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Q&A: Louise Orwin Talks About the Politics and Pleasures of Sex

Louise Orwin is an award-winning live artist, researcher, writer and performer. She is preoccupied with ‘liveness, failure, awkwardness and her own doomed sense of femininity’, and the perceived cultural limitations this femininity has on her self and her work. Louise is premiering her new show Oh Yes Oh No at Hotbed festival, a festival of sex that will run at Camden People’s Theatre this Spring. Louise talks to us about sex, identity and the ‘achingly visible’ embarrassment she brings to the stage.

Eli Goldstone: Hi Louise, you’re headlining CPT’s Hotbed festival with Oh Yes Oh No, can you tell us a bit about the show?

Louise Orwin: The impetus to make Oh Yes Oh No came from the realisation that I think about sex ALL THE TIME. I began thinking about what turns me on, and the politics of desire - and how frustrating and complex that can be. I began to realise that some of the things that turned me on were essentially (I thought) at odds with my politics. And I began wondering whether other people had the same sort of neuroses surrounding their orgasms. This led me to embark on a sexual journey (of sorts) to try and explore my turn-ons and wonder whether I’d ever be able to embrace them in an empowered way, and essentially separate them from the same old bullshit narrative of sexual desire that the patriarchy weaves for us. This journey took me from watching all the porn I could find, to reading the best and worst of erotica, to sex clubs and erotic writing workshops, and eventually to many, many hours of conversation with women on the very same topic.

The show is based on interviews I have conducted with women all over the UK. It begins with a very old question ‘WHAT DO WOMEN WANT’-  but tries to actually let women do the answering this time. It also wonders about the dominant view of sexuality we are spoon-fed by pop culture, and who this is for (SPOILER ALERT: straight men), and asks if we can begin to undo some of the damage done to female sexuality by this. Essentially though, I’m aiming to give women back a voice, by letting the world hear real women, talking about real sex.

This is one of the hardest shows I’ve ever made, and there’s definitely quite a responsibility in holding all these female voices, but if I can turn them into a brilliant choir of female voices saying FUCK YOU to the patriarchy, then I think that’s pretty cool. It’s going to be explicit, funny, difficult to watch in parts, but I think, really really fucking important. At the very least, I hope the show can open up discussions around topics which are, sadly, still taboo. I want to help women stake a claim to their sexuality, and show that they have as much of a right to it as anyone else. A sexuality that is real, and is theirs: not for men, not for society, not to be used as currency in a tired power struggle, but for them and them alone.

Oh and there’s a brilliant Radiohead cover in it, so if nothing else - come for that!

Eli: Why do you think we need a festival of sex?

Louise: I think this festival is absolutely essential right now. S-E-X is constantly being shoved in our faces by the media and advertising campaigns, but in general it’s not something we talk about enough. I feel that the conversations that are currently being had around this topic are extremely limited, and often taking place in closed groups, in hush hush tones, as snippets of salacious gossip passed around the ladies toilets, or across a table in a pub. And that’s not enough. This became increasingly evident during the research for my show, where conversations would go on for hours and hours, and felt very necessary.  I think we’re living really interesting times: on the one hand there’s more access to considered thinking, liberal politics and interesting progressive ideas than ever before, but on the other we still live in a capitalist driven world where sex sells, and the default for how it is sold is in alignment with an extremely narrow, patriarchal view of sexuality. On top of this, I believe that proper discussion about the complexities of real sex for real people is still taboo. Look at the way rape is still reported: salaciously, covering up the fact that most people are raped by people who know them, and not giving a voice to the people who matter. As I’ve found, personally, and with those I’ve spoken to, this can lead to sex becoming so complicated, and ridden with anxiety, guilt and shame.

There’s so much great stuff on in this festival, that deals with so many different, important aspects of sexuality which need to be spoken about - everyone should be excited about it, and obviously, everyone should come (no pun intended).

Eli: In what ways do you think young women’s ideas about their own sexuality are being shaped today?

Louise: I think the world we live in must be so confusing for young people. Young girls are constantly being told by pop culture that they should look hyper-sexual (Bratz Dolls anyone?) but that they shouldn’t be sexual, or that sex isn’t for them. I found overwhelming evidence of this when I was doing the research for Pretty Ugly, working with young girls who were trying to ape images of the kind of women they see all over the media, and obviously, in porn which is being accessed by those who are progressively younger and younger. I’m no prude, but the trends in 13 year olds getting Hollywood waxes, and teenagers being disgusted by their own genitals and having consultations for labiaplasty genuinely upsets me. At the same time as them being able to access all this explicit content, there is a visible lack of sex education in schools. Young people should be educated about all forms of sexuality (not just male), and consent needs to be taught much more thoroughly. On top of this there’s not enough discussion around the fact that the ideas about sexuality fed to us through TV, cinema and porn shows basically a straight, male view of sexuality. This places so much expectation on young people, but without giving them the tools to process all this information in a considered way. Living in a hyper-sexualised world where real, complex discussions about sex are still taboo has got to be a mind-fuck for anyone right?

Saying that, I feel as if we’re making great strides in beginning to talk about rape culture, how it is propagated by pop culture, and all the multiplicitous ways this affects both young women and young men. But there’s definitely still work to be done.

Eli: I feel as though there’s a theme of caretaking in your work: do you feel protective of your audience?

Louise: Yes and no. Generally the work I make is research-based, and I tend to work with groups of people during this research that I feel very protective of- teenage girls in Pretty Ugly, and women and rape survivors in Oh Yes Oh No. In both these instances the aim was to protect and empower these groups, whilst helping their stories to be heard. I’m also very aware of how these stories can affect audiences, and so I always make sure there are systems of support for anyone who might have been affected by the work. But saying that, it is important that my work is affecting, and so I know I make work that can be hard to watch. I tend to make work that draws people in, but asks them to consider their own politics in quite an in-your-face fashion. As well as being playful and intimate, it can also be brash, awkward and downright uncomfortable to watch- but what’s the point in making work that doesn’t make you feel? Especially if the work is political? I want people to leave the auditorium feeling like something has shifted in them, with something itching under their skin that will leave them thinking and questioning for days. You can’t make ‘nice’ work to do that.

Eli: How can we use feelings of embarrassment in a positive way?

Louise: By making that embarrassment achingly visible. And in that way, highlighting where it comes from, how it’s created, and how it can lead to issues being closed down. Embarrassment creates taboo, and when things are taboo their complexity isn’t dealt with, which is never healthy.  The work I make often creates a feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment in the audience, but I hope that that leads to a stimulating of discussion around that. I think it is a very strong emotion, and when used right can lead to great things. I believe theatre, political or not, should never be too comfortable. When things are comfortable they are stagnant.

Eli: There are a lot of truly awful portrayals of sex around. Can you think of any really great examples of on-stage/screen sex?

Louise: Yes! Probably one of the better things about my sexual adventures of late has been coming across some really excellent examples of on screen sex. I think there have been some really great, real portrayals of sex in Orange Is The New Black, and also in Girls, two of my favourite TV shows. Sex in both of these examples is often portrayed as uncomfortable, and unglossy, and that feels really important in a world of hyper-fake, airbrushed sex. I know people have their problems with it, but I also really enjoyed the sex scenes in Blue Is The Warmest Colour, and I felt it was great to see queer sexuality so unabashedly and for such a long time on screen. Then two of my favourite ever sex scenes in films (with similar themes…!) are where women are shown being dominant and in charge of their own pleasure: Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo in The Cut, and Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine. You’re welcome.

Eli: I feel there is a perception of (female) sexuality and intellectualism being in opposition with each other – as though sex necessitates a sort of dumbing down. Do you think there’s a way of combating that idea?

Louise: I think that’s probably just a symptom of mostly being exposed to a certain type of sex: a mainstream sex that is used for peddling wares, dangerous ideas, power…  I’m thinking here of badly shot and acted porn, Khloe Kardashian’s Protein World advert (or the BEACH BODY READY one that came before it), the idea of the ‘bimbo’, slut, or plastic pornstar and so on. I think to some extent the different waves of feminism have antagonised this split: the second wave anti-porn movement, in direct opposition to the ideas of post-feminism surrounding sex workers for example. And also, of course, the idea that sex is base, and animal, and that it should be left behind closed doors. But the reality is that it isn’t left behind closed doors, it seems to be used by the mainstream press and dominant ideologies when it suits them (eg. sex sells), but hidden away when it doesn’t suit them (eg. queer/trans sexualities that disturb the norm). But I think we can, and have a duty to have intellectual conversations about sex that isn’t just about an exchange of power, or money. We need to make visible alternative versions of sexuality (female-driven, queer, trans) that disrupt the current balance of power. And to do that we need to talk about the things that are so often left out of the mainstream press: women asking for what and embracing their ‘sluttiness’, queer and trans people enjoying their sexuality, rape survivors who like sex and so on.

Eli: Finally, what do you know about sex now that you wish you’d known ten years ago?

Louise: That my sexuality is for me and no one else. And that it’s important to explore. That I have a right, and even a duty, towards myself to explore and understand my sexuality in my own time, on my own terms.


Oh Yes Oh No headlines Camden People's Theatre's new sex-themed festival HOTBED

April 26th to May 11th

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