It takes a woman around 15 minutes to reach full arousal, say the scientists who’ve measured this stuff (god knows how). Essi Rossi’s performance about female sexuality doesn’t give the audience much time to warm up; instead, it gets straight in there like the blunt jabbing fingers of a teenage boy. “Do you find it difficult to reach orgasm?”, she asks, her face blank, posing a string of intimate questions as the audience squirms and wonders what to say.
Ejaculation follows what I sometimes see as the ‘quest’ kind of live art. A performer has a question so they chat to lots of people about it. The resulting show is often structured around recorded interviews, but its liveness, image-making and artistry make it a different beast from a documentary or a book or a lecture.
Ejaculation reveals many the genre’s shortcomings and fewer of its satisfactions. Rossi wants to learn more about female sexuality, but the pre-recorded interviews she plays don’t have a particular rigour or individuality to them; she chats to a random-feeling handful of ‘normal’ women from different countries and a sex therapist. It’s framed as her personal journey, but it all feels muted, impersonal somehow. Tellingly, Rossi never gives us her own answers to the questions about sex and pleasure that she asks the audience.
If you want someone to open up, sometimes the best strategy is to open up yourself. Easily the best part of the performance was the bit where Rossi explained why she’d made Ejaculation in the post show Q&A. She talked about the way that narratives of female sexuality were defined by trauma, and how she wanted to make something different, based on her own, more joyful experiences.
Little of that joy made it into the finished performance; she periodically caressed a wall-hanging of a naked woman and there was a delicate kind of moany live soundtrack created by Sarah Kivi, but these only felt sensual in the loosest of ways, a flickering birthday cake candle not an exploding firework. Rossi positioned herself as an ‘expert’ within the performance, but I never got the sense that she herself was really enjoying any of this. And that made me think; why is it so terrifying to talk about pleasure? Why is it so much easier to talk about disappointing or uncomfortable or awkward sexual experiences? Maybe the stereotypically female tendency towards self-deprecation extends to something as simple as ‘enjoying sex’ and maybe narratives are around sex are so couched in fear and shame and compulsion that straightforward enjoyment feels gauche. I don’t know.
I’m imagining the environment in which I would comfortably and honestly answer Rossi’s question: “Do you find it difficult to reach orgasm?”. I think it would be one that felt gentler, more conversational: one where I could ask “What does difficult mean, here?”. And in a broader sense I think it’s something about atmosphere; about needing to feel like I’m perched on my best friend’s sofa with a glass of wine at 2am. Maybe open-ended conversations about female sexual pleasure can’t happen in a hard space like this, a lecture theatre embedded with a subconscious tradition of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ didacticism.
I feel like I’ve been too hard on Ejaculation, harder than I want to be, because this stuff is really difficult. Female ejaculation is fetishised and censored, and adverts for vibrators are banned while passive women in thongs advertise cars. And female sexual empowerment has become synonymous with triumphantly embracing and catering to the male gaze – sexualised gaze from all genders, actually – from Madonna in a cone bra to artfully angled underwear selfies on instagram. None of that stuff is bad, but sex isn’t owned by those deemed sexy. You can be sexually empowered in a baggy t-shirt and unbrushed hair.
In the entirely brilliant The Patient Gloria, which is also full of explorations of sex and shame(review here) there’s a bit where its writer and unofficial host Gina Moxley talks about being called hot. She says something like: “Who wants to be hot? Not me. That just means they see you as fuckable on their terms, and who wants that?”
Ejaculation explores sexuality on its own terms. It doesn’t care about sexy and I like that. It’s also blunt and it doesn’t really work. But I respect it for resisting the pressure to be kitsch or cutesy or apologetic. It’s a woman staring you straight in the eyes and asking you about sex, and her unflinching gaze is a challenge; why is it still, still so hard to answer?
Ejaculation is on at Summerhall as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe, until 25th August. More info and tickets here.