Sex Education – Clayton Pettet’s ‘Art School Stole My Virginity’

Why do we care? The answer is, virginity and homosexuality

November 7, 2013
by Peter Crack
Clayton Pettet, Art School Stole My Virginity, 2013

Clayton Pettet, Art School Stole My Virginity, 2013

On 25 January 2014, Clayton Pettet, a student at Central Saint Martins in London, plans to have sex for the first time as a piece of performance art. Cue outrage and general despair…

This shouldn’t really be news. In fact the artwork should only really be of interest to Pettet’s Central Saint Martins tutors. It is neither great art, nor degenerate art; it’s somewhere in the middle, and that’s fine.

So why do we care? The answer is, virginity and homosexuality. Let’s start with virginity. Elizabeth I, Britney Spears and the Virgin Mary, were all famously virgins. But then again, so was everybody at some point. As Pettet points out, virginity is both a concept and a power struggle. You can take it from someone and you can lose your own. It can signify purity in women and weakness in men, and presumably vice versa. Western sexual politics dictate that this ‘right of passage’ must in some way be special. Well, it’s never going to be more memorable than this. Pettet questions sexual norms and in this respect his proposal seems a valid, even reasonable, response to an invalid and irrational taboo. If Channel 4’s Sex in a Box show can reach a primetime audience, then virginity was only a matter of time.

The second, and more hidden, cause for outrage is homosexuality. The Huffington Post chose the phrase “Live Gay Sex Show” in their headline for the story. In an ideal world, the premise of this piece would be equivalent to someone declaring that they intend to go home and have sex with their wife. Fill your boots mate. Instead, the artwork exposes the latent prejudices that lurk beneath our well-intentioned veneer of social tolerance. Let’s not forget that Pettet is technically a teenager. But let’s also remember that the age of consent is 16. The youth have always sought to shock the old and probably always will – it’s shockingly predictable.

Aside from the irrelevant homophobia, and possibly accurate allegation of cynical self-promotion, sections of the gay community (even this phrase is somewhat nonsense) have pointed out that the performance potentially devalues homosexual love, creating a freak show out of a normal human interaction. This seems fair. After all, we should strive to normalise homosexuality in our society, and contemporary art isn’t very good at normalising anything. But actually, blaming Pettet for encouraging homophobia through an act of ‘perversion’ implicitly legitimises the homophobic stance. Why should Pettet be an ambassador for an entire sexual persuasion? Gay people are no more duty-bound to behave within outmoded sexual parameters than heterosexuals are. If we insist on tarring people with the same brush in this manner then even the existence of sex outside of procreation would inherently devalue heterosexual love. This is clearly not the case.

As to the actual performance, the details are something of a mystery. Pettet has stated that his intention was to start a debate, in which case, mission accomplished. So much so in fact, that the actual performance is almost an irrelevance. Apart from Pettet and his partner, who get to have sex for the first time, the art here is all in the concept and not the practice (unless he is lucky enough to have a particularly skillful partner). From the audience’s point of view, live sex of any kind is likely to be erotic, amusing or mildly disgusting (probably a mixture of all three). I can’t imagine that this will be any different.