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Balancing safety and education in sex-aware performance

I wrote recently about educational moments at Smut Slams, when someone shares something that violates our Code of Conduct. Now, in this fledgling #metoo culture, now is perhaps a good time to look at the other stuff, when a recalled narrative doesn’t cross the boundary, but it comes really close to busting through.

In some ways this boundary is very familiar to me, as a playwright and performer. Phone Whore’s power comes from the gradual pushing of the limits, when audiences have to sit there and think about what their breaking point is for acceptable (fantasy) narratives, and why that point is here and not over there.

I went to that boundary deliberately in my fifth play, nerdfucker, when the title character recounted sexual situations that were clearly not what she really wanted, but went along with it anyway for a whole range of complex reasons. Her boyfriend never raped her, but he sure was using her in all kinds of ways. She could have said no at any time, she could have left, but she was wrapped up in love and longing, until something truly heinous pushed her right to the edge.

All of these places in sex-aware performance are crucial junctures, where, if you’ve done your job right as the performer, you have brought the audience along to this uncomfortable space. They are trusting you to offer them relief, some exit, some moral of the story to pull them back from the edge, and you, if you’re anything like me, are inclined to want them to sort it out for themselves, but sometimes people need help coming to grips with it.

And then there is Smut Slam, where occasionally stories come out at the mic that do not technically violate the consent part of our Code of Conduct, but are sketchy as hell. There is always at least one confession in the Fuckbucket that falls into that category as well; I have learned to quickly scan the forms before reading them out, lest I find myself stumbling into a borderline anecdote.

One particular type of anecdote has popped up on more than a few occasions, where an audience member writes down something to me like: “I think you’re hot!” or “I can’t stop thinking about how good your pussy would taste.” I used to just read them out and brush them off with a laugh, but lately I’ve started setting them aside, unread.

Such submissions are a power play on the part of the person writing them, and I don’t need to play along. Think whatever you want, but you don’t need to say everything you’re thinking, or even anything you’re thinking, to the object of your fantasies. Just enjoy the pictures in the privacy of your own mind! That’s not enough, though: they want to make sure that I know what they want.

I think I’m doing the right thing by setting those aside, but I do feel like I miss educational moments; given the discourse that we are seeing out in the world, some audience members are not sorting it out for themselves. They do not necessarily know what enthusiastic consent feels like, or looks like when someone else is doing it.

More likely they do know what non-enthusiastic consent looks like, the deflection and the “soft no” and the “maybe later.” But they have learned, if they are men, that what they want is more important than any message, verbal or non-verbal, that their actual or hopeful partner may want. They have been steeping in the toxic stew that tells men that the objects of their desire are just that—objects—and so therefore their objects’ feelings about what is being expressed or done are not important. Their horniness and concomitant need to express it outweigh my discomfort.

I'm not complaining, so much as letting you know: in the middle of the award-winning drama and the rowdy storytelling, I am pretty regularly balancing education with safety. It’s something I weigh up at every single awkward, boundary-pushing moment, and I can only hope that the scales come close to balancing. If I make a mistake, please tell me, because I want to know how to be better at this.

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