Date: June 23 2012
Penny Ashton has a way of posing the most riveting questions such as: do people really have sex through a pizza? The answer, apparently, is yes. Those so inclined can access a certain website featuring a whole array of people doing interesting things with a specially-adapted pizza.
Most of us might ask why. Surely the whole affair would be messy, greasy and perfumed with pepperoni, capsicum and special sauce. How could this be erotic? Can Ashton, who has spent a year researching the sex industry, explain the holey pizza thing?
''No, I cannot. I really cannot,'' she says. ''I don't attempt to explain. I just tell people and let them draw their own conclusions.''
Ashton, a New Zealand comedian, is a prolific presenter of her show Hot Pink Bits, which delves into the nature of sex and all the fascinating ins and outs of it. She performs in Canberra at the Teatro Vivaldi on July 14. In a way, there's no better place for her than here, the nation's so-called porn capital.
Hot Pink Bits isn't as radical as it sounds. Ashton calls it a comedic lecture. It has no visuals, because that would make it quite a different show. It's just Ashton and her fleshy front straining against the confines of a custom-made corset. There's also a ''cock puppet'' (a pink sock with sewn-on singular eye). And everyone who attends is guaranteed an orgasm (bona fide or otherwise).
Ashton is confident and profane, cheerful in outlook, and open about her own love life. She is a performance poet, as is her partner. They met at a poetry open mic night: she thought him cute on stage and introduced herself. He came and watched Hot Pink Bits in Wellington.
''It was like, hello, this is me and welcome to my life,'' Ashton says. ''He makes me feel hilarious. He's always laughing loudly.''
As for how she got started on the topic of her choice, Hot Pink Bits started life as a completely different show, a poetry show. She decided she liked the name and so decided to do a show on famous prostitutes. She researched and ''it sort of grew - or swelled, if you will - from that into the sex industry as a whole''.
The thing about this topic is its impressive heft and size, depth and girth.
''It's huge. As soon as you scratch the surface, it's a huge thing.''
Ashton keeps her focus on women, for instance famous dominatrixes like Theresa Berkley, an S&M enthusiast who flogged many a wealthy man and invented a spanking contraption, the Berkley Horse, in London in the 19th century. Ashton also likes to talk about the legendary Mata Hari, a woman described as Europe's queen of unbridled eroticism; 1940s brothel madam Flora McKenzie of New Zealand who is reported to have mused, ''Isn't every woman a prostitute? Married men pay their wives, don't they?''; and Veronica DiFranco of Venice in the 16th century, a courtesan of literary and artistic achievements.
Ashton has concluded her show is feminist.
''Some people might not think so, but I do. I'm a feminist of the nature that [I believe] whatever you want to do with yourself, you should be able to do.
''I'm proud that in New Zealand prostitution is legal. I don't want to be a prostitute, but I think if someone wants to be, because it's never going away, it's much better to regulate it.''
Hot Pink Bits takes a turn for the bizarre when Ashton gets onto fetishes or paraphilias, some of which are so odd-sounding it's difficult to understand their erotic appeal. Wikipedia offers up a bit of insight into chremastistophilia, which is what those aroused by being robbed or held up, have; homeovestism, or arousal from wearing clothing emblematic of one's own sex; and dendrophilia, which is arousal from trees. Ashton knows about the oddities of YouTube where, if so inclined, one can find videos of comely young women vigorously inflating balloons. These are ''looners''. It's hard to comprehend why this is a turn on, relative to the obvious charms of, say, the women who eat bananas very slowly.
''It's about the tensile quality of the balloons,'' Ashton says. ''They have a specific thickness they would like. It's about men watching them sit on them and rub themselves with [balloons] as well. There's also Wellington boots. Women splashing in puddles, just wearing Wellington boots.''
What her research taught her is ''that I am really f---ing straight''.
''I am perfectly happy with my straight little sex life. The occasional nicely placed sex toy is perfectly good, but I don't want to get dressed in a scuba outfit and have sex underwater. What sort of lube would help underwater?''
While Ashton does not fancy anything too kinky, she is perfectly happy for others to do what they please.
''I'm very liberal in my views of what you should do with your body. No one should tell you what to do with it.
''If you want to do something and someone wants to do it with you, no one should be telling you you can't, as long as it's consenting and safe.
''We're made to feel sex is so dirty and rude a lot of the time, and it's not. We should celebrate what feels good.''
While sometimes she has people in her audience walk out part of the way through, generally, those watching her perform just love it. They're surprised by how much they learn. They come from all walks of life: from gangs of 70-year-old women to 18-year-old boys in the front row. Ashton's own parents have seen the show, which apparently fazed them less than her comedic material in which she talks about her penchant for one-night stands.
''I've always looked at it like instant coffee and real coffee. I'd prefer real coffee but I'll take instant when it's on offer and I'm perfectly happy about that.''
Ashton's father was a condom vending machine salesman, her mother is ''a nice church girl''. Her mother once brought a big group from her church to the show.
''That didn't necessarily go as well as it could have.''
We cannot call Hot Pink Bits a burlesque show, as such. Ashton has coined the term ''burlesque-esque''. She is a cabaret performer who happens to admire the lushness of burlesque, the costuming, the way it all looks. Burlesque has the unsexy definition of ''a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects'', but can also mean ''a humorous and provocative stage show featuring slapstick humour, comic skits, bawdy songs, striptease acts, and a scantily clad female chorus''. From what this writer has seen, burlesque can mean ''woman in a costume with old-fashioned sex appeal, probably comprising a corset and suspenders, taking off everything but her panties''. Think Dita Von Teese, who doesn't seem to be funny or slapstick, but mostly out to slowly reveal just about every inch of her pretty white-skinned body, who has been praised for reviving the art of striptease.
On the subject of why burlesque has won mainstream appeal, Ashton posits this is because of its way of framing women as sexy, but not smutty. The mass appeal and wide acceptance of burlesque is evident in the celebrity of the aforementioned Von Teese, who has proven herself to be more than former arm candy for Marilyn Manson, more than a crumpet who gyrates, nearly nude, in an oversized martini glass. She has her cosmetics collaboration with M.A.C, her lingerie collaboration with Target (which really makes her as mainstream as it's possible to be), and her front row seats in fashion weeks during which she proves she looks quite good in clothes, too. This is more than yet another woman shedding her garb for fun and profit.
Which brings us back to Ashton who, it must be said, does not take off her clothes while on stage. When this comedian is asked what is sexy to her, a sense of humour is the paramount thing, followed by considerate behaviour.
''If we're talking about raw sex appeal, that'd be different, but if it's someone to settle down with, I am a complete f---ing romantic at heart.''
Hot Pink Bits is on at the Teatro Vivaldi Theatre Restaurant at the ANU Arts Centre on July 14 from 8.30pm. Show only $40. Dinner and show tickets priced from $70-$90. Bookings: 6257 2718.
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