On a recent weekday, Clemence Dubreuil had no school because her teachers were on strike, so the 9-year-old begged her mother to take her to a museum to see a new exhibit about sex.
If that all sounds very French, it is: Strikes are as much a part of the national character as frank talk about sex. But as the exhibit and the mild controversy surrounding it are proving, the cliches need some updating.
The exhibit in northeast Paris attempts to respond playfully to the serious questions tweenagers ask about sexuality and romantic feeling. Inspired by a guide to sex by the popular cartoonist Zep and writer Helene Bruller, the exhibit also encourages children and their parents or teachers to shed all modesty and embarrassment about touchy topics and start talking.
"The kids were talking about this stuff at school and Clemence didn't understand," said her mother, Danielle Dubreuil, who prefers bringing her curious daughter to the exhibit rather than discussing such topics with her alone.
"We talk about some things," the 42-year-old mother said, hesitantly, "but penetration -- that I had trouble with."
The French are well known for a more open attitude about sex and for believing that the freedom to display their bodies -- unclad on billboards or in tight street clothes -- is a fundamental cultural value, a bit like "the pursuit of happiness" in America.
But many people have expressed regret that, contrary to French values, sex is often taught in schools and at home through the prism of anatomy, reproduction and prevention of disease rather than the emotions surrounding it.
"We don't want to replace the French family," said the exhibit's curator, Maud Gouy, "but we want the exhibit to be another view of what goes on between men and women without it being . . . raw. Instead, we promote respect, romantic feelings, pleasure."
At the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie science museum, Zep's popular character Titeuf, a sort of French version of Calvin of "Calvin and Hobbes," and some of his classmates, such as the brainy Nadia, guide the visitors. They ask questions such as, "What does making love mean?" and "If a pregnant woman eats spinach, does the baby in her tummy taste it too?" (Adults are cautioned to respect bashful young visitors, giving them space to view the displays.)
The characters treat sexuality with humor and sometimes sarcasm. There is a "love-o-meter" to measure the strength of romantic feelings, a "pubermatic" that shows bodies transformed during puberty, and a pinball machine where tiny balls in the shape of sperm race for eggs.
In a "teenagers" corner, an area isolated by curtains, the curious can put on headphones to get answers to questions such as, "I have one breast bigger than the other, is that normal?" "What is masturbation?" and "I'm afraid to have my period, is it painful?"
By using cartoon drawings rather than realistic images, Gouy says, she hopes to reduce the children's discomfort and pique their imagination.
"In France, kids are bombarded with sexual images -- in films, ads, songs, on the Internet," she said during an interview on the periphery of the exhibit, which takes up almost half of a floor of the sprawling museum. "To show things in a way that allows for imagination lets children come up with their own representation of sex."
Near a "love mural" drawn by Zep, which details the sexual act itself and the preliminaries, one side of a free-standing wall shows an almost life-size drawing of a boy on top of a girl with his hands under her shirt and her hands down the back of his pants; on the other side, the girl and boy are similarly engaged but with the girl on top. The illustrations may seem risque by American standards. But here they are being used to coach children toward the most French of ideals -- in this case, equality.
The exhibit, aimed at 9-to-14-year-olds, is intent on taking the edge off the dialogue with children about sexuality. Take, for example, the French name for the exhibit: "Zizi Sexuel" -- taken from the title of Zep and Bruller's guide. A zizi is an innocent word for a little boy's penis. The title's translation in English is "Sexual Willy."
Butthe current generation in France is not as steeped in innocence and ideals such as equality, according to educators and parents who worry that the right sexual values are no longer being instilled by osmosis.
Despite winning praise in the mainstream media for its healthy if not sometimes silly approach, the exhibit also has had objectors.
Soon after the show opened in October, SOS Education, a conservative parents group with 65,000 members nationwide, delivered several boxes of petitions to the office of the minister of education demanding that primary school parents be informed should class trips be planned to the "corrupting" exhibit; the group also sent brochures previewing the exhibit's content to 8,000 Paris-area schools for parents to see. (The exhibit, which runs through the end of the year, already has had 100,000 visitors, mostly schoolchildren.)
"We don't have the power to shut it down," said Vincent Laarman of SOS Education. "We at least want parents to have the power to keep their children from it."
Laarman's group mostly objects to the "crude" nature of displays such as a rubber penis that children can inflate with a pump and Zep's "love wall." "There is not enough about building a relationship," Laarman said. "It's just learning how to kiss, listening to kissing. That's not about feelings."
But Gouy says providing real information for children can only make their journey to adulthood easier and safer; she also notes that many parents don't have the time or means these days to discuss sex with them.
Easier on Maman
Before she came to the exhibit, Danielle Dubreuil would resort to Zep and Bruller's guide if she didn't want to explain something to Clemence. "The reality is I don't want to talk about it . . . and here I know they've done a good job, and she won't be shocked."
While a gaggle of giggling boys pressed all the buttons on a display about the sounds of kissing, Clemence stretched out in "Nadia's room" on an enormous red-velvet bed in the shape of a heart, her arms crossed behind her head, one leg dangling over the edge. A sweet smile spread across her lips as she gazed up at the bed canopy and watched a movie screen that displayed classic scenes of falling in love from different movies. She saw languorous kisses and swooning lovers dancing, but also domestic disputes, breakups and heartbreak.
Her mother stood back from the bed, waiting.
Special correspondent Devorah Lauter contributed to this report.