James Burns

James Burns

One Night Stand Up

Recently I re-watched Doug Stanhope's excellent 2007 comedy special 'No Refunds' in which he talks about sex-shaming and the stud/slut comparison between men and women who enjoy casual sex. "It's one equal right you'll never get," he says. "You'll be Hillary Clintons and you'll get equal pay but you want to go fuck like this guy fucks on a weekend, he gets high-fives and you get, 'Whore!'" This is of course a comparison that angry horny women have been getting irate about for years, but it hadn't occurred to me that quite apart from the actual having of casual sex, it is seeing a woman talk about it that still makes people uncomfortable in 2014.

In my stand-up I often discuss sex. I am a single 29 year old woman living in London and working in the arts. My comedy comes from my day to day life and experiences, where I find a great deal of material. There is a vulnerability inherent in the emotional exposure of being naked with someone you don't know inside-out (pun intended) and I find the potential horror of that situation funny. Have you ever gone to a fancy dress party and tried to sleep with a man dressed as a whoopee cushion? Did you ever have a one night stand with the man who provided the 'woohoo' for the voice of the Ribena berries?

The encounters quickly dissolve into surreal comedy and the moments get earmarked for some poor bastard audience in the near future. When I'm watching comics perform I find it is honesty and a lack of vanity that makes a comedian irresistible, and that often comes alive onstage in stories of awful moments; tales you won't hear from your friends because of the embarrassment attached.

I have been surprised by the number of women who find it uncomfortable to watch me talking about sex on stage. These are the same female friends who would happily have a salacious one on one gossip with me about sex, but appear to be uneasy watching me discuss it in front of a live audience. They have always been supportive, but quick to distance themselves from the ruder parts of my set.

Perhaps it is my use of blunt language and my eagerness to share experiences that I suppose should be mortifying to me upon reflection. Perhaps we women have been raised to be ladylike and polite, there is a time and place for bedroom frolics and it's not on a stage in front of an audience of strangers. Certainly I never discussed sex with my family growing up, despite being very close with them, and I occasionally wince at the thought of them now discovering one of my more frank sets on YouTube. Luckily for me, they have a great understanding of comedy. My dad introduced me to South Park when I was 10 years old, and I like to think he can separate a funny story from the distasteful image of his little girl doing her best impression of a rodeo clown on some Manchester United fan with no respect for the rules of basic grammar.

So maybe it's about unshackling ourselves from the secrecy that is established around sex as we're growing up. Or maybe the bottom line is that it is uncomfortable to see a woman talk about using her body for pleasure. Our delicate female forms are designed to be vessels for life, sacred temples decorated by provocative but tasteful clothing which should only be revealed to people with whom we have a close bond and established trust. If you do follow your natural urges, then yes that is permissible in society now – just – but maybe don't talk about it.

Ultimately, feelings of secrecy and guilt around sex can lead to women being too embarrassed to buy condoms, too ashamed to go to the sexual health clinic for a simple check-up, never mind the feelings of anxiety that can mount so easily from carrying around feelings of shame, no matter how subconsciously you may store them. So shouldn't we women be talking about sex and normalising it as much as possible?

Even safely tucked away on our television screens it can make people uncomfortable. Take Lena Dunham's show 'Girls' where she is frequently nude onscreen – after all, people are generally naked when they have sex and this is a show that explores the development of young women's sexual identity.  Dunham herself sees the issue not lying with her nudity, but with people's awkwardness when it is presented to them, saying “It’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem, and you are going to have to kind of work that out with whatever professionals you’ve hired.”

Would there be so much of a furore over Dunham's nudity if she were of a more Hollywood -friendly dress size? More pressingly still, would there be so much fuss if she were a man? Why is Sarah Silverman talking about licking jelly off her boyfriend's penis apparently more uncomfortable for people to watch than Dane Cook's graphic account of what goes through his head while receiving a blow job?

One friend I discussed this with proposed that perhaps as there are simply more male comics than female, it's an issue of people having been more exposed to men discussing sex for comic effect. Even the issue of there being more male stand-ups than women leads back to this same point. Why does this particular form of comedy appear to attract more male performers than female? Is it because that lack of vanity, that willingness to expose weakness for comedy that seems to be an innate part of it, is more suited to the male ego than the female? Perhaps it seems wrong to use such a platform for anything other than advancing women's causes and pointing the finger at inequality, and maybe women have spent too many years standing up for themselves and creating a strong force of females in the world to stand on stage and admit that sometimes we have moments of flailing feebleness.

It is as though discussing casual sex in front of an audience is received by some women as a rejection of the values they personally hold dear. I do not dismiss the achievements of marriage and children – I may well end up married with children myself in the future, although pickling my ovaries in chardonnay for the last 10 years probably wasn't a great start. I am thrilled for my friends who are blissfully happy with their partners, and hope to discover that for myself in due course, but I don't know what my goals are yet. I am working it out. I am young and I want to see what happens to me organically in life, who I meet, where I go and what I do.

A significant number of the women in my life seem to encourage and support my lifestyle up to a point, but ultimately seem concerned by my lack of a need to settle down just yet. There appears to be an underlying hopeful assumption that I will soon stop living outside of the societally approved benchmarks of home ownership, marriage and babies. You're 29 now – that's probably enough. Choosing a lifestyle outside of the pre-determined goals that have been set for us makes people uncomfortable because it can't have been a first choice, for women at least. Don't have kids? People will wonder about your fertility and possibly unhappy childhood or damaged emotional state before they will consider that perhaps you have different aims in life. Similarly if your goal is to be part of a loving family with your partner, some people will question your lack of career ambition. 

It seems that, despite people's best efforts to consider equality in 2014, the freedom to follow your own path without speculation or assumption still doesn’t quite exist, and so long as women are judging each other for their choices, however subconsciously, it doesn't look so good for feminism either.

Naomi Cooper (@naomicooper) is a comedian and actor living in North London. Her solo show 'That's Probably Enough' is at the Leicester Square Theatre on 30th July.

Pictured: Naomi Cooper, Doug Stanhope

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