Rita Suszek is engaged and disturbed by Louise Orwin’s show about sexual desire and sexual violence at Camden People’s Theatre
Like the show itself, it is a good idea to begin this post with a trigger warning. This review will reference sexual content, including mentions of sexual assault, rape fantasies and gendered violence. If this might compromise your peace of mind or impact you negatively, you may not wish to read on.
Louise Orwin is a female solo performer who has been exploring female sexuality in her work for a while. Her previous show, A Girl And A Gun, focused specifically on how films eroticise violence performed on women; how images of guns and female bodies are intertwined and disturbingly made attractive. I remember scribbling frantically in my notebook afterwards, moved by the performance: what stayed with me was a feeling of dread. I recall thinking that the entire world has been manipulated so thoroughly that one cannot have a sexual experience that is outside the context of the patriarchy.
I would bet that many, if not all, people who identify as or are assumed to be female are familiar with this helpless feeling. Mundane romantic scenes in films show women’s resistance as coy or neurotic, never legitimate. Nowhere is safe; everything is a bit ‘rapey’. Oh Yes Oh No speaks explicitly of female sexuality and desire, however the points it makes also apply to other genders, including but not limited to non-binary and trans people.
Orwin takes the idea of women’s sexual fantasies often being at odds with their politics, and runs with it. The show features Barbie dolls, recorded interviews where women talk about being raped and Orwin herself sharing first-person monologues about her sexual experiences.
There is a vast array of questions that connect to this topic: do women even like sex? Can women consent in a patriarchy, where sex seems to be expected of them regardless of personal preferences? What do women want? How does female desire work? How does experience of assault impact women? From these Orwin interestingly chooses to focus on her own and other women’s preference for rough sex and fantasies of non-consensual scenarios.
A narrative emerges, and with it more questions: does she just like rough sex, or is it a culturally instilled urge to submit and be objectified? Are her desires caused by rape culture, or her experience of being assaulted? Is it healthy to want rough sex? Is it wrong to have rape fantasies?
The subject of consent is considered throughout the performance in a highly self-referential way. Orwin plays with the audience, asking one person to read out cue cards that have them agree to everything that happens. As the audience member says the prepared dialogue, including the words “I consent”, the rest of us observing the scene are forced to acknowledge that this person’s consent is questionable at best.
Again, the same question: are women capable of informed, independent consent when a situation is arranged in a certain way before the words are even said? What about if refusing sex could mean a potential loss of a partner or a friend, or loss of a female identity as an accommodating person? If not performing femininity in an accepted way is the social cost for not offering sex, how often is the consent given, but not truly meant?
And that’s in addition to the problems of female desire. Once seemingly free of being told what to do, Orwin’s constant refrain was: “What do I want? What do I truly want?” Female desire, for so long repressed and denied, can become a confusing thing when set free. Women often live in the shadow of being shamed for their sexual expression (‘slut’) or lack thereof (‘prude’), it doesn’t leave much space for genuine desire.
Shame is the other important theme of the performance; it is a powerful tool and it is often used to keep people ‘in line’, performing the identities they are assigned. In this context, Oh Yes Oh No is particularly interesting. Orwin’s press release mentions that her starting point was that her fantasies didn’t match her politics: to parse this out, rape fantasies on the surface can seem like buying into the patriarchy, getting off on the subjugation of women, willingly self-objectifying. Women whose interviews are quoted in the show speak of shame as well: the shame of having been assaulted and subsequently blamed for the assault.
But it doesn’t end there. There is also the shame of becoming sexually active again; the shame of having ‘wrong’ fantasies or enjoying ‘wrong’ things. Brené Brown, a shame researcher, defines shame as the feeling that one is unworthy of love and belonging. It is often associated with a secret or taboo that, if made public, will forever mar the person concerned. Having been assaulted fits the bill: often the rapist completely disappears from people’s mental picture, leaving behind a person whose identity is now ‘a rape survivor’. Not only does rape then become something about the victim as opposed to an action taken by the rapist, but also this identity can endure and impact future life situations: a rape survivor enjoying sex can seem to be taboo. One might surmise that having a sex life after being assaulted is a sign of healing and overcoming adversity, but the topic is not often spoken about and therefore it can be easy to associate sex with shame.
Another point Orwin makes in her press release is that ‘dark’ erotica is extremely popular; some women buy depictions of non-consensual sex acts for their own enjoyment. The interviewees in the show speak of rape fantasies, expressing their shame and disquiet at the very concept. Rape in real life is a threat, but its existence in fantasy life can often be explained by the repression of female desire.
Rape fantasies exist so that the woman fantasising does not have to express her desire and therefore cannot be ‘blamed’ for being sexual, and of course the fantasy lover only does things that are in fact wanted. Difficult as these things can be to speak of, or write about, perhaps certain types of rough or kinky sex or reenactments of rape fantasies can be cathartic for people, transforming a traumatic experience into one the woman is in charge of and finds pleasurable.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Oh Yes Oh No is not completely dark. It is definitely difficult to watch in parts, but Orwin knows how to modulate her performance. Some of her monologues are contrasted by subtitles shown above her head or images in the corner of the stage and others are juxtaposed with cheerful music. The effect ranges from startlingly funny to very uncomfortable. Some of the more surprising combinations of happy music with heavy topics make me laugh, although not everyone responds that way.
Without these changes of tone, the show would be much more difficult to take. Even with them, there is a moment when I just want the performance to be over, although given the themes discomfort was inevitable. Still, Orwin does a very good job of conveying her points: juggling media, distorting her voice, playing with lights to show different personas.
The show uses two screens, a big screen behind the performer and a smaller TV, as well as a small raised stage for the Barbie dolls, a microphone for some sound effects and cue cards. The set and props are used very purposefully and what impresses me the most is how in control of her message Orwin is. There isn’t a second wasted: dance choreography is intentionally minimal and consciously cheesy, the music is evocative and Orwin’s singing of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ slots in perfectly. The show is interesting, watchable and makes astute points about the relationship between the patriarchy and female sexuality.
Cultural conversation about rape culture, while important and necessary, rarely has anything positive to offer. Next to analysing how rape culture impacts us, we need resources on how to rewrite it, how to change it. Cautiously, I would venture that Orwin’s show may well be such a resource: she gives voice to actual female experiences, both recorded and her own, and shows that survivors of violence can have sex lives – as well as digging into expressions of female sexuality that we can find uncomfortable. Rape fantasies may not align with our politics, but that does not mean they don’t exist.
Oh Yes Oh No is a thoughtful exploration of the dark sides of female sexuality, those defined by trauma, delineated by hurt, repression and denial. It’s a great piece of theatre and a fascinating performance I’d recommend to anyone who wants and is able to consider those ideas.
Oh Yes Oh No is a part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Hotbed Festival of Sex which runs to 11 May.
The image is a publicity photograph for the show. The background is entirely pink and on the left side of the photo is Orwin. She is looking to the left and has her mouth open in an O shape. She looks very glossy, as if she has been airbrushed. She has bright blue eyeshadow and bright red lipstick.