The ‘rainbow dildo butt monkey’ is no laughing matter

A council's decision to allow an adult act to perform for children represents a tremendous moral failure.

Jo Bartosch

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Topics Politics UK

What says ‘Summer Reading Challenge’ more succinctly than monkey cock? This is one of the questions left hanging by the decision to invite performers from carnival troupe Mandinga Arts to Goodmayes Library in Redbridge last Saturday. Predictably, social media went wild when images were shared online showing a man wearing a monkey costume adorned with a foot-long swinging, simian schlong.

The event was part of an Arts Council-funded initiative. One might be forgiven for thinking this was a niche, risqué performance for adults. But it was actually aimed at children aged between four and 11. How a children’s entertainer with a dildo slipped through safeguarding procedures remains unclear. But while it’s tempting for journalists like me to monkey about with puns, that this happened at all shows the dangers that lurk when we start treating children like adults.

On Saturday, the staff behind the Redbridge Libraries social-media accounts were clearly buzzing on the bantz, quipping about the chimp cock. ‘When you’ve got it, flaunt it’, they tweeted, alongside a photo of the man himself.

Now, just a few days after the event, there’s been a dramatic change in tone. Local officials are in full ‘lessons learned’ mode, passing the blame on to a charity called Vision Redbridge Culture and Leisure (RCL). Council leader Jas Athwal said he was ‘disgusted’ and local MP Wes Streeting weighed in with a public letter of condemnation, in which he used the memorable phrase (pinched from journalist Janice Turner) ‘rainbow dildo butt monkey’ to describe the performer in question.

Since the story broke, the Mandinga Arts website has disappeared, replaced with a holding page. The organisation’s social-media feeds have also been scrubbed of questionable content. But screenshots taken while the site was still live and shared across social media show photos of smiling performers in giant penis costumes indulging in simulated sex acts. Mandinga Arts has unconvincingly apologised for any offence caused.

Redbridge Libraries has now also made a lawyerly comment, noting that ‘one of the animal costumes was inappropriate, which we were not aware of at the time of booking. We deeply apologise for the offence caused.’ This rings hollow given their earlier social-media posts joking about the children’s entertainer wearing a dildo.

The tone of these statements suggests that Redbridge Libraries and Mandinga Arts believe the problem is not in their actions, but rather in the minds of the uptight pearl-clutchers of Middle England. But the problem here is not about ‘offence caused’ to narrow-minded people. It is about who we let in when we break down certain taboos.

‘This is a shocking failure of safeguarding’, says Tanya Carter of the safeguarding group, the Safe Schools Alliance: ‘There are serious questions to be asked regarding the processes that led to this mind-boggling episode. Anybody who thinks this over-sexualised performance is children’s entertainment and not an overt display of eroding children’s boundaries does not understand child safeguarding and therefore should not be working anywhere near children.’

This is not the first dodgy decision taken by Redbridge Libraries. On 3 February, it hosted a drag queen known as Mama G for LGBT+ History month. The event was advertised as ‘sharing stories and songs that celebrate being who you are and loving who you want’. Which sounds innocuous enough.

But Mama G has hit the headlines before, most notably in Devon in 2019, when parents were angered that he had taught a pre-school audience how to twerk. The case was just one in what has become a long line of reports about drag queens indulging in inappropriate behaviour at LGBT events aimed at kids. At libraries, as elsewhere, it seems due diligence is out, and adult-themed entertainers are in.

Ultimately, who signs off bookings at Redbridge Libraries is irrelevant. In this latest incident, the spectacle of a children’s entertainer with a prosthetic cock was witnessed by the other performers, library staff, social-media officers and ordinary members of the public before it was openly criticised. Like one of those social-psychology experiments, individuals’ implicit sense of wrongdoing was pitted against their desire to fit in with a group. And just as with the majority of test subjects in such experiments, none of those in attendance broke ranks to condemn obviously troubling behaviour.

Because it was obviously troubling behaviour. Young kids were being treated as if they were adults. This is not an issue limited to a few excitable local councils, either. We see it all around us, above all in the growing problem of the sexualisation of children.

And yet, in the UK today otherwise decent citizens are more fearful of being labelled prudish than they are of turning a blind eye to this sexualisation. No doubt, talk in the council crisis meetings that will inevitably follow this episode will be about mitigating reputational damage, and safeguarding staff against the pitchfork-wielding mob of Middle England. But, in this case, the rabble are right to see danger in the jungle.

Jo Bartosch is a journalist campaigning for the rights of women and girls.

Picture by: Twitter / Has Ahmed.

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