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.”
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.
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.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.