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Burlesque Performer: You Are Not A Sex Worker

Burlesque Performer: You Are Not A Sex Worker

Mary Cyn Headshot (Burke Heffner)

Introducing a guest post from Mary Cyn. Feel free to share your view on this topic in the comments section below.

Years ago, my former boss went to a burlesque show. He ended up talking to the host of the show later that night. The host was an activist type, who sometimes gets a bit carried away with himself, and in their conversation he gave a very long monologue to my ex-boss about how important sex worker activism was to him, going so far as to say that being a burlesque host made him a sex worker. He paused, briefly, to ask my former boss what he did for a living.

“Well…” My former boss replied. “I was just arrested for pimping and my business is being torn apart by the police right now so…nothing at the moment.”

It takes fortitude to wear this for 8 hours.

He wasn’t kidding. He was dead serious. I know because he was my boss and we’d both had our lives thrown into chaos that day.* I like to think that made the host reconsider calling himself a sex worker.

There’s been a trend, recently, of burlesque performers proudly proclaiming that they are sex workers because they do burlesque. I appreciate the support this gives to sex workers and I hope it works to lessen some of the stigma that’s still around sex work…..but it bugs me a little. While I’m definitely not about to say that burlesque isn’t work or isn’t sexy, I still hesitate to call it sex work.

For one thing, burlesque is rarely a performer’s sole income. Most performers have a dayjob, or multiple dayjobs, or a partner that supports them. Sometimes one of those dayjobs is sex work, but usually it isn’t. Stripping is a JOB and a very hard one at that. Taking off your clothes in public doesn’t make you a stripper. Spending six hours a day in platforms hustling dances and grinding up on strangers does. It is tough work and I have no end to the admiration I feel for the people who do it, which is why I don’t say I’m a stripper. I don’t have the bulletproof confidence and sales skills it would take to make it as a stripper.

There’s also a certain amount of emotional labor that’s present in sex work, that just doesn’t exist in burlesque. When I worked as a phone sex girl, one of the first things they told me as part of my training is that guys called us to pamper themselves. It’s not socially acceptable for most guys to go to a spa or whatever, so they treat themselves to an anonymous woman who will happily listen to and support whatever they want to say (I think many feminist papers could be written on this concept) And, trust me, it’s not just phone sex workers that fulfill this for dudes. If a sex worker has one on one interaction with customers, they’re going to deal with this guy sometimes.

And sometimes that’s great and you have a really human connection with that guy and sometimes he becomes one of your best and most loved clients. But sometimes it’s really draining or, worse, incredibly creepy and you just have to keep listening and reassuring and hoping this dude isn’t a serial killer.

And through all of this, you have to stay sexy. For real. That’s your number one job. Stay sexy while that dude cries on you. Stay sexy while he talks about how much he hates his wife. Stay sexy while he talks about wanting to bang his stepdaughter and hope against hope that this is just a fantasy stepdaughter and not some real life girl who has to deal with this guy creeping on her. When I was a domme, one of my co-workers managed to stay sexy when her hair caught on fire. Sex work is fucking hard.

We switched to electric candles after that.

Is the sole aim of your job the sexual gratification of someone else? If not, you’re not a sex worker. Does your job give you health insurance? If so, you’re not a sex worker. Do you have to touch or see a stranger’s erection on a regular basis? No? You’re not a sex worker. Have you ever taken a gig that made you sick to your stomach because you reallyneeded the money? If not, you are probably not a sex worker. Do you ever factor in the likelihood of being raped, arrested, or murdered when deciding whether you should take a gig? If not, you’re not a sex worker.

Sex work is great. It helps a lot of people in a lot of ways, but it has its downsides. Many of those downsides would be mitigated by decriminalization, but that’s a different article. Right now, being a sex worker has certain inherent risks to it, and I get really uncomfortable when people try to take on the mantle without taking on the risk. There are similarities between being a war historian and a war correspondent but there’s a BIG difference between the two.

So please think about that, when supporting sex workers. You can support queer people, or trans people, or people of color without claiming to be one of them (I’m pretty sure most would prefer that you didn’t.) Please do the same for sex workers.

*Just to clarify, the house I worked for was actually a pro-domme house, no sex involved. I don’t call myself a full service sex worker for the same reasons I don’t call myself a stripper.

Mary Cyn

View Comments (7)
  • I’m a sex worker, stripper, and burlesque dancer. I’m here to tell you, only YOU can decide if you’re a sex worker. I know full service sex workers who do not call themselves sex workers and standard industry strippers who refuse to call themselves stripper for personal reasons. If you’ve ever done burlesque in a small town, you could be just a stigmatized as a full blown coochie flashing stripper. Not every sex worker suffers. In fact the reason most people get into sex work is to escape suffering. All these titles are bullshit and lend to idea of whorearchy. Only you get to decide who you are because your experiences are your own.

  • As a Legend and proud former stripper,I have never thought of myself as a sex worker, tho I do support those who choose this path.I always have thought of myself as an Entertainer.I have hustled my fair share of champagne with complete idiots,I also would refer those looking to buy sex to the girls whose income depended on their trade.The new Burlesque has many “wannabes”, trying to hijack so many of the terms of our business.I am not a Burlesque performer..I am and continue to be a proud and loud Stripper!

  • Oh my goodness yes. There was an article up a while ago that called burlesque and pin up SEXY work … and this is far more accurate.

    I have been a stripper. I have worked in peepshows. I have considered other types of sex work because I have the natural inclination for it.

    It is different from burlesque. It takes a different mindset than burlesque. Years ago when my sister wanted to strip, I told her she doesn’t have to backbone for it. I sent her to Jumbo’s Clown Room in Hollywood, only one of the least nefarious bikini bars where lapdances are rarely a thing… basically the closest thing to a burlesque club I can think of… and she couldn’t even handle that simply because she had to interact with the patrons.

    I do think we need to clarify that burlesque as it is now is not the same as it was before. Our legends were often also sex workers. When they finished their sets they may not have done lapdances but often would sit and drink with customers. … staying sexy while those men did the weird things they do in the company of “accessible ” women. This has evolved into strip joints as we know them now. So I think burlesque dancers NOW think that they are honoring the legends by identifying themselves this way.

    Lot’s of times burlesque performances aren’t arousing enough to be mistaken as sex work…. I also kinda feel (I’m sure to get backlash for this) that a lot of burlesque performers are too much on the wrong side (my opinion) of feminism to possibly consider themselves to be sex workers…. I’m talking about the “my body is not here for you to look at” section of feminism that has popped up… the section that considers catcalling to be “street harassment” – I hate that term- and rants all over FB when guys whistle at them from cars. If you are sex worker, while all is on your terms to a point, your body, your companionship, your sensuality, your essence IS there for another’s gratification…. let me re-emphasize the ON YOUR TERMS part, as it is work, you are paid…. but my fellow burlesque performers who also are or have been sex workers have far less of an issue with this stuff, we tend to shrug it off.

    Most burlesque dancers I know could not and would not grind up on strangers at all. They get grossed out by comments a man might make to them. I was once told in a FB debate that “every YOU LOOK NICE TODAY is a thinly veiled I’D FUCK YOU”… I thought A) what is wrong wth that? and B) you don’t give men enough credit. They don’t have the “fortitude”. Sex work is about satisfying someone else’s pleasure, wants, needs. Many burlesque dancers I know are on the stage for self gratification.

    In my Strip Like a Stripper class I talk about intention. Are you performing for them or for you? Are you chucking your energy at the audience or inviting them in to share energy? Because that is what sex work is. You have to be willing to share and exchange energy…. while being sexy… and while protecting you SELF.

    As burlesque dancers, we have the option to run back to the dressing room, cover up and sneak out once our show is done. We never have to break the 4th wall while in that particularly vulnerable state of undress and still make the same money. We don’t have to consider dealing with the weird or creepy if we don’t want to. As a sex worker you have to at least consider it.

    And this is a huge difference between my sister and myself and in essence burlesque (now) and sex work. She is not willing to SHARE energy. She too many types of sensitive. I, on the other hand, am willing to share and have the ability to discern how much and when while making them feel like they are getting it all and that they can give theirs back to me.

  • I wanted to add something to this debate that been eating at me.
    If burlesque is sex work and we’re all just a bunch of sex workers, then how come there are SO MANY burlesque performers who do not feel they can share details of their sex work job with the community? (I have a real answer to this, not a snarky one.)
    The answer is: The Whorearchy.
    The whorearchy is this arbitrary but totally exists thing where certain sex workers, rather via community or the public, are placed below others. It says that worker who have sex are dirtier than ones who don’t, that workers who work outside and don’t make tons of money are less empowered, that workers who perform illegal activities are asking for violence but ones who don’t aren’t.
    I personally do not think burlesque counts as sex work anymore than Hollywood actresses performing nude or sex scenes makes them sex workers. Is there stigma? Yes. Might they have people who are close to them look down on it? Yes? Is it technically there to arouse the audience but maybe sometimes it’s there to make a point that isn’t sexual at all? Yes.
    However, I have met some people who I might be like ‘okay, given the context of this performance and the audience, sure maybe you’re a sex worker’. But most of the time those performances are being done by performers who are also sex workers outside of performance.
    If every burlesque dancer wants to call themselves a sex worker, I need them to do something for me. I need them to admit they aren’t the same as ALL sex workers. I need them to admit their privilege.
    I need them to admit that it is common for audience members to thank producers for giving them ‘a classy alternative’ to going to the strip club (no shit, I heard this so much I made my Reverse Strip as a response to it).
    I need them to admit that their risk of being assaulted or murdered by an audience member is much lower.
    I need them to admit that when they meet in a coffee house and see cops on break people in the group don’t turn around and leave.
    I need them to admit that there has never been a serial killer who targeted burlesque performers because ‘no one would miss them’.
    If you want to claim the title, you claim your privilege and you also claim the shit that goes with it. Don’t tell people you’re a burlesque dancer when they ask what you do. Tell them you’re a sex worker. Answer that barrage of questions. See their face twitch. Maybe even see them tell you ‘oh no you couldn’t be because you’re so much better than strippers/whores/porn stars’.
    Because that’s the whorearchy.
    I have personally never had anyone give me shit for being a burlesque dancer. But every time I meet someone new I have to heavily consider telling them what I do for a living. It puts me at a literal risk. I’ve been advised BY OTHER PERFORMERS to be less out within the community, to keep certain details quiet because there will be backlash.
    And my experiences in this, like everything, have a lot to do with my other privileges. I do not doubt that performers of color get more shit about performing than I do, just as sex workers of color get more shit about doing it than I do. As a white woman, particularly a thin able-bodied one whose marginalized boxes are all invisible, empowerment is much more accesible to me. I can say I’m a sex worker and receive less repercussions. I need all the white performers claiming sex worker status to understand that too. Empowerment is often assumed for us, claiming titles like this means we get to be edgy and radical. Please consider why you are claiming these titles. Are you going to do anything with that? Are you going to stand up for rights? Against harmful legislation? Are you going to stop using the word ‘whore’ as a perjorative and speak up at parties when someone tells dead hooker jokes? Are you going to make it clear to performers whose day job is engaging in emotional labor and dealing with erections rather than just making them happen that you will not shame them for it? Are you going to use your stance as a privileged sex worker to talk to anti-traffickers and whorephobes since they’ll listen to you more?
    Or are you just going to throw on that cape and flaunt how revolutionary you are because you take your clothes off for fun and, let’s face it, a minimal portion of your living?
    Please think about it.

  • Ahhhh, it’s so nice to read something I’ve been feeling when I hear people talk about this but hadn’t found the words to express it. Thank you, this is an amazing article that makes so much sense and I agree is respectful and important to know the difference between the two. So smart! I think this sentence sums up the difference:
    “Is the sole aim of your job the sexual gratification of someone else? If not, you’re not a sex worker.” That makes so much sense. Thank you for articulating something so clearly that I could not!

  • As a sex worker AND Burlesquer, I love this article. I am not a prostitute, but I still am a sex worker as I am “spending six hours a day in platforms hustling dances and grinding up on strangers”, and it makes me mad when someone says being a Burlesquer is being the same as a stripper. Yes, Burlesquers are strippers, but not the ones we actually call strippers nowadays. I like both of my jobs, but I no way I consider those to be the same. Thanks to all who can understand that. 🙂

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