Camden People’s Theatre ends its first ever Festival of Sex: artistic director Brian Logan, headliner Louise Orwin and Propolis Theatre Company talk to Daniel Perks about why a sex festival isn’t more popular.

Sexual imagery is fully integrated into Western society. We walk past billboards of barely dressed models advertising the latest must-have commodities; we can’t watch a TV programme or a film without two beautifully sculpted individuals making picture-perfect love. It’s even plastered all over social media – targeted advertising telling us to use protection, or to spice up our sex lives with the latest in mainstream bondage fun, the ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ effect. We perpetuate the image that sex has to be performed in a certain way, looking a certain way, thrusting and grunting and moaning and submitting in a certain way.

The ‘Fifty Shades’ Toy Collection

But why, if there is such an accepted normality to sex, can’t we talk about it without becoming shy, reserved and typically British?

I spoke with performance artist Louise Orwin – as an artist, she makes provocative work that highlights issues we are so uncomfortable discussing in a mature and honest way. She sees sex as another pressure that women especially are forced to conform to, something that permeates through all aspects of our lives:

“The general view of sex that comes up time and time again in the media is very narrow. I feel like it’s heteronormative and male focussed. We are constantly bombarded with women looking like they’re enjoying sex but we don’t talk about how women enjoy sex. I’ve spoken to so many women who have never had an orgasm – they don’t know how to bring themselves to orgasm because it’s so under-explored. It’s symptomatic of oppression.”

 

It’s obvious that the stereotypical way to have sex is nonsense – the adverts are lying to us. Simply by looking at the diversity inherent in humanity, the mix of genders and sexual identities prevalent today tells us that sex can’t possibly be the same for everyone. The shame comes with assuming that if you like sex in a way deemed different or alternative, you will be judged negatively. Or that if you aren’t ashamed to disclose that you enjoy sex and exploring sexuality with whoever you feel comfortable with, you are branded a slut or a whore. Especially for young women…

“There’s a pressure to conform, to become a ‘woman’ earlier that necessary” observes Orwin. “You’re constantly bombarded with images of sexuality and the need to be sexy, but not being allowed to be sexual – if you do then you’re a slut, it’s something shameful.”

Performance artist Louise Orwin

Is education the problem?

Does our inability to talk about sex stem from the lack of appropriate sex education as children? Or our reticent to have open and honest conversations with the younger generation about what sex is and, more importantly, what it isn’t? Keeping tight-lipped about this with young people may only continue to drive a vicious cycle of sexual prejudice and pressure. Theatre company Propolis Theatre seem to think so – performer and producer Faye Bishop comments,

“I wonder whether it is something to do with lack of funding within education, but also whether the education is outdated. There hasn’t been a focus on sex education within the system for many years, so it needs remodelling. Certain sexual and gender identities haven’t even been acknowledged!”

 

Performer Louise Orwin agrees – she thinks that this applies to educating children about sex too,

It’s so confusing for teenage girls, you get to a certain age and your body changes – often other people realise that before you do and treat you differently. I spoke to a number of teenage girls who have shame about their genitalia because they never see images of real vulvas, unless it’s from porn. It’s really hard to talk to young people about sexuality but I feel that honesty is the best policy. If you’re honest then there’s less chance of it becoming something shameful or dangerous to them later on.”

 

If we could talk with our younger selves about sex, what would we say?

The obvious answers are often the ones that ring true – don’t bow to peer pressure, explore it at your own pace, don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. But given the multitude of possible genders and sexual orientations that are now widely accepted, this advice is all the more important.

“The different ways that people view sex and virginity are very striking” notes Bishop. “There’s a girl in SPILL [Propolis Theatre’s latest verbatim theatre production] who speaks about an auto-immune disease that affected her genitalia and she refers to virginity in a foetal position. We also have an asexual character whose view is that sex can be whatever anybody wants it to be. There is a transgender character who said that what he realised when first encountering sex is not wanting to have it, or finding it as an important part of his life. Sex is on a broad spectrum, more so than just penetration.”

“I’d tell my younger self is that there isn’t any pressure to have sex, or have it in a certain way. We don’t have to listen to external pressures about sex or our sexuality because it is very unique to the person. It’s ok to talk about it, ok to express your views and discover for yourself what works or doesn’t for you. Also, this might change as we evolve as people and it’s ok to feel one thing at one time and another thing later. Listening to your body and accepting it is important.”

Propolis Theatre actor Jenny Davies

So, perhaps the best advice is simply to reassure young people that sex is not disgusting or wrong, but a part of life and all it wonderful variety. As well as that though, maybe we should tell ourselves simply to be ourselves, to not plaster our faces with makeup or our hair with gel, but be happy in our own skin and our own bodies as they are? Orwin highlights some frightening home truths about the desire to look like our idols,

“The fastest rising plastic surgery in the world is labiaplasty. No wonder women don’t feel like they can take sexuality for themselves, they feel like what’s between their legs is shameful, or disgusting! So often women are encouraged to use sexuality as currency – something to trade for power or status. That encourages that your sexuality isn’t for you, it’s for someone else. But, if it’s not for you, how do you learn about yourself and what you like? All you learn is what other people like.”

“Porn imagery has become such a part of mainstream culture – the idea of contouring makeup only used to be found on film sets or porn sets; plastic surgery only used to be for porn stars. Now teenage girls leave the house with false eyelashes and are contouring themselves to go to school. It’s almost like saying, ‘What I was born with isn’t good enough’. Although, if you do go out with this face on, there’s an element which is really empowering and that’s addictive. But when you’re constantly focussing on the surface, all the stuff underneath doesn’t get the attention that it needs. That’s tricky to navigate – how to be empowered without supporting an oppressive system.”

 

Are people trying to open up the conversation?

Is this conversation the only thing highlighting everything that is wrong with sex today? Surely performers like Orwin and Propolis Theatre aren’t the only people exploring ways of discussing and reclaiming sexuality as a topic that needs to be explored, shared and ultimately cleansed? We need to remove the barriers and feel comfortable to discover what we really like and don’t like.

While researching for her latest show, Oh Yes Oh No, Orwin tells about some others that she has come across doing exactly this:

“I’ve come across the films of Erika Lust, a female pornmaker who makes films that look beautiful (porn for the Instagram age) but are also centred on female pleasure and don’t use female performers. Her point of view is that porn performs sex, but it’s not real sex. She uses real bodies, brings more diversity and removes the pressure on women to think as though they have to perform in sex. What does performing mean? It means looking a certain way, making certain sounds, being submissive to your partner.”

Erotic film director Erika Lust

Propolis Theatre reached out to their community of friends and family in Bristol as part of the research for their show SPILL. As a verbatim piece, the entire script is made up of interviews conducted with various people about their sexual experiences, as Bishop describes:

“We wanted to portray sex in the most realistic light that we could – if we were to sit in the studio and devise a piece ourselves, it wouldn’t convey the message we were looking for. So, we went out within our networks and conducted the interviews.”

Ideally, we want sex to be something that is more openly spoken about; the whole idea is to bring down the taboo of feeling like it’s very private and something you don’t want to talk about, but at the same time respect if people don’t want to share sexual ideas.”

“There’s no blanket way to have sex, look at sex or think about sex. We’re told as society that everyone is having sex and having it in a certain way. That’s what we wanted to highlight with SPILL – that there is no right or wrong, especially with so much pressure on young people today.”

 

Is theatre the forum to encourage debate – a safe space to talk and to listen?

Maybe we need different ways to both educate and speak about sex, spaces where it’s ok to talk and listen frankly to honest opinions and points of view. Spaces that encourage conversation and don’t dissuade those from querying pre-conceived notions. Orwin certainly thinks so:

“We have a lot of theatre about gender roles and feminist issues, but I don’t think we see a lot of stuff about sex and that’s because there is such a squeamishness about it. The problem is, if we don’t talk about it, we stay in the dark ages. Theatre is such an exciting space to think about ideas, open up discussions that can’t be opened elsewhere.”

 

Cue Camden People’s Theatre and their inaugural festival of sex, Hotbed. Artistic Director Brian Logan is well aware that programming a series of theatre performances to address this topic will be both controversial and generate interesting ways of discussing and presenting the topic:

“We try and programme festivals that pose questions people want to talk about, or that we think theatre can add something different on. One of the agendas of the festival is to shine a light upon sex, which at a psychological level is an awkward thing to do in a room with a lot of strangers – there will be creative ways to put it across to circumvent that potentially awkward exchange.”

“We wanted to raise and celebrate the sex positivity agenda, acutely aware that there are certain ways in which sex is addressed and discussed in society, in the sexualisation of women for example. We want to talk about sex in ways that are not commercialised or clichéd. It’s an exposing thing to talk about, all the more so when you’re trying to talk about alternative ways to highlight it.”

Louise Orwin

Louise Orwin is the headliner for this year.

Both Louise Orwin and Propolis Theatre have performed at this year’s Hotbed festival – as a long-standing collaborator with Camden People’s Theatre, Orwin is the headliner. Oh Yes Oh No is a performance that not only tackles the variety inherent within sex, but the perception of roles within sex and, most importantly, the topic of consent:

“When you are talking about sexual assault, it’s so hard to move forward from that place and heal if you’re not allowed to talk about it. If you’re constantly silenced, that leaves you in a place of shame or guilt – it’s not helpful for survivors or society in general. We can’t get to a place of understanding how these things happen without talking; it stops society from moving forward and having interesting and important discussions about it.

A lot of the work that I make tries to reframe the problem in ways that are useful to an audience. I’m not interested in being didactic, or providing answers – I don’t think anyone has all the answers. For me, it’s about opening up a dialogue with the audience, that’s why a lot of my work is participatory. It’s also one of the reasons I make myself vulnerable over and over again; vulnerability gives you much more space for possibility, there is more chance the audience may open themselves to questions that they haven’t wanted to consider before.”           

 

Is Hotbed festival out on a limb, or are there more of its kind?

The unexpected answer is Hotbed festival seems to be unique in this space, as a festival that puts sex and sexuality at the core of its purpose. London is awash with related topics such as feminism and promoting women in society, all of which are both necessary and exciting for a theatregoer to witness. But sex sells – the stereotypical views of sex, sexuality and beauty are plastered all over the media as lures to sell products. And as much as we hate to admit it, the strategy works.

Neither artist had come across a festival such as Hotbed before either,

“It’s exciting that Camden People’s Theatre are programming a whole festival that talks so candidly about sex.” comments Faye. “Indirectly sex is a part of many performances that we’ve been to, but Hotbed is a larger topic – the reality of it from many points of view, the myriad of different ways we can communicate about sex and not simply the titillation of sex. CPT are very progressive in their thought process. Hopefully we are moving towards a more sexually enlightened place and Hotbed will contribute something towards that.”

 

 

To hear more about the Hotbed festival, follow Camden People’s Theatre on Twitter (@camdenPT) or visit their website – www.cptheatre.co.uk

To hear about future productions by performance artist Louise Orwin, visit her website – www.louiseorwin.com

To hear about future productions by Propolis Theatre Company, visit their website – www.propolistheatre.com