I've had this post buzzing around in my head for a while now, and I think it's finally ready to come out. At the last burlesque class we were talking about costuming and finding those last minute things like stockings or pastie glue. Holly was saying that many of the local adult stores will give discounts to sex workers for those kinds of items. "And burlesque performers are considered sex workers." Now, I have no problem with that label. In fact, anything that let's me start out a conversation with, "So ever since I became a sex worker..." is fine by me. But it started me thinking about the negative connotation of the term "sex worker" and, in general, about the reactions to women choosing to take their clothes off.
When I talk about burlesque, something I hear a lot is "Well, it's not like you're stripping." Except that I'm taking my clothes off. For a crowd. So it is stripping. And what's wrong with that? There's all this discussion about how burlesque is an art form, a show, something that is elegant and classy. And that's true. But it can also be dirty, funny or grotesque. And let's not forget that the whole point is to end up with less clothes on than when you started. The common argument is that stripping, or any kind of sex work, is demeaning to women because it promotes them as sex objects. And I say again, (pause for shocked gasps) what is wrong with that? Not that demeaning women is ok. Ever. But why does being seen as a sex object automatically have to be demeaning? Burlesque and stripping are both about being sexy, making your audience think sexy thoughts about you, and being a sex object. For that time, at least. I can want people to see me as a sex object while I'm on stage, and not necessarily when I'm off. And that's really the problem, isn't it? If I'm a sex object at any point in time, then I must be one all of the time.
We live in a society that wants everything packaged neatly in a little box. Everything is either black or white, no grey. You're either pro-choice or anti-choice. You're either gay or straight. (What, bisexual people are just indecisive?) You're a virgin or you're a whore. You're completely male or completely female. No in between. Why? Why is that? It's so artificial. I'm no one-trick pony. I AM A COMPLEX PERSONALITY! It's more fun that way. Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't. I'm not advocating hypocrisy here, I'm just saying you can be a bunch of different (sometimes conflicting) things without being any one of those things exclusively. You are greater than the sum of your parts. In the realm of sex and sex work, this is a hard concept for society to grasp.
The other argument I have heard about why sex work is demeaning to women is the one that goes, "Women in the sex industry are being abused and taken advantage of, therefore, women should not work in the sex industry." I'm speaking more about women who strip and/or prostitute at this point, rather than burlesque performers. But why should I hold burlesque somehow above stripping/prostituting? It's still all sex work. I resent the notion that women aren't smart enough or savvy enough to determine what situations are safe for them. I resent the notion that women who want to take off their clothes or in any other way sell sex must have low self-esteem or an unhealthy view of sex or sexuality. I don't deny that in some cases, maybe many cases, this is true. Women are being exploited and taken advantage of. Women are turning to the sex industry because of skewed body image and emotional issues relating to sex. But there are also healthy, empowered women making the choice everyday to embrace their sexuality in whatever way feels appropriate for them. And if that means taking off your clothes, then so be it.
What I want to know is, why are we questioning women who work in the sex industry and not the industry itself? Or why do we question the women and not society that makes sex out to be wrong or bad?
Ok, confession here. I started this post on Wednesday, full of righteous anger and indignation. I had more to say, but just needed a break from writing. Then never had time to get back to it that day. And then Thursday happened. I'm not saying that the rest of what I was going to write isn't important, I feel that it is. I'll give you the short version. I had a whole diatribe about how we need to implement a paradigm shift in how we think about sex in general. How we need to stop blaming the women who want to be sexy and start valuing sexuality. There was a lot. But I'm not angry anymore. And here's why....
Thursday was THE BIG SHOW! The debut of the first class of the Rose City School of Burlesque. And it was amazing! I feel (almost) speechless. I don't know what I was expecting, but the amount of support in that room was mind blowing. We were all nervous. The show was at eight and we had all been there since about five. We took our pictures and ran through a couple of rehearsals. We helped each other get ready and troubleshoot issues with music, costumes, or routines. We talked about our worries and fears. We cheered each other on.
And then it was show time. Peeking out from behind our curtain, we saw a packed house. That in itself was crazy. All these people just for us! That's when the nerves hit. We all reassured each other that we could do this, this crazy idea we had to take off our clothes. The first of us stepped up, opened that curtain, and totally fucking nailed it! Home run, out of the ballpark. The crowd was roaring, screaming in delight. Back behind the curtain, all she could say was, "That was the best fucking feeling EVER."
Then, it was my turn. I step out from behind the curtain. The lights are bright. I straighten myself, and channel the most bad-ass part of my personality. And then I strut. Through the crowd, up to the stage. I can see Chris and my friends in the front row. I step up onto the stage, back to the audience. I look over one shoulder, wink, and slap my ass. And the crowd goes wild. The rest of my routine is a blur, but what stands out the most is how exhilarated I felt the whole time. It's impossible to feel insecure or self-conscious when the crowd is hanging on your every movement. When they scream and yell at every bump. When they go crazy at every glove dropping. When someone yells, "You're so hot!" from the back of the room! And then it's over. And all you want is to go out there and do it again.
Afterwards, people would come up to us and tell us how amazing we were. How sexy. How great we did. Total strangers stopped me on the way out to congratulate me. They hoped they could see me perform again. It was surreal. And totally gratifying. How can this not be empowering?!
The number of people that came to our show, and the level of support they showed all of us, amazed me. The support of my classmates and teachers made me able to get up there. In the face of such overwhelming goodwill, my righteous anger dissolved. Yes, there are those who would look down on me for doing what I did. Yes, we live in a society with a totally fucked up view about sex and sexuality. Yes, we still need to do what we can to educate people. But what I experienced on Thursday night made me realize that the new burlesque scene is doing just that. There are a hell of a lot of people that get it. And yeah, some of it is because we live in Portland. But it has to start somewhere.
I am SO doing this again.