Friday, October 16, 2015

French-style sex education for the young

By Nancy T. Lu

Have you ever tried discussing sex with your children? Many fathers and mothers, if they can, shy away from such a situation. Very often, the mere mention of sex is enough to raise eyebrows or to make people blush.

To talk openly about sex was, I remember, almost taboo even in the highly permissive French society years ago. French toddlers grew up using toilet-related coined words such as pipi (to go to the toilet) and caca (to do the other toilet job). Likewise, the exact biological terms in French for the male and female sex organs were strictly kept out of the children’s vocabulary. Boys and girls learned at a tender age to speak vaguely – in whispers, too – of the zizi.

In typically repressed style, candid questions raised by the kids received evasive replies from adults. If American parents told their little ones about the birds and the bees, their French counterparts dwelled on the tale of the seed.

But I still recall the winds of change arriving at the Theatre Present near the Porte Pantin subway station in Paris years ago. The vehicle for sex education then was an avant-garde kiddie play entitled Defense d’en Parler (literally translated “It is Forbidden to Talk About It”).

The children’s play treated sex candidly and frankly. The subject ceased to be veiled in sometimes confusing figures of speech.

I entered the theater at curtain time one day to be greeted musically thus: “Ici, ici meme, tout est permis; ici, ici rien n’est interdit. (Here everything is allowed; nothing is forbidden.)”

From the beginning, the air was cleared of any hint of repression. The aforementioned lively refrain set the mood and drove home the message.

Bernard Betremieux, the man behind the French stage production, had observed the kids’ tendency to giggle or guffaw at the mere mention of pipi and caca. It was obvious that children derive certain pleasure in talking about “forbidden subjects and things.” Theater enthusiast Betremieux decided to give children the means to express themselves.

Before the production finally materialized, Betremieux had to deal with the problem of drawing up the vital questions to be incorporated into the script. He took special precaution in formulating the sentences so as not to unduly provoke his very young and impressionable audience. He also did not want to risk the introduction of images likely to create an undesirable impact. After consulting parents and psychologists, he finalized the script of Defense d’en Parler. Nothing was left to chance.

Young spectators accompanied to Theatre Present by their fathers, mothers or aunts arrived to a warm reception by the entire cast of Defense d’en Parler. The name of each child was sung lustily to the accompaniment of a chord on the piano.

The extroverts were soon singing enthusiastically with the cast while the introverts watched quietly and smiled. At the outset, however, the general impression was that nobody aged 6 to 12 would be allowed to warm his or her seat in the gallery. Showtime was also time for play and fun.

The scenario called for the atmosphere of a children’s party. There was no dull moment. The clowning antics of the cast kept the boys and girls entertained.

Sylvie Feit and Jean-Gabriel Granet appeared before the children. But there was a reversal of roles. Sylvie was dressed like a man and Jean-Gabriel wore a feminine getup.

Then came the poser: How do you tell a man from a woman?

The warming up exercise was very natural and effective. Another leading question was raised: Have you ever seen naked men and women? “Yes, in the museum,” came one candid reply.

The amused children refused to be deceived by superficial trappings. Properly motivated, they rushed to undress Sylvie to reveal her true sex.

Stripped down to her leotard, the actress admitted to being a female. Another cast member confirmed it by drawing on her two breasts and the female sex organ.

Meanwhile Jean-Gabriel with his effeminate posturing came under “attack” by the children. Off went his hat and dress. The moment of truth arrived. “She” turned out to be a he.

Words like zizi, faucet, knife, little bird, piece of wood and even Eiffel Tower emanated from the lips of innocent children. Take note: nobody used the precise word to refer to the male sex organ.

The play continued. More questions were asked: What do you do to have a baby? Can you have a baby without getting married?

Candid replies sometimes sent shock waves across the adult audience. One girl explained that the man must plant a seed in the woman to bring about fertilization. Another child innocently put it this way: “The baby comes from the zizi of the monsieur (man) who puts it in the zizi of the femme (woman).” But listen to a young romantic: “It happens when a man and a woman make love.”

Then came the lesson in biology. Movable screens parted to reveal a huge rag doll measuring 2.5 meters in height and 1.5 meters in width. The prop was designed and made to have the female attributes on one side and the male characteristics on the reverse side. Care was taken not to give it the familiar form likely to constitute physical provocation. There was no room for erotic suggestion here.

The belly on the side showing female anatomy had a flap which could be opened at will. Inside were balloons and tubes representing the uterus, the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Ovules came in the form of Easter eggs, which were distributed on the spot among the delighted children.

The story of fertilization got described like a moving love story but in biological terms. The boys and girls danced out the meeting of the ovule and the sperm.

With the completion of the sex act, the uterus now held a fetus that slowly developed and grew, finally becoming an infant.

The flap on the belly was put back. Six months passed. The baby in the tummy began to move. Another three months later, the little one asked to see the light of day. The suspense-filled moment came. A baby acted out by an adult was born. After being slapped by one of the children, she cried.

How do you stop a baby from crying? A precocious little one suggested: “Breastfeed her!”

After sucking a bit, she cried some more. “Try the other breast,” said another observant girl.

When confronted by sons and daughters regarding sexuality, adults often have difficulty explaining the facts of life. The educational play answered many questions familiar to parents with children.

Very often, children dare not direct nagging questions on sex at their fathers and mothers. But the bliss of innocence is a thing of the past in cities where present-day realities include adult sex programs on cable television, porno shops, and red light districts, The younger generation demands to be enlightened somehow.

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