People, we're messed up. About a lot of things. Food, our bodies, money, basic human emotions. We have all these feelings that we don't really know what to do with, especially when it comes to something like sexuality – a realm that becomes even more of a minefield when the word "children" is added to the conversation.
That's maybe why a video called " Baby! Love Your Body!", aimed at kids aged three and over, recently went viral in France. Bad viral.
The clip – produced by Fannie Sosa and Poussy Draama from the art collective School of No Big Deal – starts with your standard CBeebies-style opening: two cute, colourful performers (Fannie and Poussy) leap into view and welcome everyone, all toothy smiles and furious hand waving.
Rainbows shoot across the screen, followed by a selection of words for vagina: "Cooch; Punani; Cookie; Mound of Venus; etc". We're then introduced to two adults dressed up as vaginas, if vaginas looked like something Michael Alig might have worn to an Outlaw party 20 years ago. These club kid vaginas describe themselves as "juicy, fun and cosy" and "warm, soft and a real good friend". Then the vaginas and artists all shout together: "We're never afraid of them because they're awesome! Let's play!"
We're a little further away from the Teletubbies than we were 30 seconds ago.
Soon after, a cod reggae song called "I Love to Play with My Friends" starts to play. Lyrics include: " Don't forget to ask first", "Sometimes we just want to play by ourselves" and "I respect that".
The video climaxes with a psychedelic dream sequence inside a vagina, where the artist who's "ready" finds a magical character under a waterfall. I'm guessing this all represents an orgasm, but, to be honest, by this point I'm a little lost. Then the credits roll with twerking from our two main protagonists and I'm left confused. Did I love that or hate that? Is this progressive or dangerous? Are Fannie and Poussy actually just Tim and Eric in really good prosthetics?
"It went viral out of hate," laughs Fannie. "We didn't expect the backlash, but we did know it would be challenging a lot of people's conceptions."
What was it that people were upset about? "Paedophilia." People accused the pair of encouraging the sexualisation of children, rather than sex positivity in children.
" I think it's symptomatic of the way we treat sex and children," says Frannie. "I come from the belief that the less frustrated an individual is with sex, the less likely they are to develop rape impulses or abusive impulses."
So this video is an exercise in radical openness with children about body positivity and sex positivity, in the belief it will help tackle rape culture and promote consent.
At points, the interview with Fannie made me feel deeply uncomfortable; the same kind of discomfort I saw plenty of in the wake of last month's Lena Dunham incident. What Dunham describes in her memoir – touching her sister's vagina at age 7, or bribing her for kisses when they were older – was it abuse?
The media's array of professional opinion-havers were conspicuous in their silence, with very few prepared to back a solid yes or a no. Grace Dent offered perhaps the most diplomatic of truths: whatever it is, we can't handle it.
There ended up being more debate around race and privilege than there was around children, their sexuality and how we prepare them safely for a healthy, happy life. What the response to the Lena incident threw up for me – especially if people felt Lena got off too easily because she's white and rich – is that we don't really seem to be sure what's healthy for all children, regardless of class and race. As my friend Sarah said when I discussed this article with her: "We can handle it; just, no one is talking about it."
I ask Professor Peter Fonagy, Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Centre – a children's mental health charity – about the Lena story. "Very few people don't have sexual explorations with other children," he says, adding that – 110 years after Freud – we should be less confused about this stuff, but that there's a biological reason why we're not. Most of what we know about our emotions, says Peter, we learn from our caregivers mirroring what we're expressing.
"If a child or infant is sad, a mother mirrors that sadness, communicating a sense that she's coping with it," Peter explains. "So the child's sense of their own sadness is a combination of physiological experience and what they see – the parent's attitude or concern."
This happens with anger, happiness, sadness, joy – basically every single emotion we experience, bar one.
"We do not have this kind of active mirroring of our sexual excitement as we do of all other emotions," Peter continues. "The reason why we – you, I and the rest of the humanity – have complicated feelings in this particular domain is because it was never sorted for us in childhood, and all other feelings are sorted."
Professor Fonagy makes clear that things as they currently are – our culture of ignoring children's sexuality – could well have an important function and should not be tinkered with. That it could be dangerous to experiment with the status quo. So I suppose this is where he and Fannie would disagree.
"Misguided" is the single word he uses to describe the video. "They seem to be trying to bring adult concerns into the world of a child, and that doesn't sit well," he says. "I don't see this as the future of sex education."
That's very much part of the problem here: in an age where we're confused about children and sexuality – yet child sexual abuse is rarely away from the front pages – we have no compulsory child sex education. So while any kid old enough to switch on an iPad can potentially access an entire internet's worth of porn, how can caregivers strike a balance between sex and body positivity, while protecting their children and without the shaming that happened with Lena?
"I feel like this is a conversation that society is not ready to have," says mum-to-be Ruth Barnes. "I'm wary of the blurring of the line between sexuality and exploring your parts innocently as a child, and when those feelings become erotic. I'm all for sex positivity – and the message of consent is an important one. I just think this is too much too soon and that more research is needed."
Self-described "liberal mum" Alice Briggs thinks "it's a hard line to draw". She has a three and a six-year-old and, like most parents of kids that age, never knows what they're going to do next.
"The way they explore their own bodies and each other are just as a child would. We don't want them to think of it as a bad thing," she tells me, adding that – of course –she wants them to be clear of boundaries. But how do you control your child's experience of their body so there's no shaming, no abuse and yet no repression? "We deal with it by being open and as natural as possible," she says, before admitting that it's sometimes a tricky balance to find, as "every child is different".
The School of No Big Deal is trying something different out of desperation for change. Fannie is clear with me again and again that this is about consent and is in no way condoning paedophilia.
Jon Brown, who leads the NSPCC's programmes tackling sexual abuse, tells me: "This might seem an unusual video, but there are different ways of delivering sex education. The important thing is for children to learn that their bodies are to be respected and that they know how to protect themselves from abuse."
Fannie and Poussy had what Fannie describes as early awakenings into sexuality. "It was very difficult for us, because being a child and being a young teenager and being awakened in that sense means that you get shamed or you get abused, basically," she says. It's this experience – and her academic exploration of the subject in her PhD – that has led her to believe that "the more you talk of sex, the more you talk of things that are called shameful, the more they are in the light, the less likely they are to be lived with guilt".
Fannie hopes that the video will do more than just liberate us sexually, explaining: "I'm trying to start dismantling sexual repression and frustration, because I think its at the core of a lot of things that are fucked up at the moment."
She goes on to paraphrase second generation psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich: "I think capitalism works on sexual frustration – that's how they sell you stuff," she explains. "Reich says fascist states use sexual frustration and they sublimate that into freneticism. They use that energy to turn them into fanatics. I think it's happening now. Let's rethink everything; let's imagine a different society."
Problem is, I'm not sure the School of No Big Deal is quite ready to show us this yet. While Fannie says there are already things, post reaction, that she would change with the video, maybe we also need more collaboration between artists, psych professionals like Professor Fonagy, mums like Alice and Ruth, the NSPCC and the education system. At the same time, artists – the people we want to push boundaries – shouldn't be strung up for making us face uncomfortable truths. While the video is a bit weird and confusing, in all honesty, if your three-year-old is roaming around Youtube unsupervised, there are roughly 5 million more videos that are going to fuck with their heads more than "Baby! Love Your Body!"
I ask Fannie if the video was a kind of therapy for her – if actually it isn't for kids, but for adults to retrospectively bring clarity to things we found hard to define as children. She says it's for anyone aged three to 99, and that it's about being "compassioned about your sexuality" – not self harming because you had a weird thought, or shaming others because they told the truth about their childhood.
Shouldn't we, in this eerie territory, treat each other with the transparency, openness and compassion Professor Fonagy says a parent should? If, as a culture, we're confused, shouldn't we try to avoid the temptation to squeeze anyone who dares shed light on the subject into boxes labeled "right" and "wrong"?
I'd say: yes, definitely. But your mind is yours to make up.
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