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Coming Through the Darkness of Lockdown – DEBRA WATSON


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At the time of writing, I have been in Lockdown since March 14th. That’s 90 days plus. I could count it out, but days of the month, weeks, days of the week, even hours of the day have become meaningless. I get – when I remember to put them into my calendar – notifications for zoom meetings, google chats, deadlines for writing which pass like ships on a misty horizon.

Given the relative ease of my situation, it seems churlish to complain about the lockdown. I know for sure that I am not the only one who had a holiday and career plans thrown into disarray. Having kept a sharp eye on events in Wuhan, I knew that the UK was only two weeks behind Italy. I spent a week umming and ahhing about whether to go to South Africa to visit my mother or not. If I did go, I couldn’t stay with my best friend who has a heart condition. If I couldn’t stay with my best friend, should I even see my mum, who is also at risk? What if I picked it up en route and spread it to friends who would then infect their loved ones? What if either the UK, SA or Turkey cancelled flights and I couldn’t get back? My impulse was to risk it, but I can’t be the only one who, having heard Boris Johnson’s infamous, ‘and many family and friends will die’ speech decided to immediately go into lockdown. I strongly suggest that, in future, if anyone wants to clear a room really quickly, that they play a video of Johnson asking people to ‘stay calm and in place till further notice.’ I did not trust my chances with herd immunity. Firstly, I would be travelling through three international airports in both directions, with a long stopover in Istanbul on the way back. Normally, this is a delight, and I go explore Istanbul, have a steam bath and a massage and eat gorgeous food – but in a pandemic, this seemed like a really bad option.

Countries were closing borders and shutting down air travel. The last thing I wanted was to be separated from my family in London. I phoned Mum to tell her my decision. Mum immediately concurred. ‘I am so relieved that you aren’t coming. I have been so worried about you. I want so badly to see you, but I think you are making the right decision.’ Heartbroken and shell-shocked, I rang off. The foreign currency I had purchased just that afternoon was shoved in a drawer for later use. I messaged my friends to inform them of my change of plans; some tried to convince me to take a chance, others wholeheartedly supported my decision. I guess we all had a sense of what might be coming, but I had no idea how mentally and emotionally exhausting I would find the next few months.

The decision not to see my mum was by no means decisive. I felt gutted and right up to the Sunday that my flight was due to leave, I was still forensically going over ways in which I could make it work. Having self-elected not to travel, I would lose the entirety of my air-fare, but really, what if South Africa went into lock-down too, and I would be there, but unable to actually see anyone? The unfortunate side-effect of having an imagination is being able to catastrophise. I catastrophise rather well; my mind settling comfortably on the worse case scenarios: Kill your friends and their families? Get stuck in an empty airport with no flights buying bottled water at £2 a shot? Die in another country with no chance of saying goodbye to your family? Even with all the evidence stacked to support my decision to cancel, my mind continued to play ‘what if’s’ with me; as arguments and counter-arguments twisted like a particularly fiendish and determinedly misaligned Rubric cube.

I was buoyed by the fact that people more sensible than I – thought I was making the right decision, or at very least, the wrong decision for the right reasons. My family thought I was nuts. Immo, my son’s dad had returned from Hamburg on the Saturday. His suitcase filled with requests for Vitamins C and D, Germany too was preparing for lockdown, but I could see that he remained intellectually sceptical. Surely the virus

would only attack the old and the weak? ‘No. The London Marathon cancelled for August last night’.

When lockdown did come on March 23rd, it was a huge relief and vindication. Ditto, when South Africa cancelled a few days later, with an even stricter lockdown that included no sales of alcohol or tobacco and limited opportunities to exercise. For a full week before that, with no lockdown in place, events and businesses in London were making their own decisions as so many were just struggling to keep going. For the first three weeks, I had nothing to worry about anyway. I was on annual leave. In my room, for the most part. Planning on just staying alive. As a life-long asthmatic, I have been close to death on a number of occasions, particularly as a child. I know the feeling of my lungs being so constricted that taking even one step is too much. When the tiny bit of oxygen that is getting to your lungs is all that is keeping you going. When you have to be as still as possible whilst turning blue in the face. When you are living breath to breath until you can get to your inhaler, an injection or an oxygen tank. I watched my dad die of pneumonia. I was there when they pulled the plug on his life-support, mopped up the liquid oozing through the pipes from his drowned lungs. COVID19 sounded like my worse nightmare. For someone who has long advocated for voluntary euthanasia, the irony of my deep aversion to dying did not escape me. Yes, I am ok with dying – but honestly, I have tried my entire life to avoid dying from suffocation. Oxygen deprivation is a horrible, horrible way to die. Give me pills! Give me injections!

In retrospect, it seems bizarre how overwrought those first few weeks were. Considering my near-legendary inability to plan ahead, life had somehow fortuitously arranged that both Immo, my son’s dad and my son, Kalen were in lockdown with me. It is a rare occurrence for us all to be in a living space together. Not since I moved out of our tiny one-bedroom flat, had we had to all be in such close proximity for such an extended period of time. Immo who was working from home in the week before lockdown became official – commandeered the living room. My son, fired from his pub job two days before lockdown, turned his room into a games area and I hunkered down in mine, the bed taking up the majority of the floor space. Suddenly, my tiny bedroom became a multi-functional space – holiday destination, office space, studio. The kitchen became our communal space and without much prodding, we all tried to give each other as much room as possible, the other two shielding me by taking responsibility for food supplies and all of us sharing cooking and cleaning duties on a rota.

Left more or less to my own devices, I still can’t account for the feelings of lassitude and panic. Enthusiastically, I signed up to do a sign-language and a TEFL course but followed up on neither. Many artists I knew were responding to lockdown by organising on-line events, but for the first three weeks, I remained stubbornly on holiday, pondering how to best turn my bedroom into a performance-ready streaming facility. I wrestled with technology: how to turn a SLR camera to a streaming device? What apps should/could I use? My room a mess of cables, manuals and assorted kit, I spent most of my time watching Netflix, Mubi and reality TV on Hayu. I fell enthusiastically into binge-watching ‘The Tiger King’, in between a near 24/7 compulsion to read everything I could about the virus. There was so much we didn’t know. In the early days it was assumed that there was not much risk of it being airborne – though, in retrospect, I wonder how this could have been at all credible. I started a group, ‘Solace for the homebound’, where people could post live-streamed events, I joined The Poetry Society New York’s online service to read 1-2- 1 poetry. When I finally gave up on mounting a new curtain rail against the wall on which to hang a thick crimson curtain, I called my friends Mad and Jeyda to help me, and, over Zoom, they helped me re-arrange my space. With only torches and an array of fairy lights at my disposal, my laptop webcam was unusable. Really shit. Like vitamin C, soap and pesto sauce, web-cams were impossible to get. A friend responded to a call-out on Facebook by sending me hers and I started performing online.

This simple task of getting ready to stream, which would normally have taken me a matter of days to sort out, stretched into weeks. My primary concern was, not creativity, but simply to stay alive. Everything else was secondary. Luckily Immo, Kalen and I are good housemates. We know how to be unobtrusively supportive of each other. The only massive rupture was early on in lockdown when my son travelled across London on public transport to pick up a monitor for his PC. On his return, my eyes wide with paranoia, I tried to get him to take off his shoes and all of his clothes to put straight into the washing machine. His response was to have a huge stand-down fight with me. I phoned my boyfriend in tears and he kindly offered me a place with him and his flatmate. I wanted to wait out two weeks of isolation before relocating to his, but a mixture of not feeling confident that we could comfortably nest without putting undue pressure on our relationship, coupled with a heart-felt apology from my son, put paid to that idea.

A week later, I broke up with my boyfriend. Things had been rocky for a while as I had found that, despite us having an open, polyamorous relationship, he had not been as honest with me as I would have expected. We had patched things up just before I went into lockdown and he had had, I now realise, been preparing the ground for a new relationship when I was going to be away on holiday. I found out soon into isolation that he had two people, other than me, that he was having cyber-sex with regularly. One of whom, he now told me, lived in Dorset and was already planning on seeing him after lockdown. I accepted his offhand comment ‘Yes, I know! You want to break up with me again’, without argument. I couldn’t imagine weeks and weeks in lockdown with no access to him when our relationship was in such a chronic state of distrust. My frayed nerves would not allow it.

For some weeks, we maintained a difficult and frosty attempt at friendship. I had made a promise to both of us that if we were to break up I would try and keep a friendship going. For many weeks, we checked in on each other and maintained a cordial relationship. I struggled through lockdown, in a haze, the lid firmly on expressing any feelings of compounded grief. I was already mourning my lack of physical freedom. Early on I bought a mask, so the short walks I did were frustratingly short of smell stimulus. I wrote poems, sluggishly. Participated in collaborative writing pages and forcing myself to write every day, without quality control, producing little that I found of value.

My days blended into each other, sleep came in snatches, rarely more than three hours at a time. Despite being granted furlough and not having any external stresses, I found it difficult to concentrate. I signed up for meetings and seminars I never arrived for. My feelings of uselessness only compounded by the idea that most heroic thing I could do would be to stay at home, till it was over. Whenever that may be.

For a short time, I wondered at the fact that everything we had previously been told was impossible; grounding planes, working from home, instituting a humane and human supporting benefits system – suddenly overnight became not just possible, but essential. The possibility, that at this moment we could re-choose a way to live as a society that wasn’t dependent on the fossil-fuel industry became briefly intoxicating. It was not lost on me that many of the people who just months previously had characterised Corbyn as a Communist, were now clambering for the state to intervene in exactly the kinds of ways social democrats would expect.

I wish I could say that I am coming out of Lockdown stronger, with more personal insights, a bucketful of achievements and optimism. Nothing could be further from the truth. My boyfriend and I briefly tried to get back together again, with disastrous results. I spent two nights not sleeping, crying my eyes out in the knowledge that he had deliberately lied to me. He hunkered down on the lies even as they unravelled at his feet. Faced with the choice to either accept a relationship where lying is the norm or to not have a relationship, I have chosen not to have a relationship. It hurts. It hurts like hell.

Businesses are getting back to doing business as usual. We have been rocked with scandalous negligence by this government. The Black Lives Matter protests came on the back of a world already in grief, already not breathing, already feeling the bite of inequality. For one moment, the whole world could see clearly what the Black Lives Matter movement had been arguing all along – that Black Lives were daily being sacrificed by governments and institutions who refused to be held accountable and populations whose ‘refusal to see colour’ both tacitly and overtly supported the continuance of casual racism into more institutionalised violence against black bodies.

As we begin to come out of lockdown, the World Health Organisation is warning that we should prepare for a second spike in the winter. There is speculation that theatres will not open till next year. I feel that it will take me a long time to re-calibrate. That the shocks to my system have been deep and damaging. I feel much like a fragile shell, empty of substance, my personal equilibrium, tottering.

Immo and my son have held me together. I am not sure if I could have got through this without them. It has been incredibly comforting to have both of them around. Immo, with his offbeat sense of humour, can always make me laugh. We have a deep intellectual and spiritual connection. A deep understanding. It brings me joy to see him and my son together. My ex-boyfriend filled in the gap for sex and erotic attraction and I suspect that it will not be too difficult to replace. Work has been amazing and held off taking me back from furlough as they know that I am physically vulnerable.

I realise that everyone has tried to do their best with the tools they have had at their disposal and that many of us are, by now, at the very end of managing. I try and tell myself that it was not a race, is not a race, but hope fervently, that the next time a pandemic hits, I will be less deer-caught-in-the-headlights, more able to weather the near-impossible changeability of my emotions on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

That I will work productively again. Sometime.

What the Hell is Binaural Dating?


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Binaural dating. #bethedate was the offer that came to my inbox. ‘Oh yes!’ I thought, ‘that sounds fun,…. an audio experience that looks at dating from the inside out. With a waiter that Waits and a Chef to guide you. What’s the worst that could happen?’

Well, the worst that could happen couldn’t possibly be worse than my own risible attempts. I tried a dating site once, wasn’t prepared to pay for a ‘proper’ dating site as I wasn’t terribly serious about finding a life partner. So I wasted a lot of people’s time chatting when all they wanted was sex. I thought I wanted sex too. I thought defining myself as ‘sapio-sexual’ would both narrow the field and ensure that I dated people (men actually) who were more interested in finding out what was in my head than in my pants. After a number of dates where exploratory snogging led directly to people (men actually) diving straight into my pants, I gave up on the dating game.

So, the promise of a date, based on a performance, which would not land up with me gratuitously sticking my tongue down someone’s throat (apparently I need little encouragement), or them prematurely diving into my pants (apparently they need little encouragement) sounded rather fun.

Who could resist an invitation that reads – ‘Part interactive performance, part dating agency, Binaural Dinner Date invites genuine applications from individuals looking for love, or existing couples who simply want a very different dating experience.’

Friday was date night! In the absence of actually having someone to date, I booked a ‘singles’ ticket. My friend Henni who plays violin with me at poetry performances booked too. Off I trotted to Gerry’s in Stratford, dressed almost for an actual date, but without the plunging neckline or the three layers of face paint, I navigated a packed overground, got lost in the Westville Centre and arrived hot, bothered and a little late just in time to be one of the last to be seated at a table. This was going well, almost as well as any actual date I had been on. I was joined by a very attractive and very female date. I think we both managed our disappointment rather well. To be honest, at least she wasn’t 5ft 7ins when she’d said she was 6ft 2ins or 52 when she’d said she was 45. This was already the most honest date I’d ever been on and we hadn’t even exchanged a word!

The Binaural Dating experience was a bit like those dating programmes where people who are hopeless at flirting are given instructions through headphones. Except we both had headphones on! We were both being given instructions! Even knowing this, I felt relieved to be divested of the responsibility of using my own tired dating script. The Chef was a lot funnier, more cruel and deliberate than I could ever be. Seven mins in, we had broken the ice. Seventeen mins in, we had asked each other some pretty deep and interesting questions. Thirty mins in, we were playing competitive games. Forty five mins in, we were co-operating. Each new item on the menu brought us closer together. I was asking and being asked questions, I would never have the courage, playfulness or imagination to ask on a first date. The waiter, as promised, was waiting. There was eye-contact, there was intimacy, and there was reassurance and connection. There has been a lot been written about intimate, participative and immersive theatres as antidote to the consumerist nature of capitalist cultural production. Modern dating apps tend to exacerbate problems of expendability and magnify the performative nature of romance, without critical awareness. At some point, I wondered vaguely if I could hire the Chef to accompany me on all dates to feed me some alternative narrative lines. This was a theatre which used dating as both metaphor and means. I had an esoteric teacher who used to claim that intimacy was about allowing people in: ‘In-too-me-see’. I’d rather go on a million dates like this; dates which are subversive enough to make me challenge my motives and the superficiality of my preferences and yet still provide me with a deeply intimate experience. After an hour of sitting across from and interacting with my date, I found that I had truly laughed, revealed, played and explored with a complete stranger.

Our clothes were still on, my tongue had not transgressed. Her hands had not travelled (this would not have been different if it had been a man!). I felt warm and squishy and more fully human and alive. I bought into the idea that love can heal our brokenness. Both Henni and I left wishing we had bought someone whom we fancied on this date. I hope fervently that Binaural Dating will be set up as an agency for reluctant daters or those wanting a a playful challenge to their tired dating scripts. I’m keen to go again.

It’s still on until the 2nd Dec. Book now. Go!

Binaural Dinner Date is on from the 30th Nov to the 3rd December. Tickets are selling fast! http://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/binaural-dinner-date#schedules

ZU-UK is run by creative directors Jaade Persis and Jorge Ramos. They run a collaborative theatre making MA in conjunction with the University of East London and also run frequent professional development courses for artists interested in performance, technology and collaboration.

Debra Watson is a participative theatre practitioner, media facilitator and poet. Visit her at: www.debrawatsoncreative.com

Why Consent Still Matters: ‘No is No’, and ‘Yes is Yes’!


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“To exercise power costs effort and demands courage. That is why so many fail to assert rights to which they are perfectly entitled – because a right is a kind of power but they are too lazy or too cowardly to exercise it. The virtues which cloak these faults are called
patience and forbearance.” (Nietzsche: Human, All too Human)

There are names flung at women like me. When I was younger, men could hardly make up their minds as to whether I was a cock tease or an easy lay. It didn’t bother me at all. I grew up in a very liberal town in South Africa, where the boys were sweet. They were happy to kiss for days and days, spent hours pleasuring their girlfriends with their hands and, I think, took pride in just taking their time about things. No-one ever came near to forcing me into doing anything I wasn’t ready for.

As a teenager, I got dumped by a boy I really liked because he wanted to have sex and I didn’t. He was gorgeous. Older than me by a few years and I adored him. We weren’t ever really ‘in’ a relationship. I used to go around to his house and lie on his bed with him and chat. He was madly handsome and very gentle and sensitive. I realised that it was getting impossible for him when his mum took me aside and told me that I should stop leading him on. He contacted me recently on fb. We had the best memories of each other. I sent him a private message. “Thank you for never forcing me to do anything I wasn’t ready for.”

Shortly before my sixteenth birthday, I discovered that I was falling crazily in love with another ex’s best friend. I couldn’t bear all the fuss around, ‘giving away’ my virginity. So, I slept with someone else. Someone I wasn’t crazy about, but liked a lot. I mean, we ‘got on’. Then I left him. To pursue the young man, I was deeply enamoured with. The first night we were ever together, he refused to do anything but lie next to me. It was utterly marvellous and romantic. If, when we did have sex, he felt disappointed that I was no longer a virgin, he didn’t say. He certainly never asked me who or when or why. Nor did I venture the tell.

Unfortunately, for all concerned, I found that I enjoyed sex rather a lot. I also discovered I had a bit of a wandering eye. A lot of a wandering eye. And hands. Sixteen was tumultuous for me at any rate. I left home, went to a cram college and had three or four intense relationships. I behaved appallingly and carelessly with people’s hearts, following my own without remorse. Yet, I am still one of the few women I know of any age who is able to say: “I have never had sex with anyone that I didn’t want to.”

Given the appalling number of people I know who have been sexually abused – date rape, childhood abuse and sexual abuse even within relationships: this appears to be somewhat of a feat. I feel fortunate that at an early age, I fell in with a crowd of artists and intellectuals. Socialists, feminists, queers, rule-breakers, who made it clear that ‘No is No!’ The worst sex I ever had, was with someone out of this circle was a drummer in the pub band where I was bartending. His ego was as big as his 80s hair, and he seemed to think it was my duty to give him a blow-job without him taking part in any reciprocal pleasuring. It is as close as I have ever come to feeling abused in bed. I made sure to keep as wide a berth from both him and his hair afterwards, despite his superb drumming.

As someone who has recently started ‘dating’ again, ie thinking about having sex with people other than people I have either already known for years, or who are generally within my circles, the question of consent is really important to me. I would hate for there ever to be a situation in which my ‘No’ was construed as anything other than clear refusal.

I am aware of my own sensitivities around sex. When I was younger, I loved hook-up sex. In my late 20s, I prided myself on running a small ‘harem’ – I had a few men who I had regular casual sex with. We were happy to hook up at the bars/clubs we used to frequent and I found it perfectly acceptable for them to ring up or pop over. I have no idea if any of them knew about each other, and we never discussed what it was. It was clear. Hot sex. No relationship, little chat, just sex. Still, I would never have referred to any of these men as ‘fuck buddies’. They were, in the main, artists and performers like myself.

People with whom I had that elusive ‘chemistry’ that can tip an acquaintance into an object/subject of desire. We had chemistry and mostly were not interested in forming long term relationships. They were people who were part of the small, alternative art/political circuit in South Africa. Left-wing, socialist and in the main, influenced by feminist ideas. They were friends in the wider sense of being ‘comrades’ or ‘fellow travellers’. There was a marked absence of hostility or misogyny. I was never called out for my promiscuity, which was, at the time, probably quite refreshing. “No is No!” was never questioned and non-consensual sex was certainly viewed as uncool. It was perfectly acceptable to request non-penetrative sex if one desired. It was sex with all the openness and willingness of youth, innocence and gaining experience. As we all came from a small circle where we were bound to bump into each other, it was unlikely that anyone you had sex with would follow up an encounter with shameful freezing-out or non-acknowledgement, whether or not hook-ups turned into longer term arrangements. The artificiality of shame had not entered our lexicon. I liked to have sex as a fast way of getting to know someone. As Julie Burchill has claimed of her youth, it made sense to have sex with someone to see if I wanted to get to know them better.

Whenever I strayed too far from that circle, for example when I was doing a lot of meditation/self-development work in the 90s and meeting people from a much wider circle – hook-ups often became fraught. Men distanced themselves after the act. I became aware of the phenomena of ‘vagina dentata’, the toothed vagina. Apparently, some men are terrified that they can be addicted to someone via an attachment to their vagina. I found it curious. How could some men be so cool and others so fucked up? I mean, what was it about some men that they assumed as you had slept with them that you would automatically cease to be a person? “What? You used to look me in the eye and now all you can see is my needy vagina?” I had to ask myself, did feminists make better lovers? There were the men who hung out and if you had sex managed to keep their shit together; others didn’t, one lover went into meltdown the morning after and I had to pull him up short by saying, ‘Please behave yourself or I shall have forgotten you entirely by mid-morning.’ But there was still a sense of negotiation and I was never, thankfully, sent an unsolicited dick pic or experienced the assumption that I would welcome having someone’s cum all over my face.

Now, of course, I am talking about the pre-digital, pre-app age. Hook-ups were negotiated in meat space. There’s an awful lot you can tell about chemistry when your potential shag is four inches away from you and making eye contact. There is a lot of accountability when you know you will frequently run into that same person again and again and, within the confines of small circles of friends, you would most certainly know some of their ex or future lovers.

Love in the megacities throws up a whole host of possibilities for both instant gratification and anonymity. I am not particularly into hook-up culture now. As far as I am concerned, it is just another great thing that cis-gendered people have appropriated from queer culture and fucked up. Hook-up culture within queer culture may have been driven by utility and instant gratification, but was circumscribed by the nod and wink of counter-culture. Cis-gendered hook-ups can feel like the utility without the camaraderie and cordiality of acting against the status quo. It’s unsexy. There’s an odour of entering into sexual liaisons in bad faith, ie with the same mindset formerly employed for paid for services in prurient societies. I can’t be the only person to find it galling to be treated as if one had been bought on the marketplace rather than having entered into a free and fraternal exchange.

Perhaps I have been ruined by marriage and an unhealthy interest in creating intimacy. What does it mean? What happens if someone touches me and I find myself repulsed by the quality of their skin? How close can I let people in?

London, is a smorgasbord of opportunity. One must assume that it all works only because people have figured out consent. My friends who are into BDSM tell me that the most consensual sex they have had is within these relationships. There is an agreement around what will or won’t be done. Sexual chemistry and attraction is down to having a relationship of trust and where boundaries are respected.
Vanilla relationships, like the ones I have blundered into all my life, have far more blurred lines. Even as I write, I can’t help thinking of that fucking awful song. The misogyny that accompanies some internet posts – ‘Well you shouldn’t have been dressed like that’, ‘Shouldn’t have drunk like that’, ‘Shouldn’t have gone home with a strange man’. Fuck that. They should have heard their ‘No’ as ‘No’.

My friend who performs at the Poetry Brothel as ‘Wild Iris’ has a poem about it. She asks, ‘How many times did I have to say no?’ Well, the answer should be ‘once’. Just once.

I’m horrified by reports that young women are being sexually groped and assaulted at school, that often they are having anal before kissing, that they are being slut-shamed if they choose to be as open about sex as their male counterparts. That the rise and accessibility of porn means that young men think it is ok to come on someone’s face without permission, or to have penetration without preparation. In this arena, it is not just young people who have to be educated about what it means to have a live person in front of you. Almost everyone I know who has ventured into online dating or apps has, at some point, received ‘the unsolicited dick pic’ or been faced with inappropriate sexual content. The lines between instant access internet porn and instant access sex are not always clear. One person’s ‘date’ is another person’s ‘prelude to sex’. Ewwww is our most common expression.

There is, as antidote, a lot of discussion about consent. A re-invigorated interest in asserting that, ‘No is No!’ and beyond that, to moving the discussions to a more communicative, co-relational, ‘Yes is Yes’. I’m uncertain about the dynamics of that. I’d like to try it, though my soul shrinks at the thought of asking someone. ‘May I touch you?’ ‘May I kiss you?’ I’m embarrassed when I think of how I may have accosted men in my past. The assumption that ‘All men are up for it.’ I wonder what it would be like to take the lead, and ask, ‘May I……?’ It strikes me that maybe men also struggle to find the words to ask for what they want.

I was shagging an old friend. It was great and then out of the blue, he suggested anal. I said, ‘No’. ‘What?’ he replied. ‘You’ve never done anal?. It was early in the morning. I didn’t feel like explaining. The only anal I had ever had, had been consensual and spontaneous, but it had hurt for days after and I was sure I had been torn. It was not something I wanted to try again without lots of lube, analingus and condoms. And time. Lots of time. So I just said, ‘No. Not without lube and condoms’. So, bless him, he stumbled to the kitchen. I saw the light of the fridge reflected in the window. He came stumbling back, pleased with himself, with a great big blob of butter on his hand.

Immediately, I said, ‘Fuck you and your Bertolucci fantasies!’ To his credit, he sat down and flicked the blob of butter out of sight. I think that is the first time I felt anything near love for him. We continued to have hot, consensual sex, but if that had that happened with a complete stranger, I am not sure if I would have felt confident enough to make my ‘No’ clear and would more than likely have cleared out immediately in embarrassment.

How do you negotiate consent with a complete stranger who assumes that as you are over 50, you have either done everything there is to do already, and therefore, why wouldn’t you do them now? How do you explain to a complete stranger, that yes, you liked snogging them 5mins ago, but they have just dived for your clitoris and it all feels a bit ‘smash and grab’? I honestly can understand that it must be very frustrating for men to think that they have a chance of having full penetrative sex only to be fobbed off at the last moment. In the vast pool of unreserved sexual conquests, it must be tempting to see every date as a bona-fida sex partner. I wish I felt the same. I certainly know women who are so in charge of their own sexuality that they feel they can have sex with anyone. That it does not matter. I am way more repressed that I thoughtI was. I have a zillion gate-keepers measuring everything from the temperature and humidity of your skin to the woolfishness in your eyes, to the colour of the buttons on your shirt. I am capricious, not because I am holding out, but because I already know that I want something deeper, stronger and more interesting than straight utility. I have been ruined by age, self-awareness and deep feeling for things that bubble under the surface of the skin.

Sex is a lot like dancing. Some people are good at it. Intuitive. Some people are good together. Personally, I prefer dancing by myself to dancing with anyone really clumsy or anyone terribly formulaic. But each to their own. Some people like being led. Some people like to follow. There is an exercise we do in drama groups called ‘The Mirror’, it’s an exercise in leading and following. First one leads and then one follows. Then you swop around. The facilitator calls when to make the changes. As the exercise advances, the facilitator says, ‘Ok, now change by yourself who leads and who follows, without my instruction.’ In some partnerships, the change is seamless. It’s beautiful and tells us (the audience) a lot about the way energy can move between two people. It becomes a beautiful dance of shared power, shared leadership. It can also expose the power dynamics in relationships. Who holds on? Who must dominate? Who is afraid to lead? Who hates to follow? At the end of the session, you ask the participants to reflect on their own feelings. ‘What did you enjoy? Why? What made you feel uncomfortable? Why? For some people, following is wonderful, they can relax, not make decisions: for others, the power of control is the thing. The mirror exercise, dancing, life – it’s all about power. Who has it. Who wants it. Who surrenders theirs? How they share it? What they will do to keep it?

Speaking to some of my female friends, of all ages, who are having regular hook-up sex, it has become apparent that the sexual freedom that was so liberating and celebrated for adventurous women in the 80s, has now turned into something where women are once again being subjected to double standards. Slut-shamed by their more conservative friends and treated badly by men who move through them with the same respect they would give to a late-night kebab take-out. Tasty but forgettable. Or just disrespectful in a myriad of ways that reveal a lot about the disjuncture that many men have between the needs of their penis and their ability to connect at a meaningful, human level once their penis has entered the conversation. I am hearing, from multiple conversations, ‘Just show some respect’. What does that mean?

Here’s the thing – I honestly think that I can’t have sex with fascists, neo-liberals or conservatives, but the surprise is people who I vaguely consider to be ‘on the same side’ coming at you as if your body is another commodity that they can ‘have’. That they can move through in the same ‘rapey’ way that you can travel through the city. In fast lanes and elbowing people as you go. The city can be an alienating space. Your body is the last point of defence. The final space where you can circumscribe a boundary. ‘This far and no further’. In this context, the replacement of ‘No is No’ , a reactive, protective measure, with ‘Yes is Yes’, a proactive, relational discussion becomes really sexy. Resistance to the status quo is sexy. Creating intimacy as a counter-weight to fast-food, fast-sex, immediacy. What would it be like to create a slow sexual intimacy with someone who I don’t know, but who is unafraid and unguarded? Can we deepen our human accords through the act of sex? Can we leave the intimacy of the sexual encounter and still keep the integrity of relationship, whilst still not placing currency on their ability to create intimacy? Can we create intimacy and cordiality even within the potential anonymity of the city? Can sex be a gateway to intimacy between friends, or are we just moving parts of pleasure? As capitalism kills the city, and the environment and equality are fucked, can we help create intimacy as an antidote?

So maybe, ‘No is No!’, is not enough. Beyond the politics of refusal, perhaps the only way to maintain a defence against utilitarianism is to create spaces for intimacy. For consent. For slowing down. For moving less expediently, less hastily. For treating everyone as lovers and friends, not temporary objects. Maybe in that context, consent is powerful. Consent is sexy. Is there something beyond ‘fuck-buddy’ that isn’t a commitment to monogamy or sexual currency? ‘Yes is Yes’, in a time where there is so little one can say a fulsome and hearty, ‘Yes!’ to?
Moral meaning and the creation of morality starts with ‘No!’ but surely we must find ways to evolve this negative into a meaningful ‘Yes!’. Let’s consider how we could do that…

Debra Watson is a participative theatre, media and arts facilitator, performer and poet. Her blog page is www.debrawatsoncreative.com.

The next Poetry Brothel is on March 18th at the Betsy Trotwood upstairs from 8pm.

She performs as Bibi Snythe at The Poetry Brothel London. You can purchase her book of poems ‘Be Loved’ for £10 by contacting her here: https://debrawatsoncreative.com/poetry-performance/

Upcoming Shows/ Previous Shows

Last of the Summer Sun


1 Minute Read

Black-eyed Sue traipsed across the heath                                                                                    
Facing the last of the summer sun
It kissed her face golden.

I could see the faint
trace
of her smile
as she ripped to pieces
the chorus of a love song
she didn’t believe in.
She mentioned
that you’d been around 
with a bottle of wine
and while you were sitting, 
just chatting
inside
she’d been melting.
She said:
“When he’s around
my clothes fall off
I come undone
I know
it’s too soon to be 
Calling
But I think I’m
Falling
I’ve come undone!
Who am I to complain
When I find
My skin’s no longer
My own 
He owns me down
to the bone
Every muscle, 
tiny synapse, spark,  filament!”
She thinks you’ve raised an electric storm
A galaxy of delight
but she can’t hide the
Burn marks
That bloom like filigree
Across her face
When she described
Your ghosting.
That fleeting panic
In her eyes
Behind her smile
Each time she whispered
And wove your name,
Unnecessarily (I thought)
Into our conversation
And acted like she was a girl again
And threw her head back, 
Laughing.

Tonight Old Friend


1 Minute Read

Tonight

old friend

I immerse myself in you

Wanting you same

as I always did

When we were young

and the violet Jacaranda

fell carelessly in

hazy blooms

around our feet

Later

though we were still

freshly blossomed;

Both busy reaping

the sky of stars,

On occasion

I fell into you,

Carefully

Detached

and light in passing

And though

You said

we’d be doing

this

into our 60’s

It seemed

to me

unlikely

that the delights and sensations of spring

could last for endless nights.

I touch you now

your belly

unexpectedly round

beneath my mouth

Your lips

open to receive me

and though we are both older

by decades

when I kiss you

I feel a subcutaneous youth,

tremulous,

surfacing from deep within

My lips

are yours

and my thighs

My longing is both endless and urgent

Generously

Your body lends itself to me

and I can be as selfish as I choose

in choosing you

The feel of you  evokes

so much light in me

that my fingertips

burst with sunshine

Tonight the smile will not

leave my eyes

or my soul

stop from spinning

and I cannot be damned for the

laughter you make well from me

or the way my body remembers

As if we had not spent mere hours together

in this life

but lifetimes with every hour.

 

Debra Watson will be performing at the Poetry Brothel on 2nd July at Vout-o-Renees. For more information click here.

I Blame the Gin


1 Minute Read

A number of years ago, in my mid 40s, I fell madly, wildly, secretly, unrequitedly, sexually in love with someone half my age. I was stunned. I felt like David Byrne had taken residence in my head, dancing around singing, ‘How did I get here?’ My body was on fire. I was obsessed and had to work my way through it in small, insignificant steps. It was one of the most powerfully sexual, non-sexual, experiences of my life and it reminded me how much of a sexual being I am. How important sex has always been to me as a physical, emotional and spiritual act.

There were hideous days of sitting in the British Library trying to research my thesis (since abandoned) and being overwhelmed with words, poetry, prose; anything but the intellectual analysis I had signed up to deliver. I was earning my living as the Creative Director of a participative theatre, art and media charity which I had set up to create projects with and for communities. I had long been interested in Boal’s ‘Forum Theatre’ and I put together projects that I hoped would give children and adults opportunities to express themselves through the arts. The projects I loved and was proudest of were those where audience/participants developed new skills, confidence or created something unexpected. I sometimes worked with actors, taking shows into communities or schools, using forum techniques to start discussions and have audiences perform their ‘solutions’ to problems. My thesis was on developing criteria to evaluate participative arts, looking particularly at ‘The aesthetics of participation’.

AITN9556 In my spare time, I worked as site-specific and participative artist.   I had come from a performance background, but had long given up being a jobbing actor. I had considered that part of my life over. However, this new energy, this sexual energy, was so overwhelming strong, that it could only be played out in particular ways. I could either give myself over to it, pursuing the object of my desire, or I could attempt to temper my, by now almost impossibly urgent, feelings and rein my passions in through art. I chose the latter, starting a poetry blog and finding building that into a site-specific performance called “TIME=MONEY” a 1-2-1 intimate poetry performance which I took to the Brighton Fringe Festival in 2013, winning a ‘WINDOW’ award as a promising company. It was just me and an audience member, separated by a thin mosquito net, in a bespoke venue that we erected ourselves. My partner in the project, Immo Horn, acted as ‘front of house’ ushering people in and out. The performances were intense, direct and, I am told, weirdly sexy.

In the 2 years since that performance, I have moved on. My new show is called ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, More: LOVE!’ I’ve gone from being separated from the audience by a mosquito net and speaking to them only in poetry, to doing a full facilitated 60min show, as myself, using my own name and singing, dancing and telling stories about my dating disasters.

The show is about learning to date again in your 50s. I turned 50 last year and slowly began to realise that the promised ‘post-menopausel disinterest in sex’ was not going to happen for me. In fact, it hasn’t happen to a lot of my friends either, many of whom are reporting the best sex with new partners who take the act of pleasuring their partners seriously. On the rare occasions I have had sex, it has been explosive. Intimate, connected, mind-blowingly great. Unfortunately, on all occasions, the people involved where unsuitable for long term partnerships. The last two, separated by months and months and months, were friends. One an ex-lover from my twenties. The other an acquaintance going through a protracted separation. The former was a gift, the latter sent me around the twist. I had known he was damaged. I had been speaking to him earlier in the night we hooked about opening his heart again. I was not planning on seducing him. I blame The Gin.HipstamaticPhoto-474668570.443658

I have also, despite an absolute aversion to dating, joined a dating site. To my frustration and amusement, I have had, sadly, to self-declare as a “dating disaster”. The person I was when I last dated no longer exists. The mechanisms for dating (meet in bar/club/through friends/shag/see if it works) no longer satisfy. There’s a whole new world out there of dating apps and dating sites. Dating sites have been around since the 90’s, so although it is not new, the ‘dial up/swipe right/booty call’ culture is. It is everything a sex loving, liberated woman like me should want. Yet, I am finding it difficult. I want my sex with integrity, but was completely put off when attending some Osho type workshop. All the men just looked like they wanted to stick their dicks into anything. Quite frankly, I thought I could have more fun at Joe’s Bar in Camden on a Sat night. Picking up men in bars is and always has been frighteningly easily. You almost don’t need to do much more that exist. I wanted to find a new way of meeting people that wasn’t just pure, blind, chemistry. I’d tried that. I’ve had a few long relationships, married, separated. I am still very close to my ex, emotionally and intellectually, though not sexually. We work together. I still love him in a filial and emotional way that means I don’t want to consider the normal heterosexist trajectory of basically destroying all aspects of one’s life and partnership together simply because one is no longer fucking. So, I am trying to see what it will be like to identify as polyamorous, though strictly I am not, as polyamoury normally means that you are having multiple relationships which are both sexual and emotional. However, right now, it feels like the best description that I have to go on.

It suits me better than ‘ethical non-monogamy’; no-one is asking me to be non-monogamous. I have always wondered if I could. I have always run into problems in relationships as one or the other of us wants to explore other relationships, but because we have been locked in monogamy, this has happened furtively, secretly and caused so much damage when the truth has outed. So for many years, I have tried to be another way in my relationship. I have given this sexual and emotional fidelity business as good a shot as I have been capable of. It hasn’t worked out very well for me.

I’m 51 yrs old now. I feel I have to try and create the relationships I want, right from the start. I don’t want to be told that I can’t enjoy the deep emotional intimacy I have with my ex, that somehow that part of my relationship will become irrelevant if (when!) I start seeing someone else. I don’t want to be involved in anyone else’s lies either. I don’t want to be part of someone else’s ‘dirty secret’ or their ‘shame’. I don’t want to be that person who breaks someone else heart when they find out about me. I want to see what happens if we try loosening things up and become more honest and true with each other. How much kindness and compassion can we throw at ourselves? At those we don’t know? At our lovers?

FOTZ0636When I started working on the show, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme More: LOVE!” I had no idea how personal the content was going to be. I imagined that I could work as a ‘facilitator’ in the process, and keep parts of myself private and hidden away. During the course of developing the work though, stuff has happened. I’ve broken some of my own rules, I have car-crashed my own learning process. This is by far the most honest, open, warts and all, work I have ever done. While the poetry was showing my soul in a deeply intimate, sexy way, this show is much more honest. I don’t have a character to hide behind. I’m revealing things about myself I thought I would never disclose publicly.

As we are getting closer to the show opening, I am beginning to feel a real nervousness. Some of the content is just so private. Should it just stay that way? Why am I engaging in this ’emotional exhibitionism’? On the other hand, as the show uses live-chat, I am hoping that sharing some of my dating disaster history will free people up to share theirs. It is enormously exciting to me to have created a show where audiences can contribute if they choose. Since I have started the project, people have been disclosing the most intimate details of their dating lives to me. A lot of the stories are really funny. Or at least, they become funny once they are shared. Even if audiences don’t join the live chat, they can still participate in the singing, the dancing as they see me skating close to the thin edge of self-exploitation. How far can I go? Have I gone too far? In my personal life, I think I haven’t gone far enough. I have a rule book. It’s been updated in light of recent events. It goes like this:

The Rule Book

  • No one I work with. See reasons 2 and 3. I work in the arts. Often with gorgeous young people, who become my friends.
  • No friends who have not been your lover before. When it goes wrong, the whole friendship group is affected. In our 50’s – this is bad news. You can sleep with old lovers though. Just because you can. They feel familiar and safe and you know, if they are still around, it’s because you’ve had something real going on
  • No one under 35. Just no. Not because they are unattractive. But just no. I can’t bear the whole ‘Cougar’ thing. I detest being seen as a label.   If I meet someone under 35’s who I think I can make a relationship work with, I might. But not as an ‘experience’.
  • No one cheating on their partners. I’m done with dishonesty. Starting to date and starting to date people who are openly polyamorous has opened up the discussions with my ex about sex. I wish we had had these discussions years ago. It may have saved our relationship.

The Rule Book is no less coercive for being invisible. Last weekend, I went to a friend’s party. I didn’t know anyone there but her. I walked in and she said, ‘You are dressed quite tamely for you!’, and I was. A shin length, full skirted black dress. I thought I would have one drink and then go. Then I started dancing. Sometime in, there was this lovely young man dancing just around the edge of my space. Very unobtrusive. I asked him to dance with me. He said he had been waiting for me to ask. He was the most fantastic dancer. I am notoriously uncooperative at either following or leading at swing or blues or salsa. For some reason, it just worked between us. As I swirled, my dull black dress fell in waves about me and I became caught up in the magic and romance of the dance. I kept telling myself, ‘It’s just dancing.’ One woman came up to us and said, ‘The two of you look amazing dancing together.’   He was both damned good and responsive; the leading and following fell naturally to and fro between us. I couldn’t help imagining how wonderful it would be to slip my fingers underneath his shirt. However, I had noticed the ring on his finger. I reckoned, at his age, the reason his wife wasn’t there was because she was at home, maybe looking after the children.   I suspected he danced pretty well with her too. This could go no further. So, shortly before midnight, I said my goodbyes and took my leave before either of us did anything we could regret. I’m not saying he would have; I’m saying, I could have. The next day I really wondered about this. Why not just give myself a bit more license? Why so cautious and conservative? I can’t say that I have come up with any plausible reason why it is so. It is just what my soul needs right now.

So. I’m still out there looking. Looking for what? I don’t know. I guess I’ll know when I find it. Or maybe I won’t. In the meantime, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme More: LOVE!”, an intimate, audience-collaborative show exploring themes of lust, love and dating with your clothes on opens May 6th in Brighton and on Sat 7th May we are having a party right after the show. Further showings on 27th, 28th and the 29th May. You can purchase tickets here. Or contact us on FB, gggmorelove, and join the conversation. I am going to need all the help I can refining and updating my rules.

© Debra Watson 2016

Debra Watson is a poet, performer, facilitator and director. http://www.gggmore.com

Photos Credit: Susanne Ballhausen

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