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!

 

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Is there a crisis in burlesque?

Today I found out about two more established UK performers who have given up burlesque. Both of these were talented, creative and quirky ladies who worked hard and brought a lot to the stage. And they aren’t the only ones; this year we have already lost more than one long-time performer, and there are rumblings from several others about not feeling it as much, any more; myself included.

Others have written thoughtful pieces on giving up and/or the reasons for feeling less than happy with burlesque, Millie Dollar, Tiger Tiger,  Ivy Wilde, Dr Lucky, and there were a few commonalities between these writings;

– It’s not what it used to be: people seem to miss the camaraderie and support of the days when burlesque was newer and more personal.

– The competitiveness, reduced fees and reduced opportunities of an over-saturated scene.

– Personal life vs performing life clashes or imbalances

– The privileging of bling, glitz and looks over creativity, DIY and experimental performance (although the two, of course, are not necessarily mutually exclusive!)

While these things may or may not be new problems for burlesque, what gets me wondering is why performers are choosing to step away rather than fight to change what they would like to see change? I can’t answer for anyone but myself, so here is what I currently feel about burlesque and why I am thinking about stepping back.

Burlesque, at the moment, just isn’t the burlesque I started performing for. While there are still people pushing the envelope, the humour, the oddball fun, the random creativity, the “do whatever the flip you want and see what happens”-ness of it has diminished, from my perspective. Of course, you can still do these things, but its not where the money or the prestige is. I am seeing increased admiration (from performers, promoters and audience) of stereotypical beauty, expensive sparkling costumes, and increased amounts of newcomers who aspire to that kind of performance. And while there is still ample room for quirky, character or story-based acts, it is rarer to see these acts at the top of a bill.

Now I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, per se, but for me, that isn’t what burlesque should be exclusively or even mainly about. Burlesque should be diverse and subversive and grassroots as well as polished, expensive and celebrating a particular aesthetic. There should be similar amounts of people coming into burlesque who want to be comediennes, clowns, weirdos, experimental artists, story tellers, genderfuckers and boundary pushers, as want to be Swarovski-bedecked queens of burlesque, the next Dita Von Teeses.

So, fight for it, some people say. Make the burlesque you want to be. And I get this, its an admirable sentiment. But to be brutally honest, I don’t know whether that is a fight I want to have. I’m knackered.  And if the experimental side of burlesque is to survive and flourish, it will be led by performers far more talented and creative than me.

So is burlesque in crisis? Is it changing for the worse? I don’t know. Perhaps this is the just the way burlesque is growing, changing, developing. Things can’t stay the same forever. As we get more and more “professional” level shows, the stakes get higher, the pressure increases, and those who can’t make the grade, don’t. But it bothers me when brilliant performers say to me things like:

“I realised if I wanted to get anywhere in burlesque, really, I would have to start doing classic”

“Lots of people weren’t interested in what I did because I wasn’t as beautiful as the other girl I was with, and I was too weird.”

But then we look at the people who are particularly up-and-coming, and we see a fierce, bizarre dancer, a Dita-a-like sylph, a comedienne and circus performer, a showgirl of ample proportions, a bump n grinder, a gender-fucking show boy, so maybe things aren’t always how they seem. That variety is still there, in many ways. I know there are brilliant performers representing all sides of the burlesque coin, and while I yearn for the weird, the crazy, the hilarious and the queer to be as enticing to newcomers as the glamorous, there is still so much life left in the old girl Burlesque, yet.  It will be interesting to see where we go next.

Britain’s Got Talent wants YOU!?

BGT

Britain’s Got Talent! Long running TV talent show where acts get slated ahem judged by Simon Cowell and various other famous folks. The prize is to perform at the Royal Variety Show for the Queen. Every year, thousands of hopefuls queue up around the country for the chance to audition for the show, and anyone can audition.

BGT1. queue

What they don’t make massively public is that there are teams of people on BGT whose job it is to solicit acts outside of the audition process that you see on the show. These people contact hundreds of existing performers and invite them to audition, often giving them “special” privileges like no waiting time and even providing their props for them. Why do they do this, you ask? Well, it is because they need to make sure that there are certain types of acts on the show that will make it interesting. Anyone who has ever worked in TV will tell you that nothing is left to chance, and the acts that get shown on BGT are no exception. They want funny, sexy, controversial, potential winners. They want the ones that will get mocked by the public for being awful, they want the ones that the judges can be really mean to. That is what makes good TV, apparently.

BGT audition

How do I know this? Because for a few years they have been head hunting me, and many of my performer colleagues, to go on the show. Last year and this year in particular, I have been heavily encouraged to take part. They wanted me to do my Giant Trampoline Striptease, I would not have had to wait around, and they were going to provide the trampoline for me, so I didn’t have to lug it around.

Trampoline

So am I going to do it? I was really in two minds for a while, and my thought processes went as follows:

Pros

– Its a random and possibly fun thing to do

-It offers exposure to a wider audience

– You never know what doors could be opened by taking an opportunity

Cons to consider

– WHY have they head-hunted you? What role will you fill (person people will love/hate/mock/be offended by?)

– Even if you get through, where can it really go from there?

– No matter how popular you might be, you WILL get slated by the public, online and probably elsewhere. Can you handle this?

– The show is not held in high regard within the actual performance world; will you actually be lowering your credibility by going on it?

– Why should you hold yourself up for judgement to a guy who enjoys acting like a tosser (Cowell or similar bad guy character) who knows little about what you do?

– The contract they make you sign is immense, they totally own you, and it really got my back up when I read it. Like signing away your soul, it was!

So there are more cons than pros, but that doesn’t mean the cons necessarily outweigh the pros. If it went well, it could be great. I spoke to other burlesque ladies who had been on the show and did not find anyone who did not experience a reasonable amount of negativity because of it (as well as some positives), or a burlesque lady who wasn’t attacked for the way she looked, and her general worth (cos strippers be bad, yo, and confident women? They deserve to be torn a new one online).Here are some comments I found about a singer on BGT- NOT a burlesque performer!

“This is plain disgusting, bad singing and she’s fat.  This girl looked like a prostitute/stripper instead of a sexy entertainer.”

“What a slut”

“i  want to stick my cock in her anus”

“she is prostitute.if she is not she will not do that”

Brilliant, right? And even when I have seen women complimented for being hot, its been in an annoying slightly pervy “we validate your hotness, you are deemed worthy” kind of way.

The girl from the show wanted to reassure me about this kind of thing,  and whilst she was very nice, she was SOOOO positive, SOOOO flattering, SOOOOO adamant about how much they wanted me for the show because I am brilliant and they love me and I am unique…. To be honest, all this made me more suspicious. Obviously somewhere they have learned that creative folks and wannabes crave adulation and praise (don’t know where they got that idea ho ho ho) so they pile it on. But I don’t like that shit, it makes me uncomfortable, and I have a pretty darn realistic idea of how fabulous and unique and brilliant I am- and am not. So why are they so OTT? Why do they really want me on the show?

pointandlaugh1

Yes, this sounds a bit paranoid, but does it really? Maybe they saw something in me that I don’t, maybe they did think I would be great etc, but realistically, I don’t think so. The show has a history of humiliating people for entertainment value, so maybe its not paranoid, but wise to consider this stuff, if you are not particularly thick-skinned (which I am not). And even if it did go well and the intentions were good, the show can’t control the public and the inevitable unpleasantness.

Anyway, after much pondering, I decided not to do it. These are my reasons.

1.I won’t trade dignity for fame, and I think this is clearly a risk with BGT, in fact it seems to thrive on it.

2.I don’t have any family friendly acts beyond the trampoline so it couldn’t go anywhere anyway.

3.As much as I would love to do the Royal Variety Show, I don’t feel its likely, because I am not good enough.

3. I am soft and couldn’t handle the degree of slating and fat/ginger shaming I would no doubt incur from the wonderful British public. And also I don’t need to invite that crap into my life.

4. I don’t believe in competitions that confer short lived and often  ill-founded status. I want to succeed because I am damn good and have worked hard at it.

5.I object morally and ethically to the way some people are treated on that show.

6. Simon Cowell and that ilk actively decide to humiliate others for their own gain. Not cool.

7.I don’t think burlesque translates well in that environment; the audience probably wont “get it” and it loses its impact.

Dont get it

So looking at all those reasons I am not sure why I pondered so long about it.  I know that others have been on it and done well, got something out of it.  I suppose I believe in grasping opportunity  when it is offered, but in this case I  just had to realise that this opportunity was probably actually a trojan-horse filled with rich TV execs looking to exploit people for TV ratings.

Cowell

Obligatory Anti-the Hump Disclaimer:

In this blog I am not talking about anyone else’s choices but my own, because everyone is different in terms of goals and outlook.  The burlesquers I know who have already been on BGT handled themselves brilliantly. It takes a lot of balls to do something like that show.  If you want to go on BGT, have at it.