Cancel culture? My play was shut down by rightwing activists before it even opened

Ek am the producer and co-creator of a piece of theatre that was cancelled before it had even been seen. It started like this: a group of people online began to call for the show to be shut down. It gained some traction and led to a petition on the platform Citizen Go, which is believed to have links with extremist hard-right Christian groups in the US. My company, as well as the staff at the theatre venues we were due to be performing at, faced threats of violence and abuse against staff.

The show is called The Family Sex Show. Its aim is to reimagine the way we think and talk about relationships and sex. Making it was a process of collaboration with a diverse group of people who have varied life experiences. The show is a fun and playful performance made up of songs, dances and personal stories. It is about bodies and how society views them. It also explores themes including gender, seksualiteit, pleasure and boundaries. But really, the show is about care and mutual respect – and it exists in the hope that it can be a part of breaking down some of the systems of oppression alive today.

Whether you agree with the show’s aims or not, it has not yet been seen, publicly. Steeds, an online group thought it should not even be seen so it could be judged fairly.

The Family Sex Show is a piece of theatre for everyone. We suggest that this can include children over the age of five too; and we ask that anyone under 16 is accompanied by a guardian. Children are naturally curious about themselves and other people. Toronto’s public health department suggests that children begin to form a sense of identity – which includes attitudes towards their own bodies and genitals – before the age of four. They also understand the expected behaviours for different genders by this age. Die NSPCC also suggests that children under five show curiosity about naked bodies.

It is a show for adults too. We have a lot to learn from one another, no matter what our age. No one is an expert on anything other than themselves.

The campaigners said the show was “grooming” children by inviting them into the theatre, where some of the content of the show would include naked bodies. Om duidelik te wees, this nakedness is limited to one scene and is not of a sexualised nature. There are bodies on stage, and no one touches themselves or each other. The reason for including nakedness is to present bodies as just that – bodies. The conflict and questions that arise in us around this are natural. Watching as an adult, we are confronted with our own conscious and unconscious expectations and prejudices.

The outcry on social media and the subsequent petition used words and ideologies that are rooted in queerphobia, racism, fatphobia, ableism, misogyny and transphobia.

In werklikheid, the world – especially the digital world – we live in means that we don’t have control over what we or our children see. We have a responsibility to provide children and young people with the tools to understand, challenge and put into context certain situations and media they might encounter. By not talking about issues relating to relationships and sex we are putting them in a position of vulnerability increasing the potential for harm.

As a performance, The Family Sex Show is an invitation to experience something together as a family (whatever family means to you), encourage questioning and signpost places for audiences to figure out answers for themselves. As a guardian, the show is designed to help open conversations with your child about relationships and sex. I believe that honesty builds trust. Where transparent conversations are able to be had, children and young people might include guardians in their ongoing decision-making processes – and surely that’s a wonderful thing.

The team behind The Family Sex Show are committed to rights-based relationships and sex education. One of their aims is to promote safeguarding children, young people and vulnerable adults from abuse and harm. It has been made with the understanding that informing young people about consent, their rights and bodies is a key aspect in their protection.

We must disrupt the culture in which children and young people are taught shame and fear, in which sexual violence is normalised.

We believe the cancellation of the show is reflective of this shame and fear, of structural and societal attitudes towards relationships and sex education. Removing work that celebrates freedom of expression from stages cannot be the answer.

Simply put, The Family Sex Show is an offer. If you have the privileges that allow you to go to the theatre, you choose to buy a ticket or not. Except that option – to engage in this show and the themes it addresses – has been taken away.

A relatively small media storm closed a show no one had watched. Beyond arts and culture, what does this reveal about the health and resilience of our public conversation? How does this event speak to power in the UK? Who has it, and how will they use it? Who gets to decide what on behalf of other people? I think what has happened is far more frightening than the performance.

We still hope to find a home for this show. And now I am left in the position to wonder: where do we go from here?

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