Sex and shame are a powerful combination. Especially for women. What we do and don’t do with or put in our vaginas is somehow a public matter of interest. Yes, the word vagina is in the first line of this review. Because if Isley Lynn’s ‘Skin A Cat’ teaches us anything it’s to be bold in talking about everything about sex, especially for women.
This isn’t though a shouty Vagina Monologues-esque performance art piece. Or that scary play Chandler from ‘Friends’ gets trapped in (my personal benchmark of horrific ‘women’s issues’ plays). When actually Lynn’s play is more like your favourite sitcom- if Channel Four would let you explicitly discuss anal sex. It’s warm and funny, and entirely relatable for anyone who grew up trying to figure out life and sexual politics. But it also says all the things you wish TV or theatre had said during those years. Because then we might be all a little less messed up when it comes to sex. Because as Lynn brings to light in her wildly funny, incredibly filthy (in a good- no great way) play, is that if we just talked about it more perhaps, perhaps we’d all feel a little less like we were broken.
The play follows her from first period, to not being able to use tampons like her ‘normal’ friends. To trying to lose her virginity (house parties and vomiting included of course). Through to first love and losing her first love. Early on a mystery moment in her first sexual encounter leads her to believe she can’t have sex. A visceral moment, and one we only see once more it feels like opening a secret door to anyone who has ever felt something wasn’t quite ‘normal’ in the bedroom (or toilet, or park or wherever you choose to do ‘it’ no judgment). In Alana’s story it turns out to be the fairly vaginismus. A common but rarely talked about psychosexual disorder in which the muscles spasm during penetrative sex, causing anything from pain to what can look like a seizure. It’s both a physical manifestation- the pain- but also psychological- in reaction to the pain. As her Mum later misunderstands, it’s not a condition that just affects victims of sexual assault, but in fact a fairly common- and treatable- condition that affects lots of women. In the play Alana goes from trying to overcome her condition by force, to seeking help to eventually finding her own way to do things. None of it is clear cut and easy- there’s no magical moment where Alana is ‘fixed’ and that’ precisely the point in the end- even though vaginismus is a very real condition, Lynn’s play is about one condition, but our wider feelings of sexual shame.
Even without the underscoring of Alana’s condition, Lynn’s play would be a powerful piece of work. The honest, and yes very funny discussion of fumbling through sexual encounters rings true for anyone- whatever gender. From the High School discussion of tampons and first sex (the friend who says she came four times the first time). To University encounters (the friends trying to sleep her way around the globe with a boy from every country, the gay best friend). To the exploration and pain of first love (and early 00s dumping by email). It’s told brilliantly, with Lydia Larson as Alana narrating the whole story, while Libby Rodliffe and Joe Eyre take on everyone and everything. From Mum to cinema side effects. It’s pacy, and told with a fast explicit humour. And every name for male and female anatomy you can think of (and a few you possibly haven’t).
Despite there being a real condition, she is dealing with- and Lynn doesn’t dismiss that in the writing-the most moving moment is when Alana is told she doesn’t need to be ‘fixed’. There is a moment of realisation that everything she thought was ‘wrong’ was really coming from outside herself. It is in various configurations, a reflection of shame. The moment she declares that she tells partners to essentially take it or leave it- and that most of them are still on board is incredibly powerful. We’re told as women to conform, be what society, be what men, media and again porn, tell us to be. Even for Men there’s an incredible pressure to conform. To be a certain way sexually, and if not to not be a man, to be something shameful. Because we’re taught firstly not to speak of these things, and secondly that anything outside of these norms we don’t actually speak of, is wrong. When in fact, most of us are just fine thanks.
That feeling of sexual shame that permeate women’s – and indeed men’s attitudes towards sex comes from a multitude of things. It’s a social issue- we don’t talk about sex openly enough- it’s an issue of misogyny, of our massively distorted ideas about sex from media and porn. It’s about all of our personal mental-and physical conditions. And it’s about the idea that with sex there is one ‘normal’ and one ‘way’ and everything else is at best deviant (and slightly acceptable because it’s ‘kinky’), but at worst, and usually for women ‘shameful’ and ‘wrong’. Women carry the ideas of what sex should be, extremely distorted ones often, from a young age. And it’s all consuming and damaging, even without a specific condition to ‘overcome’. More so for anyone who ever experienced something out of the ‘ordinary’ (which probably is more ordinary than we think). Shame is such an all pervasive, and under discussed element of our sexual world. Anyone who deviates slightly will have felt it- whether it’s sexuality, age you did what or how, not liking things you’re supposed to, liking things you’re not supposed to. And never being able to talk about it for fear of that shame.
Lynn has written a powerful play that bares all, without straying into shock tactics. The very act of sitting and laughing and sharing those moments of recognition with the audience is a powerful moment. For women, who perhaps share these in whispers or drunken moments with friends, to see all of this presented with honest and humour, but also crucially without shame. For men, it’s both an insight into what women go through, what the world has done to us all too often. But also might help them too. Because men aren’t immune either. It’s also a throughly heart warming piece- of friendship and navigating family relationships. And I defy anyone to not ache with joy and/or longing when Alana’s latter boyfriend just holds her when things get difficult sexually. Because underneath it all, the sex the shame- and all the noise that creates- it’s about that human connection we’re all longing for too.
It’s a play that should tell 25 year olds and under that they’re doing fine. That the fumbling through it all is normal and at some point they’ll find a balance, they’ll find the way that works, and that they should probably keep speaking to their friends about it all. For anyone older, you’ll wish you had seen this play at 25. But maybe, just maybe we can all realise that we’re nothing to be ashamed about. That we should probably talk about it more. Oh and of course that sometimes, sex is just really, really funny too.
Skin a Cat is on at The Other Room until 13th October