Words x Vittoria Benzine // Honest Sex

I like outlines. I draw heavily bordered figures, and write my experiences rather plainly, adopting the formula I’ve learned in Alcoholic’s Anonymous: what happened, what it was like, and what it’s like now. The human experience overwhelms me with its vast, intricate possibilities. I find solace in creating art with order.

I also like sex. In my opinion, it’s a way to embrace those intricacies rather than seeking to confine them. I love the hunt for prey, the thrill of the dance, the surrender, ecstasy, and even the sad thoughts that sometimes wash over me in post-coital embrace. 

I found an intersection of these two affinities in the work of Petites Luxures, a French artist who just opened a new show at Hashimoto Contemporary on New York’s Lower East Side. The previously anonymous artist behind the work is a man named Simon, who creates beautifully simple line drawings of erotic acts, accompanied by cheeky captions. I was enchanted not only by their physical elegance, but their ability to honestly capture our most human behavior.

When I attended the opening on Friday night, I found the gallery’s stark space packed wall to wall. Alone, slowly making my way through prints and tiny sculptures, I enjoyed eavesdropping on people’s conversations. “Is it a man or a woman making the art? That matters,” one girl remarked to a friend. Stopping to take a picture of a work reading “Triple Galoche,” another girl asked, “Is that the threesome one?”

I learned about my anatomy from a book my mother gave me at age twelve, and pronounced “vagina” incorrectly until a friend laughingly enlightened me at thirteen. It wasn’t until I graduated high school that I became comfortable referring to my sexual organs with any particular specificity. Before that, I would simply give a meaningful eyebrow raise. Though I entered sexual activity at fourteen, I didn’t have intercourse until eighteen, acutely aware of how tenuous getting an abortion in Pennsylvania might prove. I crammed a lot of practice into the summer before college, and during a game of “never have I ever” my freshman year, one of my male peers became exasperated with my repertoire of experience.

“You’ve never had sex on a table?” I jeered.

“Yeah, well, I’m sorry I’m not a slut,” he jabbed back.

Pain and excitement colored my reaction. Was I a slut? The term seemed both an accolade and a curse.

Satisfied with the art, and my opportunity to judge people’s reactions to it, I left to go see Gloria: A Life at Daryl Roth Theater by Union Square. This new play recounts Gloria Steinem’s biography on an intimate stage in a stadium setting complete with plush pillows for attendees. In December, I realized that if I intend to spout my feminist ideals unequivocally, I ought to back them up with some reading. I received Steinem’s book “My Life On the Road” for Christmas, and looked forward to seeing her iconic tale on the stage. 

Gloria Steinem with Dorothy Pitman-Hughes // photo credit Huffington Post

Steinem’s commitment to listening rather than speaking intimidates me. The play illustrated her life spent traveling the country, learning from pioneering black feminists whose work goes largely unrecognized today. Together, these trailblazers traveled America, hosting the talk circles that would soon inspire them to create Ms. magazine. Having secured their voice in popular culture, they advocated for the many rights women have gained in the past century, and the equality we still fight for today. Steinem’s story continues to inspire generations of new female leaders.

Florynce Kennedy // photo credit harvard.edu

Nearly moved to tears, the lights dimmed as I dabbed my eyes. I had assumed the show was over. Then, part two began, and in a moment, Steinem herself took the stage. We were to host our own talk circle in that hallowed room. My palms began to sweat, every cell in my body buzzed. What would I ask her? 

“Quiet,” I chided my mind. “Listen.” I drenched myself in the concerns of my neighbors, and floated through Steinem’s wisdom, pushing down the tertiary urge to come up with the most profound question.

When the moment felt right, I raised my hand, trusting the words would come to mind. One of the actors transferred a microphone into my clammy palms, and for a moment I considered the work I’d seen by Petites Luxures. Having been both a shy and somewhat liberated girl at various points in my life, I reflected on my reactions to it. These acts were the things I still felt ashamed about, worried that I can’t be a serious writer and serious slut at the same time. Their frank depiction offered comfort.

“Hi, my name is Vittoria, and I’m sorry my voice is shaky, but I didn’t think I would be doing this today.” Steinem came to the rescue with an empathy only travel and decades of activism can bring: “If I can learn to public speak, anyone can.” Swallowing my tremors, I asked, “How can women express their sexuality without becoming sexual objects?”

She told me it’s all about autonomy and respect, that clear boundaries allow us to thrive in this natural realm that comes to us like instinct. “Cooperation is more fun than domination,” she remarked, evoking laughs from the audience. Because substance abuse is a part of my story, a large portion of my sexual relationships haven’t had clear boundaries. In recent times, I’ve sought to be more clear and open with my desires and expectations. It had taken me years to comprehend this simple truth that the renowned Gloria Steinem had just laid out for me.

“Thank you,” I quietly spoke into the mic as it cut out. As women, I believe that some of us are just learning how to gain agency over our sexual identities. Open communication is the key. It can be simple, like a minimalist line drawing on one pristine paper canvas.  

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