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What Fucking Clayton Pettet Teaches Us About Cultural Rhetorics

I Realized I Saved My Email as a Draft and It Never Sent

by Ezekiel Choffel

One of the major things I found myself considering while listening and interacting with the presentations at the “Art School Stole My Virginity” panel at the Cultural Rhetorics Conference was the ways in which virginity becomes commodified. There seems to be an intrinsic value placed on virginity as something that should be kept, saved (like a bank account), given (like to charity), sold, bought, etc. In heteronormative cultural expectations, men are supposed to cast away their virginity at the first possible moment, while women are expected to hold onto their virginity until some significant event (marriage, for example). But because the act of sex involved in the art presentation was Gay Sex (emphasis mine), these roles/rules seemed to bend and mirror aspects of both gendered expectations of virginity. In some ways, I wasn’t surprised by the audiences expectations, but I was surprised at the queer ways in which virginity was navigated in this space.

There is a move to reclaim virginity by Pettet that exposes audience desires for public acts of sex as an act of commodification. What Pettet’s juke provides is a chance for audiences and scholars to consider the cultural impacts on the human body. He illuminates how specific life experiences are commodified and considers the different ways that value is prescribed to human life.

Pettet provides a locus for discussing how dominant cultural norms become woven together with the agency a person wields in regards to their own timelines. Building on the concept of chrono-normativity discussed later in this piece, Pettet is queering his own timeline for when and how the act of losing one’s virginity should happen.

What Pettet’s performance offers cultural rhetorics is an entrance point to understanding what role sex acts play in hetero and homo discourse. The audience’s response and the performance itself blur the lines between queer and dominant cultural expectations. Further, Pettet’s performance considers the ways in which specific acts or cultural expectations are commodified in additional to the literal body. It muddies the waters of desire and expectations by putting into juxtaposition the body (which is problematically commodified often) and the acts the body can do/when it can do them (which are commodified equally as often, but not discussed as much).

The Queer Time of Clayton Pettet

I look at the anticipatory “befores” in relation to the unexpected “afters” of Pettet’s performance. The idea I’m working with is a before-and-after of virginity, where once “it” happens, it cannot happen again.

In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman introduces the term “chrononormativity,” which she describes as “the interlocking temporal schemes necessary for genealogies of descent and for the mundane workings of domestic life” (xxii), and “the use of time to organize individual human bodies through maximum productivity” (3). Chrononormativity is a sense of time as natural. She uses examples such as wage-based production and the subsequent household labor this created, a separation of gender-based forms of work, as well as the idea of “leisure time.”

Another example of chrononormativity is virginity. In “Art School Stole My Virginity,” Pettet plays out this notion of virginity as sequential by using the public’s reactions; there’s the hype before – the anticipation, the awkward “it,” and then the disappointing after – that feeling of “not what you expected,” and asking how am I different now? I then look at the “before” and “after” of the performance, via blogs and articles, pointing to the ways virginity is a chrononormative construct, a naturalized sequential moment in a person’s life, and the ways Pettet has queered time around his performance. Many readers can probably remember their “first time”, but probably not your fifth, or fiftieth.  

Before

There were two moments of intense activity in the media before Pettet’s performance: first in October 2013 when it was announced, and second when Pettet delayed the performance, which was originally scheduled for January, until April 2014. I remember scouring social media in January when the performance didn’t happen, looking for something—did it happen? Did it not? If so, did “it” actually happen? In October, Clayton said to James Nichols of The Huffington Post, “The key thing about performance art is that it should only be performed once, and this is the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime performance.” Here, we can see Pettet sets up the performance of virginity, as something that only happens once in a person’s life. But at the same time he challenges the concept of virginity itself, saying to the London Evening Standard, “There are a lot of assumptions about my definition of ‘virginity’ and how it will be ‘lost’.” He goes on, “I haven’t even said anything about who is penetrating whom. What I will say is that virginity is a flexible term. Is it even physically real?”

In just about every interview he gave before the performance, he plays with the “before” of the loss of virginity – creating the anticipation, teasing the expectations of the interviewer and the audience. He says to Steffen Michels of Daily Metal, “You don’t want it to be society’s version of virginity which is popping a hymen for the first time. If you feel like the virginity you lost was the first good experience you’ve had, make it the first good experience you’ve had. That can be losing your virginity.” Media played right into his hands, asking questions and making statements like:

Zing Tsjeng of Dazed: “I’m assuming you are an actual virgin.”

Pettet:  “Yes, of course.”

Tsjeng: “So, are you going to regret this in ten years’ time?”

Nico Hines of The Daily Beast: “You realize this is going to stick with you for the rest of your life.

After

After the performance in April, there was another spike in the media coverage, this time with general expressions of “not what was expected,” which can often be said about the after moments of having sex for the first time, or even having sex with new partners for the first time. Those who wrote about the performance afterwards described the awkwardness and disappointment they felt. Vienna Famous of Flux Magazine wrote, “And so the event that prurient people across the world had prayed for and petitioned against played out like many first times; months of build-up and false starts, leading to a confusing and agonizing 5 minutes of action. And then came the disappointment and recriminations.” And Theo Merz of The Telegraph writes, “It was awkward, anti-climactic and only slightly erotic. And why not, considering it was a show about losing your virginity? The hype was much more interesting than the event and credit, I suppose, to Clayton for playing us well enough to generate it while still in art school.” So in the end, Pettet’s performance played on the anticipation of the public, particularly the public’s own ideas and expectations about virginity and its loss. As Vienna Famous writes, “And so the art turned out to be us, or at least our anticipation.”

Pettet also created anticipation around his long-term career as an artist. Many of the critics who attended the show asked questions about his future, things like:

Peter Purton of Left Front Art: Radical Queers – art & politics: “How will his art develop?”

Theo Merz: “It will be interesting to see how he follows this up.”

I can’t decide if Pettet is brilliant or a fluke, or maybe both. Did he orchestrate this performance to play out like the chrononormative construct that the loss of virginity is? Was he this intentional and crafty? Or have I been able to shoehorn meaning into his performance? My own conceptions of time, particularly age, caused me to be skeptical of his intentions. Even now I think of him as a kid, but the performance, the art piece, it worked. I suppose time will tell if “Art School Stole My Virginity” is the commentary on virginity we hope it to be.