Why I... stripped and created art that explores female sexual stereotypes

March 23, 2001

The Scarlett Project explores how erotic dancing can be used to influence how the female body is perceived. This project is a logical extension of my previous performance work and writing, filtered in a creative way through the theoretical perspectives of feminism and queer theory.

Its aim is to consider why so many old myths about female sexuality and its presentation in performance go unchallenged. I have been shocked at how much fuss can be stirred up by a naked female body in the 21st century. Is this also because that body is both sexualised and subjective as well as being creatively independent? Is it still so hard to imagine that these can all co-exist?

I have always been interested in the idea of stripping, initially as a "naughty" fantasy, inspired by the desire and fear involved in being seen as a sexual object. In my early 20s, as a feminist, I viewed sexual expression as fraught with dangers and ideological pitfalls -better to be avoided. I began to reconsider this position after coming into contact with other viewpoints. I also began to explore Eastern philosophy, which views sex and female sexuality much more positively.

The fact that I have done research in the sex industry means that my performance is valid in terms of my experience of the industry as well as in artistic terms, where it falls into the tradition of performance art as an area where, as Allan Kaprow says, "the line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct as possible".

The use of the character "Scarlett" to explore erotic dancing functions as a means of questioning the constructed nature of female identity in the sex and in the art world. I am interested in how Scarlett's experiences affect my experiences as an artist and vice versa.

I will develop a website for Scarlett in which I will invite dialogue with and responses from those who know me only as Scarlett. These responses will form the basis of a performance/installation. I will also engage in more formal academic debate and outcomes by writing about the work in academic journals from the perspective of a practitioner and a theorist. My academic work will be informed by my practical experience and will seek to show that cultural myths are not complex enough responses to life.

When I began creating solo performance work, I was inspired by other artists who had put their lives and bodies into the exploration of female sexuality, including Carolee Schneemann and Annie Sprinkle. When I looked at the representation of dancers in art and popular culture, I saw that it drew on a limited repertoire of stereotypes.

As a participant, I gained insights into how the sex industry conformed to the stereotypes. But while there were elements of truth in the stereotypes, there was also a great deal more diversity and satisfaction in the experience than one might have been led to expect. It is, as the US sex workers' support group Coyote states in its acronym, time to "call off your old tired ethics"!

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