Crossing the threshold of an un-renovated Dickensian townhouse in London’s East End and into the candlelit hallway of 4 Princelet place, our guests have little idea what to expect.
Each of them had received an invitation a few weeks before:
“When it comes to sex education, “pleasure” is a dirty word. Talk dirty to us.”
They know the event is hosted by an organisation called Love Matters - but little else…
Ushered into a “waiting room”, which is set-up to resemble an old-fashioned doctor’s surgery, they are given a survey to fill in. The walls are papered with old-fashioned sex education posters warning against the wickedness of “loose” women and syphilis.
The survey questions are simple, for example: “Are you A.) Female, B.) Male, C.) Other” and “Have you ever participated in anal sex?”. Unsurprisingly, some people find this interrogation unsettling.
In small print is a disclaimer:
*WE ARE SORRY IF YOU FELT THESE QUESTIONS WERE INAPPROPRIATE, INTRUSIVE OR NON-REPRESENTATIVE.
NOW BE QUIET AND TAKE YOUR MEDICINE.
The “medicine” is administered by the character of Dr Templeton and delivered in the form of a blue drink or a red drink (depending on how ‘libidinous’ he deems the participants to be based on their answers – a completely arbitrary diagnosis of course).
Every stage of this part of the experience has been developed in contrast to what will happen next; from the tone of the setting to the content itself, the interactions are deliberately insensitive – designed to emphasise how much of the communication around sexual health focuses on disease and dysfunction, which often serves to exclude, label or alienate people.
Before long the guests are summoned to find themselves standing in front of a red velvet curtain, above which glitter the words: Pleasure Portal.
“Good luck”, we whisper, as the curtain is drawn back to reveal a passageway. It is almost completely dark. The vibration of a gong gently resonates. They step into the sound as the curtain falls behind them: Their journey has begun.
Over the next 90 minutes, our invited audience were encouraged to consider pleasure as a powerful motivator for behaviour and open themselves up to the potential of sexual wellbeing going beyond the absence of disease and dysfunction.
The Pleasure Portal comprised a variety of scenes and interactive scenarios to demonstrate that more could be done to harness the power of pleasure and porn to engage young people around their sexual health and rights.
Participants found themselves live on “pirate pleasure radio” with sex worker and political campaigner Charlotte Rose; sipping tea with a Moroccan-born LGBT activist who told her story of lost love in London; channelling the real voices of Indian activists against Gender Based Violence as they interrogated the character of “Navinda” on touching women in public; and holding court in the living room of FGC campaigner Sarian Karim-Kamara, who divulged that despite being cut at 12 years old, she’d had her first orgasm at 22. They even auditioned as porn stars with gay porn-maker and Porn4Prep campaigner Jason Domino.
“By weaving together real audience testimony with theatre, research and storytelling, we sought to create a playful and safe space where our guests could experience first-hand the power of a pleasure-positive approach to educate," said Love Matters Lead Creative Hannah Wallace Bowman.
"In many ways, The Pleasure Portal was a physical manifestation of the work Love Matters does online - engaging young people around their sexual health and rights, openly and without shame.”
The evening ended with a cheeky toast: “To all of us here in the room: to the pleasure pioneers and ambassadors of ardour; to f**king, fingering and the right to our bodies; to breaking taboos and frontline baddassary; to sex ed that makes sense; to expression, to knowledge. Let us all raise our glasses, to the power of pleasure!”
“It was such an interesting journey, vivid, varied and unpredictable. I've never had such an experience within development work, though I've seen a lot of different approaches in different countries. This felt unique. It spoke to the senses, to the heart and also to the mind. It opened up the imagination and broke down siloes that often dog our thinking. I felt renewed hope and energy in a sector that often feels to me so bound by rules and regulations and ways of thinking that limit us” - Guest