By Juliette Bretan
Slotted one above the other like a funky, motley assortment of children’s building blocks, Domka Spytek’s CROSSxTOYS is built on fun.
The tower looms curiously: a concrete ball balances above a stocky mesh cube. Beneath it, a spiky yellow shape squishes with satisfaction between a leather semi-circle and a teetering light-blue wooden triangle; studded with spikes.
You wouldn’t imagine that these shapes could symbolize stereotypical male and female characteristics, inspiring people to rethink gender .
And you certainly wouldn’t imagine the set is one of several to come out of conservative Poland.
Spytek, a multidisciplinary Polish artist, designs sets and games intended to encourage discussion and education around the human body. First creating such projects as part of her university studies, she’s now making kits which could be used more widely; to improve how sex education can be taught.
“I have always been interested in human sexuality and the restrictions around it,” she explains. “I come from a very conservative and patriarchal background.”
Brought up in predominantly Catholic Poland, much of her interest in sex education was inspired by repeated attacks against sexual freedoms there. The country is currently governed by populist, conservative party Law and Justice (PiS); which has hit international headlines in recent years, after proposing a stream of draconian laws.
Over the last few years, sexual rights have proven a political battleground in Poland. PiS has repeatedly tried to clamp down on women’s freedoms; with attempts to almost completely restrict access to abortion as well as limiting contraception. The Polish LGBTQ community has also been under attack from politicians and religious leaders alike; with several local authorities — many under PiS control — recently declaring themselves “free from LGBT ideology”.
Spytek says a recent report that ranked Poland as the worst country in the EU for LGBTQ rights was “heartbreaking.”
Her games were created to respond to such restrictions; paving the way for young people to learn more about their bodies in Poland and worldwide. The first — ero.edu, a magnetic board of body parts, picked out in pink hues — was created as a project for her design BA at the Pedagogical University of Kraków. To understand the context around the issue, Spytek consulted independent Polish organizations that offer sex education outside the school system; to learn about the practices they use and find out common questions from teenagers.
“It’s a very important age,” explains Spytek. “It’s the time you shape yourself.”
But it’s hard for teenagers to shape themselves in Poland. While western European nations take sex education for granted, such opportunities are seldom available in the conservative country.
“It is very difficult to speak of sex education in Poland right now,” she admits. Polish schools do not offer sex education as a compulsory part of the curriculum — and when they do, it is usually to teach students how to prepare for family life. There are no specialist sex education teachers, and any books used are government-approved, perpetuating myths and patriarchal attitudes.
Spytek says her own experiences of sex education in Poland were limited.
“I was learning about my own body, but I couldn’t see my own inside parts — it felt like I was detached, in a way,” she recalls. “If I had someone when I was sixteen telling me sexuality can be a positive thing, it would change my mindset.”
“Non-government sex educators fight to change this.”
Poland is certainly in rapid need of such change: after PiS was reelected in the Polish parliamentary election in October last year — following a campaign which particularly vilified LGBTQ people — one of their first proposals was a bill which critics said would be tantamount to criminalizing sexual education in Poland. The bill would treat sex education as ‘pedophilia’, with teachers facing a five-year prison sentence if they defied the law. PiS representatives claimed it was needed to prevent young people from being encouraged to have sex, but activists suggested it could instead put young Poles at risk.
Amnesty International’s Poland Director, Draginja Nadazdin, called it “recklessly retrogressive”.
It’s now the run-up to the Presidential election in Poland, and a similar development has also occurred. In recent days, the PiS candidate and incumbent President Duda has said he would ban LGBTQ education in schools if re-elected; signing a ‘Family Card’ of controversial election promises as part of his campaign. The ‘Family Card’ also pledges to prevent gay couples from marrying or adopting and promises to defend families against what has become an oft-used PiS soundbite, “LGBT ideology”.
Spytek says there has never been any kits like hers in Poland before; but initially, ero.edu was not intended to be reproduced. After moving to more liberal Sweden, she learned more about different gender identities and realized she needed to make changes to the project; to challenge restrictions, like those in Poland, even further.
“The first game was super-flat — it never introduced the non-binary perspective,” she explains, saying that it only provided a basic introduction to body parts.
“I’m glad I had the opportunity to go back and correct myself.”
She re-designed the game, creating a second, more detailed ero.edu set out of wood, which aims to offer sex education from a non-oppressive and gender neutral perspective. Drawing on her previous research in Poland and additional research in Sweden, the new ero.edu provides extensive information on human anatomy, biological processes and birth control methods.
This kit can be produced and implemented in schools, allowing real change in sex education. Tests on a group of teenagers in Sweden, she says, proved it could teach young people how organs were connected and functioned.
Another project is CROSSxTOYS, her Bachelor degree work, designed to encourage people to rethink gender stereotypes. Created to be exhibited in galleries, this was presented at the 2018 New York Design Week, and has also been shown in Poland.
The interactive set comprises 20 stackable elements which allow people to rethink stereotypes around femininity and masculinity. Each of the elements is a different material; symbolizing a normative feature or a typical symbol associated with female or male gender. Spytek encourages those first using the kit to build conventional images of a woman and man from the pieces. The finished result is always a jumble of them all, as users reevaluate stereotypical male and female characteristics.
Spytek hopes projects like these could encourage a wider shift in attitudes.
“People are afraid of what they don’t know,” she thinks.
“The change needs to be done of course in schools, but also in private homes.”
Adaptable, tangible and fun, Spytek believes her kits — and particularly the new ero.edu — could improve sex education in Poland. It could also be used in doctors surgeries, as therapy; or even to help those who don’t speak the language, such as newly-arriving refugees.
From children to adults, from Poland to any land — everyone is allowed to learn here.
“Sex education can be playful — it doesn’t have to be scary,” she emphasizes.
“You don’t have to be afraid of your own body.”
Cover Image: Domka Spytek