Is burlesque sex work?

Recently I was involved in a very interesting conversation about whether burlesque could be legitimately considered as sex work. There were lots of contributions, and I was quite surprised by some of the responses. Here is a paraphrased summary of some of them:

“It depends on how the local government defines sex work

“Sex work has to involve actual sex. Burlesque doesn’t so it’s not”

“It’s not considered sex work by law”

“All stripping is sex work, regardless of semantics”

“The roots of burlesque are in sex work”

“It depends on interpretation; for some people it is, for some people it’s not”

“Denying that burlesque is sex work is shaming sex workers by placing wrongly placing yourselves as better than and different than sex workers, when you aren’t”

“Sex work is not about the taking off of clothes, its about the context and the intent of an action.”

Blooming interesting stuff, and a whole variety of opinions and points of view!

If someone were to think my acts were sex work, I would be astonished! Not insulted, but very surprised! I’m not trying to be sexual or sexy or to turn anyone on, and I don’t. What I do is to use sexual references in a comedic way to create an entertaining act that pushes a few naughty boundaries, and sometimes I remove clothing to partial nudity as part of this.

I don’t believe that any and all clothing removal (paid or unpaid) has to be for the purpose of sexually stimulating someone. Stripping can take many forms. Some of these forms are entirely for the purpose of sexual stimulation, and others are barely for that at all. I also believe that sex and art are not mutually exclusive, and that you can have sexy art without it just being about just for sex (i.e. turning people on). However, I also know that there are people who honestly believe the opposite of that.

For example- if you think that sex (be that in the form of partial nudity, comedy, theatre, or anything else) plus payment = sex work, then I suppose loads of stuff is sex work, even if the intent is not to give a dog a bone. Or if you feel that the presence of sex in any form, erases all artistic or intellectual intent, then anything involving sex will be ONLY about sex. And these points of view are valid, as much as you might disagree. That’s because definitions of sex and art are subjective and differ from person to person.

The burlesque world, in the UK at least, seems somewhat divided in some ways about this. Some people are adamant that “burlesque is not stripping” while others are enthusiastically claiming the term “stripper” as their own badge of honour. We see nights called “tease not sleaze” and media articles entitled “cheeky not erotic”. All these points of view are valid, and have their own difficulties. Where is the line between saying burlesque isn’t sexual entertainment because you genuinely feel it is not, and denying it because you know that most people look down on sexual entertainment and sex work?

Conversely, where is the line between claiming the label “stripper” in a positive way, and getting the plus points of calling yourself a stripper while not having to deal with the same degree of isolation and stigma that can come with being a lap dancer or sex worker? Assuming you think there’s any difference. Many burlesquers are also strippers/sex workers, so it would be interesting to hear what they think about all this.

I personally feel like you can’t take the sex out of burlesque. It is the original sexual art form, and that’s what makes it both popular and controversial. Always has. But there was a time I felt very differently, and argued as such. For me it was partly because I didn’t understand burlesque or it’s history as well as I do now, but it was also partially because my partner at the time had a real issue with anyone but him looking at me sexually. It caused huge arguments and as a result I played down the sex element of burlesque, without realising that’s what I was doing.

It’s really interesting to look at why you might argue to take the sex out of burlesque, and why you would argue that burlesque can’t exist without it.  As some wise soul said “whether you think burlesque can be sex work or not depends on how you interpret it, and also how comfortable you feel with the label of sex worker”.

So what do you think? Are you a sex worker? How would you feel if someone said you were? Or said you weren’t?

All comments and thoughts welcome!



One response to “Is burlesque sex work?

  1. Another great blog. It’s an interesting debate. I also fought against the label of “stripper” when I was new. A jealous ex also played a role in that. I’m now agreed with the folks who claim the label stripper because – like Rita says “if it’s good enough for Gypsy, it’s good enough for me”. To try to distance ourselves from the label does a disservice to the women who went before us and also discredits our sisters working in lap dancing clubs who share some of our heritage. But here’s the problem – when anyone labels our art form as “sexual entertainment” or “sex work” and when we accept that label we are doing a disservice to all the Variety Burlesque performers whose acts are NOT about sexuality. And that’s my problem with that label specifically. There is NOTHING wrong with being a sex worker and I will fight for any person’s right to do whatever the hell they want to with their own body in their own time but calling Burlesque sex work means we ignore all the wonderful aerial, fire, comedy, whip, Chinese pole, juggling, ventriloquism, trampolining, and other marvellous variety performers who make such an incredibly important contribution to the scene x

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