research for the upcoming Sex Talk in the City Exhibition. Our focus was social media, which is relevant in today’s world of smart phones, posting, and instant technology in general. We also researched the evolution of consent by looking at legislation and court cases. These topics complement and contrast each other since social media is modern and contemporary while consent has a long history in Canadian law. The biggest challenge we faced was condensing all the information we found into an easy-to-read format for the exhibition, since the law in these areas is complex and always changing. But that is also what makes legal research so much fun, believe it or not! Being involved in this project has given us the opportunity to discover more about the evolving relationship between the law, social media, sexual activity, and consent. We hope that everyone involved in the exhibition — from the creators and staff to the public at large — will find these issues just as interesting as we did.

Emelie and Amanda are law students in Vancouver.

To echo LaFrance’s reference in the previous post, here is Pierre E. Trudeau when he first pronounced the unforgettable in 1967. 

The nature of sexual hang-ups and other considerations

While reading Greg Smith’s post on the Sex Talk in the City blog, I got to thinking. Greg’s idea of sexual “hang-ups seem to have a lot to do with the process of medicalizing sexuality in the 19th and 20th century.

The medicalization of sexuality is not only the construction of sexuality in medical language or the act of mandating interventions (which has led to significant public health improvements), it is also the introduction of pathology and medical explanations used to frame “deviant” behaviours. Hysteria, homosexuality, and transsexuality have a history of being explained as medical disorders in order to defend what is thought of as normal sexual behaviour and what isn’t. As Sex Talk in the City will remind us, these constructions are felt in the present day and do affect our sexual experiences – they lead us to understand ourselves within these medical terms, sometimes out of necessity, due to a lack of alternative language.

When discussing sexuality we can’t forget the work of French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. Foucault demonstrates how “repressive pathology” has a quality of administrative inquiry into our private lives. It confines sex to the ‘privacy’ of the home while maintaining a wider, external world of repressed sexual expression. Pierre E. Trudeau’s famous declaration in 1967, "There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," highlights the tension between the state and the individual, and through omission suggests that sexuality and sexual expression belong only in the bedroom.

Sex Talk in the City isn’t necessarily unique. It is a process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of the meanings attached to sexual experience and sexual conduct. Through its position of authority (coming from a museum), the exhibition can’t help but be part of the medicalization of sexuality. However, the exhibition also provides space to negotiate how authorities have affected our individual impressions of sexuality.

Knowing that the development of vibrators was an experiment in speeding up the female orgasm and finding out the “hidden truth” of a woman’s sexuality changes the ritual and may bring up new questions to the visitors. Will the audience second guess its usage? Or maybe the historical element will enter the arena of new fantasies, a new taboo? I wonder how the exhibition and the knowledge it produces will challenge power (the institution, the tools) and how might it be the same mechanism that misrepresents. 

Sex Talk and the City is a self-reflexive exhibition. It’s conscious of misrepresentation by defining itself in these fluid terms, using humour to suggest another world to be probed. It’s radical but careful. The multi-media nature of the exhibition “allows” multiple access points to sexual discourse. The history of the vibrator installation not only uses dresser drawers to augment mom and dad’s secret treasures (Joy of Sex, anyone?), but can also act as a sexual confession, a clinical codification behind the doctor’s door. The museum itself waits, coyly, for our attention.

Danielle LaFrance is a digitization assistant at the Museum of Vancouver, and is the author of Species Branding (2010).

Just had an excellent meeting with Daphne Spencer from the Division of STI/HIV Prevention + Control at the BC Centre for Disease Control (CDCofBC). Talked for 2hrs none stop.  Great potential for collaboration. Amazingly helpful with connecting us with knowledge/community experts.  I think she’ll be able to lend us the costume of Captain Condom for the exhibition! She introduced me to the work of Chee Mamuk and educator Sarah Callahan. I’m so impressed with their aboriginal youth video program. See for yourself. Inspiring. Not surprised to see Hello Cool World is involved!

"[Our work has] given us an understanding of just how vast an arena sex and sexuality is.” (Andrea Dobbs)

 Some thoughts from Womyn’sWare – a Sex Talk in the City Project Ally

As the retail design and display manager of Womyns’Ware I wear a lot of hats. Sometimes I’m buried under a pile of catalogues trying to select tasteful, safe, quality sex toy amidst a sea of cheap, tacky, or disturbing products. Or I’m trolling industrial design sites in Europe looking for innovative approach to sex toys design. I support customers and staff, collaborate with our founders to design and produce fixtures and displays that support our wares, and I participate in the communication efforts. When all is said and done, I feel I’ve developed the skills of a researcher, an educator, and an artist.

So when Womyns’Ware was asked to participate in the MOV Sex Talk in the City project I was overjoyed! Helping to create a visual and tangible feast for Vancouverites to engage in with the goal of enlightenment at its core is right up our alley. What can we bring to the table? How about 17 years of front line work with women and their partners in search of sexual empowerment. Our customers have fundamentally informed our approach to what we do and have given us an understanding of just how vast an arena sex and sexuality is.

As an organization we’ve faced censorship, unwarranted legal barriers, black listing, and fear mongering and it’s left us keenly aware of society’s fears around sexuality. We’ve encountered wonderful allies over the years such as Options for Sexual Health, midwifery clinics, progressive faith organizations, sex educators in North America and abroad, cottage industry proprietors, and physicians in private practice. Through these welcomed (and even the not so welcomed) engagements we’ve enjoyed an exchange of ideas and information that has made for layers of knowledge difficult to parallel under any other circumstance.

And yet there is so much to learn! We have experiences to share and artifacts to loan we arguably have a collection of vibrators that rivals even the best sex toy museums! From the early 1900 Hamilton Beach New Life Vibrator donated to us in the very early days of our business by an aged man who understood right away that we’d be the place to appreciate and display his family heirloom to the 1956s Sonoid Spheroid Action vibe (complete with packaging and instruction manual) donated to us by a lovely woman whose mother had passed away and who couldn’t bring herself to sell it at the yard sale!

We’re very much looking forward to seeing the first iteration of the exhibition design concepts, and to continuing this discussion of sexuality and sex education over the upcoming year.

Andrea Dobbs has worked as Design and Display Manager at Womyns’Ware since 2004.

Signed: Hamilton Beach MFG. Co. Racine Wisconsin
Patent  1902
Materials: electric motor, Metal body, Bakelite handle and rubber/metal attachments.

Circa: 1902-1905

Note: 1902, the American company Hamilton Beach patented the first electric vibrator available for retail sale, making the vibrator the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle and toaster, and about a year before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron.

Signed: Hamilton Beach MFG. Co. Racine Wisconsin

Patent  1902

Materials: electric motor, Metal body, Bakelite handle and rubber/metal attachments.

Circa: 1902-1905

Note: 1902, the American company Hamilton Beach patented the first electric vibrator available for retail sale, making the vibrator the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle and toaster, and about a year before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron.

Accent theme by Handsome Code

Sex Talk in the City is a collaborative exhibition project produced by the Museum of Vancouver. It looks at the evolution of conversations about sexuality in Vancouver. The exhibition is opening in 2013.

This blog shares its sources of inspiration, discusses key moments of the exhibition development and invites the public to comment and contribute stories, and suggestions for the exhibition.

Project Lead @ MOV: viviane gosselin

Options for Sexual Health (OPT)
The Vancouver School Board
The Queer Film Festival


Richard Dopson, Co-Chair '90 Gay Games

Dr. Mona Gleason, Historian of Sexuality

Barb Hestrin, Sexuality Educator

Meg Hickling, Sexuality Educator

Wade Janzen, LGBTQ Activist

Scarlett Lake, Madame

Dr. Lisa Loutzenheiser, Videoethnographer

Dr. Faizal Sahukhan, Clinical Sexologist

Jan Sippel, Vancouver School Board

Greg Smith, OPT

Jen Sung, Out in Schools

Leroy Wan, Performing Artist

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