Oh Yes Oh No Extended Programme Booklet
Further Notes on Oh Yes Oh No
Some thoughts on the process and the journey…
Sometimes shows have a way of revealing themselves to you before you even know what they’re about. In 2016, I decided I wanted to make a show about female desire: how often it is misconceived, misappropriated, and crucially, underestimated. I called it ‘Oh Yes Oh No’. At the time, I was unaware how the title of the show pointed so directly to my unconscious understanding of my own desire and sexuality: how bound up it was in navigating my positive and negative experiences, and the confusion that lay therein.
I wanted to make a show about embracing female desire, but I found myself time and time again coming back to my own experience of rape, and to this niggling feeling that I wasn’t entirely in control of my own desire. At the source of it, I felt a deep shame about my sexuality, and the kinds of things that turned me on, things that I assumed were at odds with my politics. I wanted to know if I was truly the owner of my desire, I wanted to know where my impulses and ideas came from, I wanted to know if I could begin to untangle it from the narrow narrative of desire that we are spoonfed by dominant heteronormative culture. I wondered if other women felt similarly.
As I began the research process for the show, and began conducting interviews with women around their experiences of sex and desire, I found that this question came up time and time again, the idea of ‘OH-YES’ and OH-NO’ being in tandem. This of course, is not to say that all the women I spoke to had rape fantasies, but many had aspects of their sexuality that they weren’t entirely comfortable with. Starting with my own experience of shame and difficulty, I began to think about whether it mattered if you had sexual fantasies that were at odds with your politics, or ethics. I wondered whether these things (your sexual life and your political life) could or should ever be separate.
Why would a woman who has been raped later fantasise about being raped? Is this desire a clever form of reclamation, or a symptom of trauma? Can it be both? How can you reclaim sexual desire from the prism of past sexual abuse?
Fantasies are not created in a vacuum. According to many studies, somewhere between half to a third of all women have rape fantasies. And many women who have these fantasies find them troubling. Let’s be clear, rape is always a criminal act. Women who have rape fantasies, do not ever want to be raped. But somewhere within the fantasy lies a wish to be dominated, to be objectified, or for an idea of non-consent to be played with.
When I began looking into where these fantasies came from I was disturbed to find studies from male academics or thinkers who suggested that these sorts of desires were inherent to women. I found these sorts of arguments not only very dangerous in their narrow view of gender, but also in the assumption that all women must necessarily want to be passive and submissive- and let’s be honest, we probably don’t need more material out there to support these kinds of ideas in society.
Let’s take a brief glance at the view of sexuality that we are sold by press and pop culture: ‘default’ porn with its punish-fucking of women and emphasis on male pleasure over female pain at all odds, the kind of abusive relationships sold to us by Disney (Beauty and the Beast as a prime example), the frivolous murder of sex workers in video games such as Grand Theft Auto, 50 Shades of Grey with its murky consent, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam… Re-considering the idea of rape fantasy, or a woman’s desire to be submissive within this context left me with many questions. What if these desires are not only symptomatic of the kind of lessons we are taught by mainstream culture, but are also a necessary defence or coping strategy for living in a world which offers so few choices for women?
Alongside this I felt very strongly that I, and we as women, have a duty to claim our sexuality for ourselves, especially those who have had experiences of sexual assault or rape, and especially when we live in a world that seems to prize a heteronormative, male view of sexuality above our own. And perhaps this meant that as long as we were practicing our sexuality in a safe, consensual way, then whatever we do in the bedroom should be up to us, and should be ours for the taking. However, many of the women I spoke to worried about the consequences of these sorts of sexual practices.
Whilst I am not saying that rape fantasy directly supports rape as a criminal act, I wonder whether it can possibly act as a reinforcement of behaviours that are not socially acceptable, but are coded as secretly desirable; especially when there is such a lack of information and education on real, safe sex in porn, education, and wider society[P1] . How can we ever know that our actions aren’t supporting a system which perpetuates toxic gender stereotypes, or worse, supports a culture in which violence towards women is further normalized? If I believe I should behave in accordance to my beliefs and politics in my everyday life, why would I put this moral compass on hold in the bedroom? Do we, as a society, have a responsibility to deny our most extreme desires in order to limit the damage those ideas can do to both victims and potential victimisers?
These questions arose over and over throughout the interviews and workshops I held: we discussed, we argued, we justified, we worried. It became clear that if I was looking for an easy solution to these questions, which caused anxiety, shame and guilt in myself as well as many of the women I spoke to, then I was kidding myself. However, one thing I began to suspect was that all this worrying and agonizing about the ins and outs (excuse the crude accidental pun) and implications of our sexual practices might further support the idea that my sexuality isn’t for me, that it is for other people, and that my personal desires and happiness should be policed or compromised for the sake of the ‘greater good’. Throughout all this, I was beginning to sense that there was something awesomely powerful in the act of women simply verbalising what they want, and staking a claim to their own sexuality. This is something I’ll return to later on.
By the time you’ve read this you will most likely have seen the show, and therefore will perhaps have sensed that my own personal position remains entirely ambiguous on the matter, and this points to a sort of half-conclusion for me. I know I will never be able to solve these problems, or be able to find easy answers to the questions I’m posing, but I know unequivocally, that without discussion these ideas will continue to remain stagnant and taboo. For me, theatre can become a fantasy space, a safe space to begin to unpick these desires, these discussions and perhaps begin to open them up. There is also the possibility that these spaces can become therapeutic in helping us to re-frame, re-work and process ideas. And perhaps, here is where power can lie. To my mind, there is nothing more powerful than asking a woman what she wants, and giving her the space to answer.
A Note on the Research
Some thoughts on the research and those involved…
This show wouldn’t have been possible without the voices of all the courageous and generous participants I spoke to along the way. For this reason, I feel it is important that they are properly acknowledged here.
The women I worked with and spoke to came from all walks of life: in and outside London, from those in their early twenties, to women in their fifties, students, working mothers, and from a variety of working and class backgrounds.
Not all the women I interviewed had been raped or assaulted, but around 95% of them had been. Not all the women had rape fantasies, but most of them expressed some version of dominance fantasies (i.e. a wish to be sexually submissive). Not all the women I spoke to had difficulty with, or had shame surrounding their sexuality, but those who didn’t were in the minority. Not all the women I had spoken to had come to terms with their assault, or negative experiences, and many continue to struggle today. Every single person I spoke to wanted to share their story, because they believed that doing so was extremely important, and most said they felt empowered in that act.
Since making the show, two of the interviewees have transitioned, and become trans. They both felt it was important that their stories and identities remained in the shoe as a testament to their feelings and identities at the time.
At the beginning of this process I decided I wanted to interview those who identified as female who had had similar experiences to me. I put a call out through Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis, and began interviewing rape survivors about their experience of sexuality. Interviews usually lasted 1-2hrs, and covered topics such as their experiences of assault/rape, their experience and understanding of their own desire and sexuality, and discussion around recovery and reclaiming desire. Around these interviews, I was also running sex-themed workshops for femme-identifying participants, which provided safe spaces and exercises on which to reflect about sexuality and desire, to ask questions, to hear each other. Towards the end of my research, I decided that I wanted to interview a broader range of participants, and thus posted call-outs to interview those who simply wanted to speak about their sexuality (i.e. not specifically rape survivors). I was shocked that around 90% of these interviewees had also been raped or assaulted.
I don’t feel that there is space here to discuss in depth the feelings I had around this last revelation, but I do feel it is important. It occurred to me that it might be that its those who have the most difficulty with their sexuality that are the ones who feel most keenly that they want to share their story, or have their voice heard. What I will say though, is that through this process of workshops and interviews in addition to this revelation, I was made keenly aware that having safe spaces to speak about sexuality felt extremely important, and I began to reflect on how few spaces I encountered in my daily life where I felt I could do that.
These workshops will be continuing to be held throughout the UK tour of Oh Yes Oh No, later this year and into 2020.
The workshops and interviews were only made possible through the kind support of Arts Council England, Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Live Art Development Agency, Live Art Bistro
The Ending… Where do we go from here?
Thoughts on shame, and wondering if there are other options…
This was one of the hardest shows to find an ending for. From fairly early on in the process I felt that it was my duty to end the show on a note of hope, partially because of a selfish wish to find hope in my story, and also because I feel I have a duty to deliver some insight into a way forward- how are we to continue without hope?
I knew that I wanted the show to end with women’s voices, and the idea of asking for what you want. I had felt throughout the research process that the simple act of verbalising desire was one of the most powerful and healing things these spaces could provide. However, as I was making the show I found I struggled to deliver on this because personally, as I was still struggling to find hope in my story. That is, as much as I tried, I wasn’t sure if I had found a way to diminish my shame. The show premiered in 2017 in London, and after three weeks of presenting the show I completely lost my voice. For a show about finding your sexual voice, the irony of this is not lost on me. To add to that, the process of losing my voice, and the eventual surgery that I had to have felt very close to my early experience of sexual violence that almost feels stored in my body’s muscle memory. Developing polyps on your vocal chords and losing your voice may not be uncommon for a performer, but it felt obvious to me that I had losing my voice felt very connected to the struggle to reclaim my voice within the show.
It took me a year to recover from this point. I stopped doing the show. I had surgery. And then gradually, through speech therapy and the other kind of therapy, I began to build myself up again. I came back to the show, and re-made it to make it stronger, and safer for me. I will be honest and say that it was a scary process going back into the show, but I knew it was important. And this is where I am today.
One of the central ideas in the show is ‘having options’. I began to think of my options: I can opt to ask for what I want, or I can opt to not; I can opt to begin trying to move towards reclaiming my sexuality, or I can opt to not even try; I can opt to stay in the shame, or I can opt to try and move forward. I opt for the latter. And the first step in that direction is to finally begin to ask for what I want. I hope that this final act can feel pertinent to those watching the show: from those who relate to the stories of sexual violence, to those who can’t relate to that but might relate to struggling with fantasies that verge on the taboo, and finally to those who might have neither of these experiences, but might on some small level question or struggle with their sexuality.
Perhaps it is here that we can find hope.
A selection of helpines for anyone who might have been affected by the themes presented in the show
0808 802 9999
0808 2000 247
National Domestic Violence Helpline
0808 2000 247
0808 1689 111
Sex Positivity Resources
A selection of resources to help in the promotion of and thinking around sex positivity
Confessions of a Female-Feminist Masochist
A short meditation on female masochism by ‘PPF’
Emerging from below the grasps of a long, troubled relationship, I felt myself lighter, unfurling, engine purring and ready to go. I devoured the freedom. One night, awash with pleasure, fucking hard and long, I took his dick in my mouth and slid it down my throat. He stretched his neck to look down at me as I was gagging, our eyes locked and he said, with concern ‘I thought you were a feminist.’
I sputtered, I laughed.
Feminism’s relationship with sexuality is as knotty, complex and contradictory as women’s own relationship to their sexuality. To some sex may seem to be a frivolous diversion from the critical problems we face globally (poverty, war, disease, nuclear annihilation etc.). But it is precisely at these times of destruction when women’s bodies, sex and power are more often than not placed on the frontline. They are forced to acquire immense symbolic weight, with disputes over sexual behaviour becoming the vehicles on which a myriad of social anxieties are placed.
Sexuality has its own politics, inequities and modes of oppression. The dominant representations and expectations of sexuality at any given time and place are products of human activity. They are imbued with conflicts of interest and political manoeuvring. In this sense, sex is political. The domains of the erotic life are not held in isolation.
P: Oh Yes! I want you to hurt me and kiss me
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes that love equals total devotion for the woman in love, that ‘love for the woman is a total abdication for the benefit of a master.’ Referring to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Beauvoir defines masochism as ‘to cause myself to be fascinated by my objectivity- for others.’ She writes it is a woman’s revenge on her self: ‘she does not revolt against him as along as she loves him; she revolts against her self… All her narcissism turns to disgust, humiliation, and self-hatred that push her to self-punishment.’
P: Oh God Yes, I just want to be tied down by you and covered in all of you…please
There have been many societal changes for women since the first publication of The Second Sex. But the provocations set by Beauvoir have plagued feminism ever since, splitting movements into factions unable to agree a shared position about masochism, heterosexuality, penetration and the related issues of pornography and sex work.
P: I want to feel the sharp sting of your hand as it lands on my arse, my breasts, my thighs, my cunt. Oh yes yes yes.
Beyond these ongoing conflicts in feminist theory, something deeper plagues me (as I have seen it does with Louise). What is it to define, or to know, my desires? Are they my own? Or do they result from a porousness? But for me, porousness also holds the potential of sharing a desire, to be ignited or consumed by it, to be in love with another’s desires. Susan Sontag wrote of the ‘compulsion to be what the other person wants.’ She called it X, labelling Xy ‘not knowing what your feelings are, and liking to be agreeable. To be incorporated.
N: You want me there?
Fucking your face?
Fucking my throat as deep as you can
N: Holding you closer, by the hair
P: Twisting my hair hard round your fingers
Keep me close
Keep me gagging
I wanna be suffocating on you
Sontag also wrote ‘Fucking vs. being fucked. The deeper experience—more gone—is being fucked.’
As I write this I am thinking of my pleasure. Pleasure, wrote Foucault—pleasure in the truth of pleasure—is sustained, ‘but not without trembling a little by the obligation of truth.’ By the pleasures and obligations of confession (my desire can only be fulfilled as it is spoken, as it is displayed, if not only to the lover). ‘What led us to show’ he asked, ‘that sex is something we hide?’
The image inserts itself, suddenly, into my head, his hands are in my hair, and he is inside me, and he is biting me, his eyes glinting and we are all teeth and claws. The image wells up inside my body and burns through my skin. Gasping, I ask him to punch me, please. He shakes his head, and smiles, he can’t. I kiss him. Our bodies heat up. I worry, I should have held back. We are careering deeper into something, pitching and tipping. A few minutes later, he punches me. Did I wanted what I had said I wanted? He assumed I had spoken the truth of my desire. He took me at my word. I now had to take my own desire at my word, the shock and warm glow of the pain on my right cheek shocked my body into cascades of orgasm.
This is me, mastering my desires, honouring my feelings, daring to speak them, owning their depths. But what happens next? Is this my narcissism? Is this tidal wave of sensation enough to justify the facilitation of my own humiliation? Is this my selfish orgasm which betrays the generations of women before me and those to come? Or is this my liberation which they fought for?
In the social world, it is the social that makes our desires: our desires to constrain desire, and to speak desire; to deny desire and to free desire. In addition to influencing our thoughts, feelings, and actions, patriarchy also tells us what to think of them; patriarchy strives to dictate our meta-thoughts and feelings (the thoughts and feelings we have about thoughts and feelings). In recognising and claiming some amount of choice in how to interpret her desires, perhaps the female-feminist masochist reclaims some aspects of her erotic agency.
You can behold my fantasies, but there are no answers here, just a bottomless, fathoming, hungry, riotous ocean of desire.
www.louiseorwin.com | @louiseorwin