Is sex a performance?
In last week’s post exploring whether performance is always artifice, I tried to find a definition of performance that worked at least for the purposes of that discussion.
I derived from experience and perception, the idea that, “Performance is not simply about having an audience. It’s about presenting something to an audience.” And I used the example of a voyeur and an exhibitionist or victim to illustrate the distinction. This perhaps reveals that my thoughts were naturally turning towards whether sex is necessarily a performance, at least by the terms I had just outlined.
Is sex performance? If sex is performance, and all performance is artifice, is sex necessarily artifice?
It’s a challenging proposition to make, even recalling that I concluded:
Is all performance artifice? Yes, in that it all must be contrived and constructed for the benefit of the audience. But that doesn’t mean performance is false.
Gemima @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar added a perspective on the blogging discussion by discussing whether writing about sex is performance (and deciding, yes, it is – for a similar interpretation of “performance”). In it, she discussed that:
However in this most intimate of performances the words of Valery rang true, Carter had with his instructions for dress constructed something containing artifice, but it was not fake or contrived.
(Yes, I get namechecked in that quote. I like when people say I’m clever…)
Sex is often portrayed as being a deeply-rooted instinctive behaviour, driven by the biological need to procreate and propagate our genes to the next generation of our species. People talk about it as human beings at our most animal, least guarded, least controlled state. Raw desire, pure and honest emotion. The idea that this, of all things, could be inescapably linked to performance and artifice seems anathema to the common conception of sexuality, lust, passion.
And yet, sexual behaviour is far from a fixed absolute. Fashions change, courtship changes, even the sexual positions that are in vogue change, or have their significance shift from age to age. How we have sex is a decision we make, not something preordained by God or genetics or what-have-you. Nowhere is it written that the basic fuck is “missionary position with the lights off”. Or “Doggy-style in the back garden”. Or “Up against the wall in the hallway”. These are all choices. The clothes we use, the language we use, the touching we use, to communicate sexuality and sexual desire are all to some extent socially determined, or are decisions that we make. To refer back to the definitions of artifice I chose in my previous post, they are “ingenious stratagems”, they are “skilfully contrived devices”.
My reader may wish to argue that I am discussing here courtship – the object of which is to result in the unguarded, guileless act of copulation – rather than the act itself. However, I believe that it is a rare sexual act in which there is no intended emotional or physical effect on the partner. Although there is the stereotype of the man who is uninterested in his partner’s pleasure, I believe there is always something being presented (even if it is contempt rather than interest).
Most people, I believe, want to have an effect on their partner, want to be seen in a certain way by their partner, want their partner to understand how they feel, and so on.
I said that artifice is not necessarily false. I noted that the connotations of deception are not intrinsic to the meaning. One can use great skill in order to convey what one truly feels inside, and the artists best able to bare their souls through their art tend to be the ones who have the greatest skill with which to do so. Even if sex truly is our most honest, emotional, unguarded selves, there is an art in being able to reach those states. There is no less art or performance in showing feelings that we do have, than in hiding them.
Sex as a performance is not a selfish or self-focussed performance: the larger part is to be a reflection of what one hopes to see; which is to say, that the art, the performance, is guided by the audience, and their performance is guided in turn. As musicians, we have a term for this: it’s called a jam session, or improvisation, and the performance is for each other’s benefit in a collaborative event. Gemima writes, “what makes [performance] not false is … whether we can let go enough of the idea of performing and simply do.” This is the essence of the jam, too. Everyone knows that it is a performance on some level but in the moment it is just music.
Sex is performance, but it can be the most honest and intimate performance, where the audience and performer share not just a stage but bodies and minds, too.