All photos by Willow Garms
Remember Clayton Pettet? The 19-year-old who, six months ago, said he was going to publicly lose his virginity in the name of art? After I spoke with him at the end of last year, the news of his live performance piece was greeted with a mixture of admiration, disgust, and confusion. That confusion became more pronounced when he disclosed that his partner would also be a guy, because straight sex in public is one thing, but gay sex in exactly the same scenario is clearly a whole different ball game.
As if this wasn't enough to put someone off the idea of publicly losing their virginity in the name of art forever, Clayton's also had to contend with someone claiming his idea was plagiarized from a conversation they’d had four years ago (something Clayton denies). He also came under fire from The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, whose spokesperson said the most damning thing any artist could hear from a Christian organization, “I’m not quite sure how [having sex in public] is art.”
But all that publicity obviously paid off, because Clayton's virginity proved to be one of the most in-demand virginities ever. He had to sift through around 10,000 applications to whittle the audience down to the right 150 people he wanted to attend.
The “right people” range from standard St Martins students with black tunics and green hair, through to middle-aged art critics and a few people who—shockingly—look like they don't care about art or Clayton's concept at all, and are only there for the butts and dicks. Someone making a documentary about the event works their way down the line, asking the same kind of questions that everyone else is already asking each other: “Is this actually art?” and “Is the ‘art’ actually just getting people to stand in a line for hours in the hope that they’re going to see some anal sex?”
We’re eventually ushered into the venue and have to hand over our phones and any other recording devices. The security team seem perplexed: “It’s all a bit odd if you ask me, but art’s art at the end of the day,” says one. We end up in a large room with a bar in the corner and seats laid out in front of a screen showing a looped video of bananas in a basket. Before long, the video changes to Clayton surveying a mountain of bananas that’s formed around him. “I wonder what the bananas are supposed to mean,” I say out loud. “They’re penises, obviously!” replies someone behind me, helpfully.
Suddenly, Clayton emerges, wearing just his underwear and flanked by two topless people with sheets over their heads, usually a tell-tale sign that the art is about to begin. The henchmen hold signs that read “ANAL VIRGIN” and “LIVE FUCK BUTT VIRGIN SEX SHOW," and Clayton has various tribal markings drawn all over his body. He gets down on his knees and scrubs himself with a red liquid, before someone else comes over and starts cutting his hair.
The audience are giving him their full attention—mostly because he took away our phones, but also because what’s happening in front of us looks like someone in the throes of a full-blown anxiety attack. (Later, he tells me how this process represents being purified and the fetishisation of the young virgin.) After the hair cutting, one of the masked people picks out 20 random audience members and sticks them next to each other, until everyone is split into groups. This is followed by another long wait, in which one of the middle-aged art critics tells me, “I don’t really understand the meaning yet, but I want to at least give him the chance.”
It doesn’t take long to work out that all this waiting and anticipation probably has something to do with all the waiting and anticipation we experience before we lose our virginity. It’s a clever device, but it’s then that the audience starts to realize they’re probably not going to see any penetrative sex. Nobody seems too upset though and in truth that would be a weird thing to throw a strop about.
Following our guides downstairs, we’re led into a room that’s covered in graffiti. Everything Clayton has sprayed on the walls is supposed to represent the public’s various perceptions of the show, so there’s stuff like “#trendingvirgin” and “young, dumb, and full of cum.” All 20 of us are standing in front of it, feeling kind of disorientated, which is presumably the objective here.
One by one, we’re then taken away to a large pink box. I get down onto my knees and enter the rabbit hole, to find Clayton alone, in his pants, surrounded by bananas. “You’re going to take my oral virginity,” he says, with the manic, cranked-out look of someone who hasn’t slept for a fortnight. “Put the banana in my mouth eight times.”
I want to make a joke or smile at him or, really, do anything to detract from the awkwardness of a guy you’ve known for quite a while telling you to mouth-fuck him with fruit. But I’m frozen by how vulnerable he looks, and how focused he is on me. So I oblige, not really knowing how else to handle the situation.
“Go now,” he says after. I leave feeling like I’ve done a bad thing. I’d wanted to see him lose his virginity, and it was me who ended up penetrating him. We as an audience have kind of half got what we wanted, but I don’t feel any better for it.
I leave the box and I’m confronted with the physical art associated with the project, which ranges from the cartoonishly grotesque to some pretty nice portraits of people, most of them including text that satirises how we view the virgin, as well as the whole wanting-to-have-sex-for-fame thing. I see a man who looks slightly out of place among all the art school kids. He introduces himself as Peter and tells me he was “on the reserve list for tickets, so just popped by to see what was going to happen.” I ask him about the art, and he says he feels that “the pictures are too simple, but I guess that's the point."
I ask someone else what they thought and she says that the bananas remind her of “putting condoms on them for sex education. My mom taught the class, so it was very awkward.” I ask her how it differed from her own experience of losing her virginity. “Well, that lasted eight hours. He couldn't really get it up,” she grimaces.
After everyone’s had a go in Clayton’s box, he emerges again to strip off ceremoniously, before running off, followed by the two people with the sheets over their heads. I catch up with him later and ask him what the performance was really about. He tells me: “You had to penetrate me, and you felt pressured to do it. This was what I felt when I was younger—the pressure and the waiting for it.” I ask him if he’ll have sex physically now that he’s done it mentally. “I never want to have sex; my art is my sexuality,” he replies. “That was enough for me to last a lifetime.”
I say that some people might have been disappointed by how the performance turned out, and ask what the reaction was like from various members of the audience when they stuck their head in the box. “There was enjoyment, hate, and sometimes amusement, but in a, ‘Ha ha, look at you,’ way. It was quite sadistic. There was one guy who shoved my head back and stuck the banana down my throat really, really hard.”
I ask if this is the end of his performance art career and he laughs. “I want to die making performance art.”
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