I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Samira Elagoz’s Cock, Cock .. Who’s There? because its sexual subject matter is the kind of thing that generally makes me uncomfortable. But an old friend whose suggestions are always excellent recommended it to me very strongly. What impressed me most about the show was the insights it gave me, as a man, into the way that Elagoz, and I guess a lot of other women as well, see men.
It is a brave, powerful autobiographical piece which starts with her telling the audience about being raped by a close friend four years ago. It is not however a misery memoire because she goes on to tell us about, and show us parts of the creative video projects she subsequently devised around intimate meetings with strange men. Aware of the way in which men respond to her sexually, Elagoz started watching them watching her. First we are presented with her friends and family’s reactions to her rape. Then she goes on to show a series of filmed events in which meets men – using a video chat room, Craig’s List, and Tinder – who agree to her recording their reactions to her, some of which have been presented on their own previously as films and in exhibitions.
Elagoz explains that when she tells people that she’s been raped, they often react very strongly so that she ends up having to deal with their emotions although she was the one who had been hurt. Cock, Cock .. is very cleverly structured to deal with this. She herself narrates her story with all its difficult details in a steady, even way, sitting on a plastic chair and introducing stills and videos from her projects. I winced when we saw one of her friends who, as I understood it, more or less implied that he thought that what had happened to her was because of the way she behaved. Did he say this spontaneously or did she ask him to say it? because obviously society so often reacts by blaming the woman and not the man.
I really didn’t like the look of most of the men she met with, particularly the older ones who talk about taking the dominant role in BDSM sessions. Emotional intensities appear on the screen. When she is raped a second time, while on an artist’s residency in Tokyo, she videos her immediate reactions to it, the rapist’s name bleeped out. It is only towards the end of the show that she finally breaks and cries while being hugged by her mother.
As I’ve already confessed, I found myself feeling fairly uncomfortable looking at most of the men she met. This is not just male, socially conditioned, homophobic panic at witnessing another man’s sexual behaviour. It is also to do with my own history with feminism.
When I was a student in Leeds 1972-6, all the women I knew started going to women’s consciousness-raising groups. Then in 1975 Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, started his savage attacks on women. When West Yorkshire Police started telling women not to go out alone in the evenings, feminist graffiti began appearing saying there should be a curfew on men rather than women, and one frequently heard phrases like ‘all men are rapists’ and ‘pornography is rape’. I know people my age who still think this.
That’s the personal baggage I brought to Elagoz’s Cock, Cock .. but I don’t think that is where the piece is coming from. Elagoz says she didn’t want to cut herself off from men and recognised that she was still interested in them. It would surely be a mistake, however, to conclude that Elagoz has used the process of making these films and performances to ‘get over’ what has happened to her.
There is a lot going on in the piece beyond the autobiographical level. Cock, Cock .. is a compelling investigation of the way the internet is impacting on contemporary sexual behaviour and the kinds of emotional intelligence required to navigate this. It uses video and performance to bring up, and make us in the audience think about, a lot of issues that some of us at least might find difficult to talk or even read about. It is a reclamation of female sexuality: at the end of the show we are shown a suggestive, deliberately staged series of selfies in which Elagoz, with think lipstick and lots of makeup, looks straight at the camera and allows a thin stream of viscous white fluid to dribble out of her mouth – definitely not the gesture of someone who thinks pornography is rape. And while so many students (including mine) learn about ‘the male gaze’, here is a strong demonstration of the female gaze in action. I’m eternally grateful that my friend told me I must see it.