Peeledbanana

What Fucking Clayton Pettet Teaches Us About Cultural Rhetorics

“I Know What You Want: Playing with Vulnerability, Risk, and Consent”

by Kathleen Livingston

desire

When Clayton Pettet, a 19-year-old art student from the UK, announced he would lose his virginity in a performance art installation called “Art School Stole My Virginity,” a reported 10,000 people applied for tickets online (Merz).

150 of them came. They came for the spectacle. For support. They came to participate. They came because many humans are pleasure-seeking animals. They came to hear him moan. They came to see and be seen. They came because “gay sex” is salacious. They came because they were invited. They came to be turned on. They came to experience the precise expression on his face while he came.

risk

In an interview with art and style blog Daily Metal, Pettet explains, “I never said to any journalist about me being penetrated or who’s giving, who’s receiving, any of that. All of a sudden there was so much press; it was the ‘live gay sex show of the anal virgin’ … it is the strangest sensation.”

“Given the attention alone…” a media soundbite posted on Pettet’s vimeo site intones, “are you okay becoming the virginity artist guy forever?”

the act itself

Zing Tsjeng, writing for the London monthly style mag Dazed, went to “Art School Stole My Virginity” and describes the second act as follows:

The booth was very, very small. I crouched to get in. Pettet was sat inside, still in his pants, with two piles of bananas in front of him.

“I am your anal virgin,” he said. “You are my partner. Pick up a banana.” I immediately started to panic: penetrating a 19-year-old was not on my to-do list tonight, even if it’s with a piece of fruit. “Now penetrate with my mouth eight times.”

I gratefully slid the banana into Pettet’s mouth as he stared me down. (Tsjeng “Art school stole”)

There is much to be said on how Pettet’s piece reverses the gaze, requiring participants to examine their desires. I know what you want, his performance seems to say. You want to see me get fucked. And I need you to know what you want as well.

Audience, ask yourselves: what sensation is it that you came here wanting to feel, and did you leave fulfilled?

After the show, some critics seem cautiously open, but shame lurks underneath. One critic is grateful to penetrate Pettet’s mouth, not his asshole. Some seem disappointed. One twitter critic, Suzanne Zhang, screen capped in an article for Dazed, writes: “I am completely embarrassed by #ClaytonPettet ‘s performance… Piece not even about #sexuality … Worst thing ever + audience got hungry.”

vulnerability

In an intimate interview with Charlotte Edwardes for The London Evening Standard, Pettet explains the reason for hand picking the audience, “I don’t want it only to be people I know, but I don’t want anyone who wants to hurt me or cause trouble.”

femmeness

It is hard to believe that someone “beautiful in a way usually reserved for women is (still) a virgin…” Steffen Michels, a writer for Daily Metal speculates.

consent

The reason I mention desire, vulnerability, and risk is because of how I understand consent. More than a moment of negotiating permission for access, consent is a process and a set of practices, embodied and deeply emotional.

While the media paints one picture of Pettet, a teenage narcissist, too young to make such a public choice as public sex, or at least the performance of it, I want to suggest he and many queer youth are actually much more sex savvy than given credit for.

Consider Pettet’s audience—“I don’t want it only to be people I know, but I don’t want anyone who wants to hurt me or cause trouble.” Negotiating risk turns out to mean more than using barriers.

Consider his privilege—access to perform public sex at a gallery space in London, supportive mentors to talk it through.

Consider desire—Pettet orchestrates an elaborate, queer ceremony around his virginity, invites the public, and they come.

why go public?

Entertain, for a moment, the possibility that public sex is about seeing a flash of your community’s queer desires, visible in your audience’s eyes for a moment, then gone.

I am reminded of the desire for queer sex while reading Gayle Rubin’s essay “The Catacombs: A Temple of the Butthole,” a queer cultural history of the beloved leather bar, home to gay male fisting parties, a rare, invite-only haven shared for a time with kinky lesbians, heterosexuals, and bisexuals, until it became a casualty of AIDS (226).

I am reading “Her Body, Mine, and His” by Dorothy Allison, thinking about Pettet and public sex. “Paul, Geoff—I am doing it as much as I can, as fast as I can. This holy act. I am licking their necks on Market Street, fisting them in the second floor bathroom at Amelia’s, in a booth under a dim wall lamp at the Box—coming up from her cunt a moment before the spotlight shifts to her greedy features… I am doing it, boys and girls, I am doing it, doing it all the time” (125-6).

I don’t remember a time before the witch hunts around AIDS. I remember being young though—lying in the grass in the Arb in Ann Arbor, a leg slung between my lover’s thighs in a gesture of open intimacy. Two photographs of me from that time: a portrait of my face, eyes closed, open palm cast casually overhead; a close-up of my hand.

If you could scroll down my body, you would see I have just acquired a new-to-me pair of boots from the free box. I am sprawled on my back on a soft, floral sheet behind a drift of tall perennials. Soon, we will have fast and frantic sex there in the grass, but first, this gender-bending sweetheart with the half-bald head is going to read to me from Boys Like Her, by the Canadian performance collaborative Taste This, Anna Camilleri’s poem “Sly Boots”:

She looks like sly boots

       strong-eyed and cocksure.

She looks like borrowed diamonds

       in the rough and she is

rough and raggedy, but never ragged

       rough and tumble, but never falls

rough around the edges, always sharp

       rough housed, never caged

rough and ready always late.

Thinking back, there is a chance my lover is trying to tell me he is not a masculine woman, but a femme man. Listening to the words then, I imagine the poem is about femmes. I read into that poem and learn a stance of fierce vulnerability and toughness. I learn to be a queer femme, “sly and cock-sure.”