One week ago I had never heard of Clayton Pettet, a 19-year-old art student from London. Today, I know exactly when and how he plans to lose his virginity.
Pettet plans to have his big day as a performance art piece called "Art School Stole My Virginity" on January 25, 2014. Thanks to a slew of snarky internet posts, I also know that many people have a problem with this — making the way in which Pettet's performance is being reported more disturbing than the concept of the performance itself.
I first read about Pettet via Vice, where his friend interviewed him about the project in an effort to scoop the tabloid media.
When I read the headline, I expected Pettet to be a jerk. "This Guy Is Losing His Virginity In Public For An Art Project," the article announced, and I could not roll my eyes hard enough. But then I actually read the interview, and I found myself feeling sympathetic. He explained how he got the idea:
"Since I was about 16 years old, the whole idea of virginity has been overwhelming to me. I started to think about why it meant so much, and was [the meaning] actually real. So from then until I started art school, I was constantly thinking, What if I desensitized the whole concept of virginity by losing mine as a performance art piece?
Because that’s what virginity is to me — a performance that has been used to value women, a heteronormative term that is constantly used to work out someone’s worth. My piece is also like one big study and investigation; has anything changed after penetration? Does it all actually matter?"
I agree that virginity seems to be a performative act, and it's definitely heteronormative. Society deems virginity "lost" when a penis enters a vagina, but if that's the case, what happens when two women have sex — do neither lose their virginity?
If two men have sex but only one penetrates the other, have they both lost their virginity?
Are we really still talking about hymens as litmus tests?
I guess you could say I have some of my own issues with the way society still fixates on the idea of virginity. While I don't know that Pettet is necessarily going to be addressing my concerns in his performance, as his project receives more and more media attention the critique around it has become increasingly problematic.
The idea of mocking an art school student for a project focusing on sex that touts itself as revolutionary is not so strange; people are mocked for much less on the internet on a daily basis. But the language and tone used when reporting on this particular act is troubling.
The Vice headline is actually the least judgmental of the ones I have seen. While I would argue that Pettet is using his art project to answer some of his own questions and is not necessarily losing his virginity for an art project, at least Vice doesn't feel the need to focus on Pettet's sexuality or the specific kind of sex he will be having.
Other news outlets have not been quite so objective. The Huffington Post headlined their story, "Gay Student To Lose His Virginity In Live Sex Performance For Art," and wrote that Pettet "plans to have gay sex in front of a crowd" in their opening paragraph. Were Pettet a straight male, there is no way anyone would have written that he plans to have "straight sex." Gawker got right to the qualifying point in their headline: "Gay Art School Student to Lose Anal Virginity in Front of Class [NSFW]." Instinct magazine was similarly blunt, if not quite as link-baity: "Gay Art Student Will Lose His Virginity In Front Of An Audience For Project."
And that's true, he will.
But I'd be willing to bet that if Pettet was a straight man, this story would be framed differently. And while I initially had a lot of thoughts about the merit of such a performance, I can no longer really think of the art itself as the main story, not when so many media outlets have chosen to report on the project in such reductive ways.
I'd rather examine our own squeamishness and bias when it comes to thinking about virginity, gay men, and sex. Art school may be stealing Pettet's virginity, but if the point is to spark meaningful conversation, it's our job to make sure it's not for nothing.