Women talking Sex: A Collaborative Take on Eleanor O’Brien’s What is Erotic?
“What is Erotic to you?” was posed to the audience in a closing song and dance number at a performance of What is Erotic?, a show featured as part of the Fertile Ground Festival which wrapped up two weeks ago. We had just seen eighteen acts comprised of artists reading love poems, acting out S &M fantasies, dancing, undressing, telling stories, calling on the onlookers to fantasize too–all in the spirit of asking and answering that question. The “curated cabaret of intimate acts” presented by Dance Naked Productions at the Headwaters Theater in far Northeast Portland will run again this coming weekend, just on time for Valentine’s Day.
Jenny Scholten attended both nights of the show’s weekend run. I joined her on the second. During and afterwards, we talked about sex, past experiences, awakenings, and boyfriends in a surprisingly frank way. Jenny and I barely know each other. Introduced a few months ago, we’ve had a few casual conversations about writing and life in Portland. I wouldn’t have described us as friends. But something began during intermission as we waited next to each other in a very long line for the bathroom. I could feel it the moment we started talking—that we were crossing some line of trust. An instant, unexpected intimacy sprouted.
Without hesitation, I told her about a past relationship I recalled during the show for the expanding effects it had on my emotional, physical and psychological capacity for sex. Up until that relationship, I was as prude at 21 years old as any 15 year-old tomboy in those days. I think I wanted to come off as unconcerned about it all, but I was undoubtedly curious, just scared and clueless. At 21 with a man 20 years older, things changed. Everything he did was new and kinky to me (you want me to say what!?). And confusing–at times I wasn’t sure if I felt nurtured or abused, excited or panicked. The ambiguities of sex suddenly enticed me like a savory smell coming from some unknown, unseen source. I followed the scent. It instilled new fears while prying open a flaking but stubborn shell of childhood. I shared this with Jen, and she told me about a profound, perspective-shifting sexual experience she’s had. I believe we became friends at that moment.
I like to think the show had this affect on many people in the audience. The line-up was diverse and ran the gamut from sweet and PG-rated acts to pieces with the potential to disturb and generate divisive conversations and reactions. Director Eleanor O’Brien’s introduction to the show and her work prodded the audience to not only enjoy ourselves but to honestly look at how we would answer the question of what is erotic? Jenny and I have happily continued our conversation since the show.
Eleanor O’Brien welcomes the audience wearing a black pant suit reminiscent of pants and suspenders without a shirt. Hers is a sleek, tight-fitting arrangement however, with a similar sexy audacity. Her curly red hair loosely tied up, she explains her mission to spread “sex positive theater”. She is assuring, confident, and it’s effective. I feel liberated from the get go–eager for the scope of desires, the ones I will see and feel, and to experience this with Jenny and a solid turnout of strangers.
Undressed by Danni Keller
“What is erotic? A fixed thing?”
Jenny: Her muscular body slithers like a wild serpent toward us. She writhes about in a frustrated fashion as she tells of a relationship that was doomed from the start. My heart rate spikes a little, as if she’s just turned the spotlight on me in the crowd. I knew I could shadow her performance with my own experience in miscommunicating a shared, primal need: to be undressed. Contrary to the performance, the practice of shedding clothing was not what I was missing. I’d like to believe I’ve mastered that ritual. In whole, it was an unlayering of expectations for myself and what I wished sex to resemble. Since I hadn’t rightly experimented with myself until I was older (not even a literal orgasm until eighteen) I craved a partner to impress upon me intimacies that would expose my submerged fantasies. Likewise, I desired this beast to provide me with new ones in order to further the undressing of my sexual naivety. I couldn’t blame my former partners, I hadn’t the right words nor understanding at the time. Much like Danni, although I didn’t know quite what I was missing, I was more than aware that a need wasn’t being met.
She goes on to tell of her time at Burning Man with a vehement, desert soul that she became acquainted with. Physical pressure placed slightly on a “dime-sized” space on her back unlocks Pandora’s chest. It awakens a youthfulness within her. She is broken wide-open by way of simple sensory experimentation. This speaks to her openness to love in all forms as well as her sexual and personal evolution. Before leaving the stage she reminds us to stay curious, welcoming and most of all playful, with how we view our carnal selves.
Kate: Ah, I like your translation of the concept of “undressing” to describe the stripping of your notions of sex. Especially since she labors over conveying that she wants people, and her partners, to understand that it is the verb form of undress, not the noun, that she is discussing. It’s not about being naked, it’s the process that invigorates and satisfies her.
A Hymn For Saints and Sinners by Tanya Jarvik
Kate: A woman with blond hair wearing a black satin night gown tells you to imagine you’re in church. You close your eyes. Her voice is mature and soft with authority. The usual manifestations of church you resort to, a certain sanitation of mind and body, and rigidity of manners, clear away. “No one can see me except you”. Her voice curls around your body in a smoky, dreamy sermon as she slowly makes her way to you sitting on a church pew. She speaks of restrained desires and says something about the smells or textures of oranges, mint and olives and it all becomes as tangible as your sweating palms. She stands before you. The others still can’t see you and they are now singing, “speaking in tongues”. She mounts you, one leg on each side of your hips, her tongue bathing you in “religious adoration”. She rides you amidst a rising church chorus and the high-vaulted ceilings may as well blast open to the sky.
I opened my eyes and had to shift my weight. Applauding brought me back with each quick clap. In other words, it turned me on. It wasn’t the thrill of a deviant act at church–I never felt the pangs of naughtiness instigating those of desire. It was something about acceptance. Being invited by her into a place where sex is elevated to a celestial realm of both ecstasy and wisdom. Her erotica is a devotion to the body, mind and spirit and carried out in a ceremony deemed holy by her. And you are not drenched in shame or fear of punishment. Rather, you are lifted to a blissful, and awesomely unforeseen, climax.
Jenny: Wow. Now I need to shift my weight! I quickly grew to appreciate Tanya’s ability to persuade us to mute the residual thoughts from our day and turn up our senses. She is a master of seduction and designer of fantasy. Her inflection captures both the gentleness of a domestic feline and the low, startling growl of a tigress. You’re right, I could almost smell the mint and oranges too. Tanya take the wheel.
Kate: “Let your freak flag fly”. A performer makes this appeal to the audience at one point in the middle of the show. I truly feel like I am in a place where anything goes. I can’t explain it exactly but even before seeing some of the acts, seeing vaginas and bare breasts, I sensed that there were no boundaries here. This feeling worked to strip the show of an anticipated shock value. In doing so, it’s easier to receive each act in a nuanced and thoughtful way. In another context the acts would have been accompanied by a distracting incredulity–here this phase is skipped. You believe what you are seeing and don’t question that it is happening, opening your mind to consider other things.
Femination Gratification by Mary Gravning
Jenny: A woman dances spiritedly on to the stage filled by a background of country-rock music. She’s reeling from a titillating interaction she had while dancing at a live show. Leaving the performance she expresses that she’s ready to go in more ways than one. My mind begins to wander as I create assumptions and immediate judgments for the act in my head. Her props are abundant as she begins exposing us to her temple and all of the racy details of exactly what gets her off. This type of honesty may be considered jaw-droppingly lude compared to some of the other acts but the fit is comfortable here. I’m already beaming as she vexes the audience with a dense fog of afrodesia. She fixes a mirror to face her, studying her practice as hands dance between a collection of sex toys. The energy seethes in my own body as it passes through me like a sexy apparition, simultaneously overwhelming those around me. It isn’t a wonder why I went back for a second dose.
My hard-on of judgment is rightfully nullified. All that I can see is her soul and how well she wears it. A sense of openness permeates my assumptions and eagerly penetrates the open space with admiration. I want to bathe in her confidence. I want to inhale her heady passion and keep it on reserve. She embodies a woman who knows exactly what pleases her- one who isn’t afraid to let us know.
Kate: Jen, I don’t know how to put it any other way. You nailed it. I was beaming beside you in the audience. I love the humor she brings here, too. She pulls out a double-sided dildo, nearly a foot long and the color of mint toothpaste. She holds it by one end, letting it dangle in front of her like a piece of underwear she’s not sure is clean or not. The thing is like a snake. She looks at it as if she’s not sure what to do with it. “Yikes!”, she kind of gasps. Then, “yup, that’s me.”
50 years old on Match.com by Adrian Martin
Kate: “Plenty of fish, but there’s algae on the pond”, Adrian Martin sings through a smirk, of the Match.com dating pool. He is tall and lanky and strums a guitar in acoustic reflection of his ventures as an elder engaged with online dating. I imagine him clicking through profiles and pictures. “A 29 year old is in touch with her feminine side and her glass is ‘half-full’.” Women want what are ostensibly perceived as contradictions: “A confident man, yet humble. A worldly man with no girls in his past.” He seems more amused than frustrated.
I find myself tired of the three-sentence bios with him, as if I too had spent hours perusing the profile pages, attending earnestly to labored over lists of likes and dislikes, wants and deal-breakers. “I’m running out of time,” he sings and it’s not so much desperation for a partner I sense but one for relieving the act of meeting someone of so many expectations and parameters. Let’s just go out, he seems to say, and find out together what people are like in the in-between of confident and humble, “peace-loving and ready to rumble.” This risk and exploration is erotic.
Jenny: The lyrics and concept are so true to the awkwardness of online dating. I’ve found similar quirks in my brief and laughable adventure with it. It’s interesting to see how people market themselves and even more puzzling to determine how to do it for yourself. I was pretty miserable at it and quit after a second date and one attempted, unwelcome kiss later. The comic relief provided by Adrian and his musings came at the right time in the show was much more than the audience could ask for.
The Way by Jason WIlliams and Tonya Jone Miller
Jenny: Another emotive work takes the form of a couple. They recite a poem that begins with: “the way…” and becomes an echo of devotion. We see them rush toward one another evocatively from opposite ends of the theater. Swift as an ocean wave embraces it’s rocky bluffs, Tonya finds herself in Jason’s arms. We are introduced to the swell of a longing that hangs between them–a longing I’m newly familiar with myself.
Props are unnecessary as the eroticism resides in a dialogue and communal gaze. I feel fortunate to know these rare and eager eyes well. The audience shares in a feast together as they feed us their bedroom sport. With each bite, each lick of whip to skin, we can visualize a space where pain takes part in their pleasure. It encourages satisfaction physically but also on an intimate, spiritual level. Trust is supplied in overflow here and what we witness is an undeniable unity that sinks to the molten core of their beings. On display is a compatibility that reminds me of one I didn’t believe existed for myself. Mine is something that could only manifest itself on my doorstep after many hours of Skype conversations and 2,000 miles of distance–but that is a personal story. The love between these two is revolutionary, as it is clear that they are committed to the practice of nourishing each other’s growth, alongside thriving together as companions.
Kate: Yes, “trust in overflow”. It made me think about how they first discovered this exchange of mutual pleasure. Did they discover this together or did one of them have to expose the other? That could have been quite a tough exercise in building trust and facing insecurities. Who knows, but from their performance you can tell they’re both in it together. She says to him, “the way you hurt me” as her nipples are being clamped. He replies, “the way you let me.”
Kate: The show moves like it’s riding the waves of a sexual relationship, gliding as witty, fun and teasing, to plunge suddenly into darker stories of exposure and intimacy. The artists seek release from the firm grip of shame, looking to emerge from a fog of confusion and exile as either sexually deviant or estranged from long-suppressed temptations. In one act a woman looks for mercy, and I’m not clear on exactly how, but she speaks of another woman’s touch as helping her to get over “oceans of loss” and closer to redemption. Another woman sheds a decorative scarf to reveal a scarf of bruises around her neck. I wonder how she’s gotten them. A tightening collar? A man’s hands? I wonder if the people in her life know. The show is like witnessing people reveal a subversive side of a double life.
This is presumptuous of me however. People like Eleanor and the performers don’t want to espouse this idea of a double life. Rather, they are declaring that our sex lives, however we approach them, are not designated solely to the mysterious nights of our existence but are a part of the day-lit areas. We all get horny. Some of us want to be undressed deliberately and slowly, or have our cocks or breasts acknowledged as beautiful, or want to be choked to near suffocation to feel release, simultaneously making us feel closer to who we are. These desires in What is Erotic? are presented transparently–this is what I like and/or need–without apology. But this is also presented as something novel. Pervasive in the show is the acknowledgment of a long struggle to get to a place where one can be comfortable and secure enough to own these desires.
Jenny: I don’t remember when I first heard the term “deviant” but I know that when I heard it, I was relieved to have a word for how I felt. It is a sense of deviance that I’ve known throughout my sexual experience, long before losing my virginity at thirteen. Only recently have I come to accept and craft it into a tool for my own pleasure. In a way this show helped further that ship from the shore of judgment for me.
It was a riveting collective for both Kate and I. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that soaking in these “confessions” in such close quarters humbled me. I’m fortunate, having been able to view the show twice. I left both nights feeling leveled and closer to everyone around me, an affect that would leave a residual film for days after.
“What is Erotic?” resurrects within us both our deepest, darkest secrets and wildest pleasures as one in the same. We all could benefit from a regular spoonful of this crew. It’s bittersweet really, as tickets are currently sold out. Eleanor promises a larger theater next year. In the meantime, though, make sure you keep your eye on Eleanor O’Brien and Dance Naked Productions. They are hosting a Sex & Creativity 3-day Workshop from March 6th-8th.
Loved this article. I remember being a young woman, wasn’t that long ago, 40 yrs only.
I also enjoyed the article about a long weekend in San Francisco. Wonder writing and interesting
observations. Looking forward to many more articles by you.