I’ve been watching Sex Education on Netflix and, like a lot of people, it’s caused me to reflect upon what I was taught in school PSHE lessons. One memory that still haunts me: the headmistress ushering us into the hall to watch a video starring ‘Johnny Condom’, a heroic condom who coaxes ‘Wicked Willy’ into putting him on and protects him from venereal disease. Our headmistress proceeded to hum the song as she demonstrated putting a condom on a boiling tube. In another graphic lesson about STIs, my year 9 English teacher asked the class, ‘Who can’t get pregnant?’ and triumphantly answered herself, ‘Lesbians!’ This was the only mention that lesbians might exist at my all-girls school in the 7 years I attended. (Unfortunately, the teacher wasn’t advocating lesbianism as an alternative to contraception).
Which is a longwinded way of saying that my school taught me that the penetration of a vagina by a penis was the only way to have sex and that it was fraught with the risk of pregnancy and venereal disease. In contrast, Pecs Drag Kings’ show SEX SEX MEN MEN offers a plethora of pleasurable acts in a drag-cabaret show bulging with nuance, gender-theory and heart.
In the opening number, the Pecs boys (a drag troupe of women and non-binary performers) stride onto the stage, their hips thrusting out with the impressive girth of their fictional appendages. They’re sexy and they know it. They also look like they’re trying hard to impress each other, sweating against the stereotype that sexual prowess equates to manhood. Stereotypes about masculinity and sexuality are broken down over the course of the show through a series of individual performances and group routines. Gradually, a softer, cuddlier side emerges. By the final routine, the Pecs kings resemble a boyband, dressed in pink t-shirts and leaning on each other.
Immediately, I feel in safe hands with compère Cesar Jentley (Kit Griffiths), who welcomes us ‘ladies, gentleman, nonbinaries’ to the show. This is ‘a deep plunge into male sexuality’, Jentley informs us (the puns come thick and fast). They deliver the best (and first) content warning I’ve seen integrated into show: sexual acts will be represented, including references to sexual violence (with a separate content warning just before); the performers have all consented to what they will perform and are free to withdraw their consent at any time and we as the audience are free to step out at any time we need. I found this contract of mutual consent between the performers and audience highly reassuring; it was clear that everyone wanted to be there and was enjoying themselves, and had agency over their own bodies.
There’s an inherent weirdness around staging sex. One of my lecturers used to say that sex punctures theatrical illusion because staged sex is so obviously fake. Think watching the sex scenes in The Writer from the Balcony and seeing that although the two actors are on top of each other on the sofa, the dildo glides to the side. But that theory doesn’t account for some, often queer, performances closer to live art, in which performers actually engage in sexual acts onstage. Think Lucy McCormick actually getting fingered by her male ‘assistants’ in Triple Threat.
What makes sex ‘real’? Is it the intention? The context? The result? Whether it is recognised as a sexual practice? Drag troubles those distinctions between real vs fake/illegitimate/performance anyway, and Pecs’ show, in particular, expands the repertoire of the acts conventionally accepted (in a heteronormative society) as sexy, radiating queer desire and pleasure. Is all sex inherently performative? Maybe it’s a spectrum of performativity – one that is extensively explored by the Pecs drag kings. So, no orifices are actually penetrated, but real bodies collide and share sweat, costumes are taken off and put back on, and Lauren Steele as Thrustin Limbersnake joyfully submits to being drenched in baked beans.
In a hilarious act that frames the gender politics of the show, John Travulva (Jodie Mitchell) delivers a sex and gender 101 lecture, as Gentley gives his dildo an extended blow-job. John muses about how in patriarchal society, ‘Dicks are magical social mobility things’. Thus, ‘Phallocentric penetrative sex gathers power’ and ‘Women are not allowed to be sexually dominant’. There is a knowing irony in the juxtaposition, but it also made me wonder who the show is for. How would it feel to watch the show if these ideas were genuinely new to you – as a straight-white-cis-strawman?
Does Pecs represent masculinity accurately? As I am not a man, and, as a lesbian, know few men intimately, I didn’t feel qualified to judge. Instead, I asked fellow critic and ‘real’ man Alex Wood whether he could advise me. Did Pecs’ representation of masculinity ring true with his own experiences? He replied (and he has given his consent for me to quote him): ‘Have to say that’s not a question I’ve been asked before! I’d definitely say there were some elements of the verbatim pieces that rang true, like the times I have wondered “what is feminist sex” or like that thing about believing yourself to be the best person at certain sex acts…beyond that also the quiet passage set in the square where it can go from physical proximity to sexual intimacy and what the line is between that? The monologue about masculinity’s fragility through history was really really great. I guess it also made me think about like the penis “itself” from more of an anatomical position? In terms of being this insubstantial fold of skin that can wield a load of power, but when it is scrutinised it just goes back to being a fold of skin…’
The verbatim pieces – forum postings by ‘real’ men about sexual practices and insecurities – that Alex mentions are a central structuring element of the show, which provide an overarching coherence and structure of feeling. (I have a major dramaturgical crush on directors Celine Lowenthal and Temi Wilkey, just saying). The sincerity and simplicity of the performers’ delivery of these letters as monologues are typical of the production’s aesthetic of care. They are not making fun of these men, though some posts have been chosen for their humour. One of the most moving monologues is a self-defined straight man talking about how much he enjoyed his sexual encounter with a man. In combination and counterpoint with the drag acts, which depend upon elements of stereotype and caricature to be recognisable, these monologues provide a sensitive exploration of masculinity – particularity the fragility of the concept of straight masculinity, rubbing up against the bonds of the patriarchal system.
Sex as represented by Pecs Drag Kings is plural, physically and emotionally intimate, very queer, and, crucially, playful. The drag kings perform an intoxicating mix of masculinity and femininity, fucking with gender binaries and making space for seepage. Pecs should take this show on a sex education tour of schools. Can I offer my old school as a place to start?
SEX SEX MEN MEN is on at the Yard Theatre till 16th March. More info here.