What actually happened at Art School Stole My Virginity

Spoiler alert – there was no sex. Clayton Pettet's performance was weirder than that

Arts+Culture News
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Pettet at the end of his performance Willow Garms / willowgarmsphotography.com

Unless you were hiding under a rock last year, you probably heard something about Art School Stole My Virginity. The debut performance of Clayton Pettet, Central Saint Martins student and performance artist, went viral before it even actually happened, mainly due to irresistably salacious implications best encapsulated by Perez Hilton: "19-Year-Old Art School Student Will Create Art Through Penetration Of His Virgin Butthole." 

So what exactly went down during the first – and only – performance of Art School Stole My Virginity? Spoiler alert: there wasn't sex. It was weirder.  

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Clayton Pettet in rehearsal Willow Garms / willowgarmsphotography.com

Those fortunate enough to get tickets (yes, it was ticketed, like Glastonbury) were invited to the former BBC London headquarters at 35 Marylebone Gardens, now a performance space for immersive theatre. The 120-strong crowd was shown into the gallery, which had chairs gathered around a small performance space. A video projected onto the wall showed a pile of bananas. A broom brush and a silver bowl of water were arranged delicately on a concrete floor.

"Looks uncomfortable," someone muttered. 

Four topless people – one women, three men – marched out wordlessly, holding up signs that read "ANAL VIRGIN". One of the men was Pettet; everyone else wore white shrouds. They were all in black pants, I guess because black goes with everything, including and especially performance art.

Scrawled all over Pettet's body were words like "NSFW" and "TEEN WHORE". Pettet scrubbed the words off him till his skin turned red. One of the boys grabbed him and started to cut chunks of his hair off. The crowd gasped. The woman daubed black paint on all over Pettet’s mouth.

Three of them, Pettet included, trooped downstairs into the basement. The remaining man walked around the crowd, selecting people at random to follow the group. Those unlucky enough to be left were treated to a video of Pettet eating his way through a pile of bananas as Serge Gainsbourg's "Les Sucettes" played, alternated with audio recordings of talkshow hosts deriding and discussing Pettet.  

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Willow Garms / willowgarmsphotography.com

I asked someone next to me why they thought Art School Stole My Virginity had blown up so hugely. "I think young people get quite freaked out when they see someone their age do something so high-profile," Michael, a London College of Fashion student said. "They're like, 'shit, what am I doing?'" 

It was like being picked for sports teams during PE: part of you is dying to get picked, while the other half really, really doesn't. I went to the toilet: someone had left a bloody tampon in the bowl. "Is this part of the performance?" I asked. The tampon had no answer. An hour and a half passed. 

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Willow Garms / willowgarmsphotography.com

Finally, we were led into the basement and taken to a small room. The topless woman sat cross-legged on the floor, solemnly regarding graffiti scrawled on the walls, with lines like "MY NEW ANUS, PUT IT IN" and "Performance art is shit. Get a grip and pick up a fucking paintbrush”. One just read, simply, "#trending". Well, you can't accuse Pettet of not being reflexive. 

The hooded man pointed to me and asked me to follow. As I walk out, I catch a glimpse of another line of graffiti that reads: "Part 2 – penetration booth".

The booth was very, very small. I crouched to get in. Pettet was sat inside, still in his pants, with two piles of bananas in front of him. 

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Willow Garms / willowgarmsphotography.com

"I am your anal virgin," he said. "You are my partner. Pick up a banana." I immediately started to panic: penetrating a 19-year-old was not on my to-do list tonight, even if it's with a piece of fruit. "Now penetrate with my mouth eight times."

I gratefully slid the banana into Pettet's mouth as he stared me down. Then he took the banana out of my hand, snapped it in two and told me to leave. I scrambled out and was guided to another gallery space, with three-foot-high canvases featuring cartoonishly bright, primitive illustrations of girls being fingered, hacked-off limbs, mirrors with cum on them, and self-portraits of Pettet. They were all available to buy on Instagram, a poster told us. 

A man from Kings College London described them as "Keith Haring meets American Psycho". "I'd buy that one," he said, pointing to a canvas of a dismembered bum.

We wait another 45 minutes for the final group of people to finish, whereupon Pettet emerged with his cast. The girl cut off his pants with a scissors and placed a white hood over his face. They left the room. The performance was over. #makesuthink

Art, a total letdown or a cunning inversion of the public gaze? Take it away, Twitter:

So yeah, in case that wasn't obvious: Art School Stole My Virginity didn't actually have any sex in it. On a scale of art hoaxes, I'd rank this somewhat below David Bowie and William Boyd's infamous "Nat Tate" swindle where they created a fictional artist from scratch. But according to Pettet, the fakery was the whole point to start with. I spoke to Clayton after the performance, which he described as "incredibly intimate and mentally exhausting". 

Dazed Digital: You were never going to actually have sex, were you?

Clayton Pettet: No. I’ve always said I didn’t believe in virginity, so it kind of defeats the point if I’d actually lost my virginity for my art show! It was always about me stealing the word ‘virginity’, rather than having it stolen from me. That’s why I pushed the date back about 75 times. Because of the press the piece got, galleries assumed I was going to trick them and do what everyone thought I was going to do. But I’m not going to give what everyone wants, it’s not the point. 

DD: Don’t you think people expect this to be, well, you losing your virginity?

Clayton Pettet: It’s not wrongly expected, but I’ve always said in interviews there’s this partner I’ve never identified. I think if people were expecting something else, it shows what they really wanted. They didn’t want an art piece, they wanted to see me have sex. If they came for the art, they wouldn’t be as disappointed – they’d know there were things to read between the lines for.

DD: Would the piece have even existed in its current state if there hadn't been such a media storm around it?

Clayton Pettet: It exists 90 per cent because of the reaction the word ‘virgin’ got. The idea developed even more so because of the reaction: it was crazier than I could understand. It just goes to show our obsession with virginity and gay sex.

DD: I found the entire thing pretty awkward and nerve-wracking, TBH. 

Clayton Pettet: The nerves and feeling forced to penetrate my mouth with a banana foreshadows what society made me feel about my own virginity. It was interesting doing this to the audience to see how they’d react. It was incredibly intimate and mentally exhausting. Some guy fumbled for his belt. I don’t know who he is. He just assumed… There was another guy who pulled my hair back and was (mimes thrusting banana down his throat). There were those points that made me feel a bit shaky.

DD: What’s the response been like so far?

Clayton Pettet: I’ve had mixed responses. Some guy was really sad, he said I looked like a 13-year-old boy and that it was sad and traumatic – but fantastic, because of the way I’d made everyone think they came to a performance to watch a 19-year-old lose his virginity.

DD: There was that thing with John Bingham, another artist who accused you of maybe stealing his idea

Clayton Pettet: I don’t even know what to say about that boy. He’s the oddest person I’ve ever encountered. Marina Abramović says an artist never steals another artist’s work.

DD: So, are you still a virgin?

Clayton Pettet: Yeah. And also – this is my answer – I will never have sex. My art is my sexuality.

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