A Brief Introduction to Philosophy (Through a Certain Sex Act)

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It was a Monday night in August at the Bell House in Brooklyn, and Jacqueline Novak was sneaking in a few more dates of her hit one-woman show, “Get On Your Knees.” The 80-minute standup spectacle — which she sometimes must describe, for marketing reasons, as “a highbrow show about blowjobs” — had just ended its second run Off Broadway. A few days later, it would depart on tour. The crowd that night was girls and gays, plus a handful of older Manhattan-types with an air of having read about the show. They’d come for “provocative and superbly articulate material” (The Hollywood Reporter); an “overthinker’s delight” (The New Yorker); “a one-woman oral-sex meditation that’s part-standup, part-poetic treatise” (Vanity Fair).

The bar lights cut out, and the opening slam of “Like a Prayer” came over the P.A. Novak appeared, wearing gray jeans and a gray T-shirt, her hair pulled back in an unfussy ponytail. Her sneakers were unbranded, like a cartoon character’s. She strolled toward the mic in an ordinary way, then paused to offer some notes on her own entrance.

“I think the real reason I struggle with the entrance,” she said, “is because the journey from backstage to a microphone, what it reminds me of, is the journey from someone’s face, down their torso, to their pelvis, to give them a blowjob. The whole way there, in both scenarios, everyone knows what you’re headed to do, but you’re not yet doing the thing, so there’s just this question hanging in the air: Can she do it?”

As Oscar Wilde or Foucault or someone put it: “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” In “G.O.Y.K.,” sex is about everything. For Novak, the blowjob is merely an excuse to shed light on all the matter that surrounds it. It first emerges as an abstract concept, and then as an underlying plot structure, as she recounts her strenuous efforts to perform oral sex for the very first time. Her quest begins in the finished basements of Westchester. She’s ambitious. She wants to achieve her goal, not how someone wants to eat fries, but out of something like wanting to want. She studies the women’s magazines, with their sex tips and their warnings of the extreeeeeeeeme sensitivity of the glans. She absorbs a fear of “biting it off” from a best friend’s older sister’s best friend, who fancies herself a subject-matter expert. These concepts, introduced in the first half, provide a vocabulary for exploring the question: What does it mean to perform this sex act? At first, this is a concrete, anatomical concern, but over time, it becomes more existential: What does it mean to be a mind, within a body, sucking on a body, which in turn contains a mind?

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