The Fly Honey Show, an annual cabaret-style production by The Inconvenience, is “a dance and performance concert celebrating body + sex positivity through a feminist perspective.”
The first time I put on a strap-on but right before I actually used it, I stood up on the mattress and looked down at the person who had given me the strap-on to use and I put my fists in the air with joy.
That’s literally what happened. I had never felt so whole, safe, and alive in a sexual context.
About two years later, I went to my first rehearsal for the Hive, the crew of performers who make up the historically masculine and cis-male part of the Fly Honey Show. We were learning a large group strip tease. Josh Anderson, our choreographer, explained that at the end of the dance, after taking off most of our clothes, we’d put on our “et cetera,” a little something extra. “It should be something that makes you feel sexy,” Josh said. You can guess what I thought of.
Dancing around naked except for a strap-on in front of a hundred people is not the same as using this appendage in bed with a partner—although in some ways, I suppose, the two experiences have one important similarity, which is that they ask you to walk the line between power and vulnerability. In bed with the first girl I made love to, I felt the unique power of a previously unknown, self-determined sexiness. It felt like coming home. Yet in that moment I also surrendered to the possibility of being hurt, as one often does in choosing to be intimate. Dancing naked in front of a hundred people creates a similar paradox. I am in my power as a performer: I am on the stage, my name is in the program, they paid money to come see a show that I am part of, and my body is assumed to be sexy by way of being part of the show in the first place. But I am also giving them something that can feel hard to take back.
Who has the power in the Fly Honey Show? Do the performers have it? Do they have it because they are presented as the sexy ones? Because they are presented as sexy at all, even if others not performing are presumed to be sexy too? Or does the audience have the power? They are, after all, equipped with eyes that will forever after have seen us slapping our own asses, shaking our flesh, showing them the things that make us feel sexy—and, perhaps even more importantly, showing them that most naked and vulnerable of realities, which is the desire to be sexy in the first place, which is in itself one manifestation of the fundamental human desire to be liked. What is more vulnerable than admitting you want people to like you? And yet what is more powerful than performing these literally and metaphorically naked dances whether or not they make people like you? Whether or not people think you’re sexy? What is more powerful than being sexy on your own terms? Isn’t that what I felt in bed with the first girl I made love to?
In fact I believe there are two possible answers to the question of who has the power, which are 1) it is constantly switching back and forth, and 2) the premise of the question itself is false. Some might say the first answer is fundamentally true in any relationship, whether between partners or between performers and witnesses. Yet the second answer, I believe, is what the point of the Fly Honey Show is actually meant to be, as well as perhaps a key part of a developing millennial and post-millennial relationship ethos. This is the ethos that wants to say: We are all sexy. We all deserve to feel sexy. We have a right to self-determine our sexiness and ask for what we want and meet our needs, and we will construct relationships that honor these truths. Witnessing other people feeling themselves doesn’t have to spur competition or comparative pain; rather, it can be uplifting; it can help us feel ourselves as well. As they say in nonviolent communication, we’re not working in terms of Power Over; we’re working in terms of Power With.
This ethos is often either the most thrilling or the most irritating set of concepts to encounter, depending on who’s delivering it and what else is going on at the moment. It’s thrilling because it can feel like liberation. And it’s irritating because what about the fact that it’s easier to espouse liberation than actually treat people in a way that liberates them, what about the times when we don’t feel sexy, what about false consciousness, what about the pains of the world that aren’t absolved by self-determined sexiness, aren’t there more important things to worry about than feeling yourself.
What happened for me over my first weekend performing in the Fly Honey Show was that this ethos felt transformatively legit. I think part of the reason why is that for the first time in my life I bound my breasts. (Incidentally, it was a dude—the incomparable Bear Bellinger, angel in my heart forever—who gave me the best advice about breast binding. I was ready to go with gaff tape alone, and Bear, via many gentle urgings, convinced me to at least try out a base layer of athletic tape that is meant to contact skin. This suggestion proved worthwhile.) The image of the black stripe of gaff tape wrapped around my wide-ass ribcage, all boob jiggle cleanly swept aside along with the expectations it has forever carried and only an inch of sternum left bare in the center, my whole torso now a site of muscle and bone and shoulders, was sexy to me the way god is sexy, the way trees are sexy, the way friendship is sexy, the way it feels to look at a piece of art you’ve been working on for a long time and say alright, I think it’s right. Yes.
Dear femme Fly Honeys, is this how you feel in the show? When you look at yourself in the dressing room mirrors in your garters and fishnets and bra straps, in your high-waisted panties with their perfectly curated buttcheek-peeks, do you feel that grace of self-determined sexiness that makes a body want to weep? I suspect the answer is yes. I hope the answer is yes. It seems like that’s the point of us being here doing this show.
And dear audiences, are you with us when we’re feeling this? Does our feeling ourselves ever make you feel alone? Do you go home feeling sad, or horny, or bitter, or loved, or ignored, or seen? I suppose maybe the answer is yes and no and all of the above. And also. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s the point.
(Dear dudely fellow Hive members, on approximately my 13th read-through of this piece I finally noticed I had not checked in with you all as well. I am chalking this up to the fact that since I do not feel other than you, I do not experience the same urgent need to make sure you’re okay. I assume you feel okay because I feel okay when I’m with you. It’s interesting to notice that assumption on my part. Anyway—hope you’re all good, you confident sexy bastards, and if you’re not, you come talk to mama. Did I just call myself mama?)
There are pictures of me on Facebook kissing men I dated in the past. I still love some of these men and am grateful for the relationships. Some of them were happy, some of them were sad, at least one of them definitely involved some weird and fucked up power imbalances but it was a long time ago and didn’t last long and everything’s fine now. I learned a lot from all of it. I also can’t really remember what it felt like to have sex in these relationships. Or I can, but it’s like remembering a mild, pleasant-but-not-particularly-remarkable photograph of something that happened to a close friend. But, that doesn’t really feel like a big deal. It’s pretty okay.
One thing that does feel like a big deal is realizing that part of the reason I didn’t understand the reality of my own queerness until I was 26 is that sexiness, and thus value, felt predicated on a dude’s attraction to me. In this way, my attractions to men retrospectively seem more like a desire to be desired, and thus named as valuable, rather than like desire itself. The girl inside me that spent 26 years calling out, Am I sexy?, feels similar to the child inside me that will always call out, Am I loved?, except that the latter feels like a fundamental and thus acceptable aspect of the human experience, whereas the former feels like a fundamental aspect of patriarchy, which is of course unacceptable. I do not know if I am not attracted to men or if I just don’t know how to experience attraction to men that is not inked with the fear that their attraction to me, and the sexiness it validates, and thus my value, could at any moment disappear. In short what I am saying is that I want to be in my power regardless of who is attracted to me, and that doesn’t feel possible in sexualized interactions with cis-men. (See also: 1) above statements re: wholeness via strap-on; 2) me age 12 cutting pictures out of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue and claiming to be a dude in chatroom cybersex.)
For the record, the point is not that being in our power or being in our sexiness or feeling our whole selves is a preventative measure against pain. Nothing can be that, and adulthood is perhaps partly about accepting that nothing can be that. If anything, living in truth opens up as much opportunity for pain as living in falsehood, because offering our whole selves to others means offering our vulnerability as well.
What the Fly Honey Show has offered to me—and what I believe it can offer to others, both participants and witnesses—is the possibility that that wholeness might be awakened, caretaken, and celebrated, and that we might connect more fully with ourselves and with others through the sharing of this most literal, naked wholeness. And connection is one of the first and foremost motivations whereby we exist. In naming this as a possibility, I mean to acknowledge that it does not always happen. Fundamental aloneness is real too, and bodies and sex and performance are too messy and complex to always produce the best-case connection scenario. Some folks probably left the audience feeling like, Well, I’m glad they had fun. I myself spent much of the post-performance bar hangs wondering who to talk to, and when all I saw all the hot photobooth pics on Facebook that I for some reason forgot or was too scared to get in on, I felt my tiny aloneness.
But looking in the mirror at one’s self-determined sexiness is still a gift. And offering one’s own so that others might find theirs is also a gift. I hope we offered it. I hope we offer it.
image by Matthew Gregory Hollis