Oh Yes Oh No Extended Programme Booklet
FURTHER WRITING ON ‘OH YES OH NO’
BEFORE: Thoughts on the process…
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 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 heteronormative desire that we are spoon-fed by dominant culture. I wondered if other women felt similarly.
‘We have been taught to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings.’ (Audre Lorde)
As I began the research process for the show, and began conducting interviews and workshops with those who identified as femme or female 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 people I spoke to had rape fantasies or fantasised about being dominated or hurt during sex, 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 someone who has been raped later fantasise about being raped? Is this desire a clever form of re-writing and reclamation, or a symptom of trauma? Can it be both? And how do we begin to hold both ideas in our bodies and minds? How do you begin to 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 and 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 the media 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 (and those who don’t identify with a heteronormative, male-centric view of sex), 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 all others. 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 interviewees I spoke to worried about the consequences of these sorts of sexual practices, as though their eroticism could make them a willing participant in the machinery of patriarchy.
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 and wider society. 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?
I want to be an object, I want to be wanted, I want to be showered with pleasure.
I feel it is important here to say that I am not in any way pro-censorship, and that I don’t have a problem with Kink, or fetish, or S&M. Kink when done right has the ability to make power play, or dominance and submission fantasies, or rape play, or S&M, some of the safest sexual experiences out there. In the Kink community, consent is key, and so often are verbal or written contracts between sexual partners which can safely denominate sexual play from our everyday lives: it becomes safe, consensual fantasy play. What I do have a problem with is when practices from kink, fetish or S&M worlds bleed into default, mainstream porn. It is here where violent practices of power play aren’t declared as kink and become mainstays of sexual activity. It is here where violence between men as the aggressors and women as passive victims become normalized. And it is here, in societies with a plain, urgent need for real, thorough sex education, where images of violence become sexual manuals for young minds eager to learn. And that, I have a problem with.
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 those 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’.
It may be that the playing out of violent desires in the bedroom could reflect a sort of Stockholm-syndrome situation for women living in a patriarchy, but could there also be a chance that this fantasy space could allow me to play with the idea of being more, much more than the one-dimensional-barbie-fuck-hole that the world wants me to be? Could it be that in the playing with and testing the boundaries of identities, power and narrative in erotic play, that I am given a chance to be not just rape victim, not just survivor, not just slut, not just daughter, not just girlfriend, not just theatre maker, not just writer, but more deliriously expansive than all these things put together? In a worlds trying its best to keep me identifying with the narrow, punishing ideals of what a woman ‘should’ be, could this in fact be a radical act?
‘There is a princess in all our heads: she must be destroyed.’ (Laurie Penny)
ON IDENTITY: SURVIVOR vs VICTIM
I don’t want to be a victim or a survivor, I just want to be a slut.
For years I’ve gone back and forth between using the labels ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’. And still neither feel adequate, neither feel like they sum up my experience. Some time ago I stopped using the word victim, because it made me feel disempowered. It somehow made it more real, and this all-too-realness intensified my shame. Do victims of other crimes feel shame? Does a victim of robbery feel shame? I doubt it.
‘Survivor’ on the other hand seems to make people feel more comfortable. But it feels way too over-achiever-y, way too goody-two-shoes to me. Because the truth is, some days I don’t feel like I’m surviving. The emphasis here is put on us to ‘heal’, to move through the trauma, and it strips me of my lived experience, perhaps even devalues my feelings and responses. ‘Survivor’ deflects from the perpetrator, from the ugly truth of what happened. And it also, somehow, feels too final. Like it lets my perpetrator off the hook. Like I survived a car crash that was caused by someone else. It’s ok, I’m strong. We both got through this. ‘Survivor’ is the one that leads to people calling you brave, as if that’s some sort of medal you win for getting through the experience. Well, I was brave and strong before I was raped. Being raped did not give me these things. It didn’t give me anything. In fact, it stole from me.
As I’m writing this I hear the words of one of my interviewees ring in my head:
‘Yes because people don’t want to hear you’ve been raped and still enjoy sex.
They want to keep you in a box.’
I am reminded of the consequences of telling your story. You can become a liar, or self-indulgent, or a narcissist, or the little girl lost who wants to be saved, or the attention seeker. (I’m sure many shows that have dealt with these issues have been subject to this criticism). We must remember that there are many reasons why we wouldn’t tell our stories, not least because crime reporting and legal systems all over the world are fucked and tend toward ‘victim-blaming’ and slut-shaming, where victims are subject to crude questioning about how much they drank or what they wore, and there’s more emphasis on women and girls being taught how to avoid being in situations where they might be raped, rather than teaching men and boys about consent and how NOT TO RAPE someone.
(And all this, even in a ‘post’-MeToo world. If it sounds like I’m angry, it’s because I am.)
And if you do manage to tell your story and get away with it, remember you can’t be sexual. People love the redemptive-slut-victim story. It is smeared all over the media and pop culture. It’s the perfect recipe of titillation, moralising and happy endings. Remember, if you have been raped or sexually assaulted, people don’t want to hear that you can enjoy sex after. You can’t be a victim and survivor, and have been sexually abused, and love sex. It makes them uncomfortable. And why? Because you are supposed to be ashamed of what happened to you.
I was made to feel ashamed of what happened to me. I refuse to feel that anymore. I’m not here to make you feel comfortable. I’m not here to make it easier to hear about something that wasn’t even my choice in the first place.
So whether you call yourself a victim, or a survivor, someone who was raped or sexually assaulted, or even just a slut, I hope you tell your truth. Because you have no reason to be ashamed. It is this culture of shame around rape and sexual assault that strangles our desires, and tricks us into thinking that we are not allowed to be multiplicitous desire-filled sexual beings.
With this show I wanted to try to undo some of the harmful binary thinking that comes with these issues, by placing stories of sexual violence side by side with violent, strange and beautiful sexual fantasies. And throughout the interviews and workshops and the making of the show, I came back time and time again to the feeling that there was something awesomely powerful in the mere act of women speaking their stories, verbalising what they want, and staking a claim to their own sexuality.
‘Agency and self-determination, the right to own our desire- those are the kind of forbidden fantasies women across the world still pant over in private, unable to pronounce for fear of being slut-shamed’ (Laurie Penny)
AFTER: Thoughts on shame, options and where we go from here…
I have found that there is always some sadness in ‘finishing’ a piece of work. It is a sadness which underpins the relief of having birthed the thing finally, because the moment you pin it down, the moment you say the words which were previously unsayable, you find yourself waving goodbye to a universe of possibility, and all things it once could have been. In a sense all theatre is an attempt to say the unsayable, but here I am staring Oh Yes Oh No hard in the face, wondering three years later how all these things came out of me. All these words and worlds and images. And in a way I am still making sense of it all. Maybe that’s how all makers feel.
This was one of the hardest pieces of work to find an ending for. Despite still feeling ambiguous on the issue, and reeling from my own shame and trauma, I knew that I wanted the show to end with my interviewees 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 I was still searching for 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 at Camden People’s Theatre 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. It was as if all the shame and all the wanting had somehow got lodged in my throat. And in the days and weeks following the premiere, my voice got smaller and smaller, until it disappeared entirely. By the end of 2017, I ended going in for surgery to have polyps removed from my vocal chords.
I’m not one to shy away from graphic description, but if writing about bodies and surgery and the like makes you feel queasy, then look away now.
They don’t tell you exactly what will happen to you before you go in. You have some idea, but also not really at all. Coming round under the fluorescent lights, you begin to feel like a detective at the crime scene of your own body. You find clues everywhere. Bruises on your neck and throat where they tilted your head back at an unnatural angle and clamped your jaw open. Cuts along the inside of your mouth where hands went in with metal instruments. And then the deep insistent pain further down inside, where they made the incision. And then the silence in the weeks following, where you piece it all together and wait patiently for the pain to subside, for your strength to return. This might be a bit on the nose, but let’s just say it wasn’t the first time it felt like my body had become a crime scene.
It took me a year to recover from this point. I stopped performing. And then gradually, I began to build myself up again. I came back to the show, knowing it still wasn’t finished and began to re-make it. I re-made it stronger, and safer. I made it more mine.
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 on the questions posed in the show remains ambiguous. Oh Yes Oh No started with an attempt to make sense of something that really made no sense to me, but three years down the line I feel like I have blissfully let go of the will to try to make sense of it all. I’ve realised that I’ve become less interested in where these desires come from and more in how we can honour our desires and move on from trauma. And, if we can’t move on from trauma, then how we can hold these two things in the same space, as anyone who has suffered sexual violence will inevitably have to at some point. The show for me now stands as a testament to that. It effectively creates a fantasy space where these ideas can live together side by side for an hour.
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.
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.
We are more hauntingly complex, more wildly multi-faceted than our lives often allow us to be. Our deepest desires often reflect that, and I believe we should honour this as much as possible. Our fantasy lives give us the space to try out different versions of ourselves, to shed light in the darkest corners, to play with ideas that might scare us, or excite us, or revolt us. And theatre and performance, at its best, should be able to give us the space to do this too.
I hope this show can be messy, and unresolved and expansive and free. And I hope that it can allow the people who took part in the making of it, and the people who experience it to be these things as well.
WHO: 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.
I interviewed a mixture of female, non-binary and trans participants. They all had in some way in their lives identified with a femme, female or submissive experience of sexuality.
They came from all walks of life: in and outside London, from those in their early twenties to those in their fifties, students, working mothers, and from a variety of working and class backgrounds.
Not all the interviewees had been raped or assaulted, but around 95% of them had been. Not all the interviewees had rape fantasies, but most of them expressed some version of dominance fantasies (i.e. a wish to be sexually submissive). Not all the interviewees I spoke to had difficulty with, or had shame surrounding their sexuality, but those who didn’t were in the minority. Not all the interviewees 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.
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 became 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 made possible through the kind support of Arts Council England, Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Live Art Development Agency, Live Art Bistro
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 want 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.
https://rapecrisis.org.uk/ | 0808 802 9999
https://www.womensaid.org.uk/ | 0808 2000 247
National Domestic Violence Helpline
0808 2000 247
https://www.victimsupport.org.uk/ | 0808 1689 111
Sex Positivity Resources
A selection of resources to help in the promotion of and thinking around sex positivity
www.louiseorwin.com | @louiseorwin