Last weekend, I came across an article in the Sunday Times that asked, ‘Are women sexually liberated or just confused?’ Having just spent the previous seven days at an artists’ retreat modelling for a painting course entitled, “Erotic Art”, the piece seemed perfectly timed. Being an artists’ model, people often assume that I must be sexually liberated. It's fair enough: for a person working in accounting or retail, getting naked for complete strangers can seem pretty risque. Few people realise that baring your body in the name of art actually involves sitting rigid in a cold studio full of retired housewives and has absolutely nothing to do with sex (not unless someone has a fetish for paint that is, or happens to be very, very desperate).
I couldn’t help wondering though, if this job at the retreat wasn’t going to be a bit different; clearly the course title was open to interpretation but I was pretty sure that there had to be more to ‘erotic art’ than simply sketching out body proportions. Half of me, the radical right half, was excited: this was exactly the kind of experience I needed to expand my creative and sexual horizons. The other half of me, the logical left, imagined a prop basket filled with handcuffs, whips and crotchless knickers and I began to feel sick. ‘What exactly do they mean by erotic dear?’ my mother interrogated me the day before I headed for the hills, convinced that I was being lured to a house of ill repute. ‘Are they expecting you to lie down and spread your legs? Or perform a live sex act?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I did my best to sound nonchalant, ‘I’ll have to wait and see. Don’t worry though, I won’t do anything I’m not comfortable with.’ This didn’t reassure her as much as I had expected. ‘But darling,’ she wailed, ‘what if it’s a cult.’
When I arrived on the Sunday evening, the “cult”- older Scandinavian women in smart trousers and silk neck scarves - were sitting on sofas nibbling nuts and discussing Renaissance art. After a civilized four course dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, I had come to the conclusion that I was ready to be brainwashed by them and taken into the fold. My left half began to relax: I was fairly certain that I wasn’t going to have to swing any porn star moves and there wasn’t anyone at the table who struck me as a hardcore sexual deviant. Indeed, it seemed to me that too much erotica might induce sever palpitations or fits of fainting.
I was, therefore, somewhat surprised when the director of the course took me to one side the following morning and said, ‘How about, for this opening session, you do a little striptease for the group? Could be fun, what do you think?’ ‘Fun?’ the word nearly chocked me. My face must have been contorted because the director looked at me with concern. ‘Striptease?’ I tried to breath and keep cool, ‘What do you mean exactly?’ ‘I’m not sure,’ he shrugged, ‘you could do whatever you wanted. Why don’t you give it some thought.’ ‘I’m an artists’ model,’ I bristled, ‘not a professional stripper.’ Now it was the director’s turn to look stricken. ‘Oh of course you’re right,’ he stammered, ‘the word striptease isn’t correct. I shouldn’t have used it. All I mean is that I want you to go from dressed to undressed, holding the poses in mid-motion. It doesn’t have to be sexy. Just imagine that you are at home getting changed for bed or undressing at the beach or stripping for your boyfriend.’ ‘I’m not being funny,’ I replied haughtily, ‘but you can’t possibly expect me to do what I would with a boyfriend in front of a group of strangers.’ ‘No, absolutely, not boyfriend,' he jumped in again. 'I mean just undressing as you would on your own at home, nothing more. If you think this is inappropriate, if you think anything is inappropriate, you must say. I’d hate to put you in an awkward situation.’ I suddenly felt guilty. He was a nice guy; pimping me out to his Scandi students was clearly not his intention. Besides, what had happened to expanding my sexual horizons? I was behaving like a prude. ‘No, no, it’s not out of line,’ I reassured him. ‘It’s just that I’m not used to modelling in this way and I’m not sure how good I’ll be. I can try and come up with something, leave it with me.’
I wandered down to the studio: half a dozen ladies were all positioned behind their easels in a crescent. They were dressed in cashmere cardigans and paint spattered aprons and I couldn’t imagine how I was going to take my lacy knickers off in front them without looking like a whore. This was only session one. Where on earth would we go from here? I found a good spot to focus my gaze. Think of the horizons, I thought, and began to pull off my jumper…