Holy, horny and headed for Croydon: interview with actor and playwright Tonya Joy Bolton


By - Monday 5th October, 2015

Liz Sheppard-Jones meets the writer and performer of ‘Holy and Horny’ as she prepares to put real sex on stage at the Fairfield Halls


Image by Tonya Joy Bolton, used with permission.

Because I know what interests people most, I’m going to talk about Croydon before I talk about sex and religion. Bibles, bonking and getting beaten up by your boyfriend can wait: what about our Boxpark?

I meet Tonya Joy Bolton at the Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria, ahead of performing her acclaimed one-woman show Holy and Horny at the Fairfield Halls on Thursday 8th October. My impression (chiefly from shots I’ve seen of her in performance) is that she’ll be statuesque and hence an imposing presence. Which actually, she is, but as we shake hands in the hotel lobby I realise she’s also petite, barely coming up to my shoulder. Whatever it is that makes a forceful impression – it’s not her size.

So – I welcome her in advance to Croydon. Our town is changing and our self-image will change as a result. It’s a positive thing, but among us are too many marginalised, disadvantaged Croydonians whose self-regard will remain as it was: low. That’s her audience: what does the show have to offer?

“Sex is sinful but necessary”, I say, and she laughs

Lots, is her answer. She’s all about empowerment: holder of a first degree in English and Gender Studies, an MPhil in Theological Studies and a Masters in screenwriting, she’s founder of the company ICU Transformational Arts. ICU is an acronym for ‘Impacting lives, Creating healthy mindsets and Unlocking potential’ and runs programmes and workshops for young people, using the arts to effect changes such as reductions in challenging behaviour and truancy. ICU’s goal is to enable young people to improve their communication and thinking skills and create the strong self-esteem without which positive life choices cannot be made. Holy and Horny is based not only on events in Tonya’s own life, but also upon stories shared with her by other women as a result of her work with ICU as a speaker, counselor and mentor.

And so to sex and the show. Why, I ask her, would women of faith in particular have difficulty here? She believes the answer lies in the church’s historic attitude to the beast with two backs: ‘sinful but necessary’ (to quote St Augustine). When I mention him, she laughs. Tonya describes pre-marital counselling in churches she knows: “You get told about what a husband is and then what a wife is, with quotations from scripture. But I’m not this submissive person”. She describes a church workshop on sexuality after which she walked six miles home, fast, in an attempt to burn off her fury at what she had heard. “When a lot of people think of church, they think of a place of judgement and shame but it shouldn’t be like that. It should be a safe forum”.

Feeling yourself guilty from Eden is no basis for healthy self-esteem, she says, so women – and of course men too – who think little of themselves will accept bad treatment. By sharing each others’ stories, then learning to celebrate their bodies and understand themselves as made in the image of God, women of faith can gain confidence and hence act more assertively in their relationships.

“I meet so many women who walk with shame”

As a result of the show, Tonya has received over a thousand letters, many containing confessions of abuse, rape and domestic violence. Men approach her too, and talk about trauma they have kept secret, feeling that no-one would understand. “The church needs to speak out on sexual abuse”, she tells me. “Judgement and shame and condemnation are not what people need. I meet so many women who walk with shame”. (To illustrate how it can surround sex within churches, she was once invited to perform for a faith group but was asked not to mention her show’s indecent name. She declined).

But when so many within the church are hurting and being hurt, could the problem really be structural? I ask for her take on traditional Christian sexual teaching: chastity and abstinence until marriage, then a strong focus on family and reproduction. Is this a good thing?

She herself, as she explains, has not always practised celibacy, but chose to do so at certain periods in her life “as much for myself as for my faith… I wanted to develop a healthy relationship with myself before embarking on another sexual relationship. It wasn’t a passive obeying of church law”.

“You have to know what God is for yourself”, she tells me, “and who you are, and work it out for yourself. The bible says that everyone must work out their own salvation”. Her angry six mile walk home was fuelled by hearing a pastor tell a teenage girl that she would “burn in hell” for having sex with her boyfriend. Having listened to so many women, men and young people, I’d say Tonya respects the judgement of individuals over that of institutions.

“I’ve been told women gain more empowerment from the play than from sitting in pews on a Sunday”

She’s a pastor herself and remains a woman of faith. Her mission is to change minds and hearts by laughter, sharing and self-discovery, giving power and dignity to women taught their whole lives that they embody temptation, seduction, sin – the opposite of holiness – and hence with low self-worth. As a result, she describes how women of faith can neglect sexual and reproductive self-care – not, for example, going for regular cervical smears – because “they think God will sort that out”, and wants to support them in taking responsibility for their health.

“I wrote Holy and Horny from a real place of anger and frustration”, says Tonya. “Now I’m seeing life’s changed. People have told me they find coming to my play more empowering than sitting in pews on a Sunday and I feel proud about that”.

I also think that she’s very brave. She talks of her experience of both rape and domestic abuse, and deals with these subjects live on stage. How does it feel to be so vulnerable? She’s become okay with it, she explains. The need to appear impregnable when in reality you struggle is actually a weakness, while to share that struggle is empowering. And how does she cope when revealing intimate information about herself – her rape, for example, when she was eighteen – to rooms full of strangers? By becoming safe within, is her answer, holding herself and her sexual being in high regard. This then becomes her gift to other women.

I hope that the play’s funny too – she tells me that it is. I’m going on the 8th. I think that it will be since she’s funny herself, and smart. I can’t wait to see it.


Holy and Horny, written and performed by Tonya Joy Bolton, is on at the Fairfield Halls for one night only, Thursday 8th October 2015. To purchase tickets, click here

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Susan Oliver

    WOW! How refreshing! This woman sounds amazing!

    We have to remember that Jesus did not want to start a church because he knew that it would be overtaken by people who would just want to use it for their own ego-driven purposes. And that’s what happened.

    Did Jesus preach against sex? Absolutely not. It was people who, after him, used this issue (and other misunderstandings about the body and its functions) as a tool for power. This has led to tragic consequences as well as a total misinterpretation of Jesus’s message of guiltlessness and non-violence.

    Christianity needs constant revision and examination and it sounds like Tonya Joy Bolton is doing just that. Well done – and well done to you, Liz, on an inspirational article.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Thank you, Susan. This was actually the title of my favourite essay when I did Divinity (as my school called RE) A level: ‘Did christ mean to found a church?’

      I entirely agree with you – and with Gandhi, who as I’m sure you know remarked: ‘I like your christ. I do not like your christians’. I think he’d like Tonya :)