I hadn’t spoken up about the Russell Bruner controversy engulfing the burlesque world because I wanted gather my thoughts first.
For those of you outside the burly world, numerous women collectively wrote and yesterday released an open letter saying that a prominent performer and producer had engaged in serial sexually predatory behavior against them, ranging from verbal sexual harassment to criminally punishable sexual assault. Bruner has admitted there have been “incidents,” but claims to have been forgiven by those in involved.
I believe the women. I’ve been sexually assaulted myself, and I know how hard it is to speak up — particularly if it’s a person of prestige and power. Want to know why women don’t report being raped and/or sexually assaulted? Look no further than the Cosby mistrial.
Needless to say there’s no room for sexual predators in the burly world (or the dungeon, or the world at large for that matter). But particularly in the burly world, which today is an art form created by women, where the vast majority of the performers are women, intended primarily for the women in the audience (who make up the majority of our audiences). It’s a space where women can celebrate their sexuality without being slut shamed, without having to worry about Schrodinger’s rapist, without having to constantly watch how we dress and what we say for fear it will result in unwanted sexual attention.
As someone who’s lived on both sides of the gender binary, and who’s had careers in both the burlesque and drag worlds, here’s some thoughts on keeping burlesque a world where women feel safe.
There are men in burlesque — performers, producers and photographers — many of whom I love. That said, Mama’s got some advice.
You are working in a predominately “women’s space.” Much of like bachelorette parties at gay bars, and straight people at Pride, are in someone else’s space. We welcome you, but we also expect you behave with respect and well-learned politesse.
This may take some getting used to. I get it, men — especially white men — are used to going anywhere, saying anything. When I was living as a man, I got that indoctrination too. It’s an example of privilege, which is typically hard to see *precisely* because you don’t have to think about it.
It can also feel unfair to feel like there may be an undercurrent of suspicion until proven otherwise. Yeah it sucks to be prejudged for who you are — welcome to the world of women, of trans people, of people of color. There’s a reason why many women are wary, because we move through the world it is definitely #yesallwomen.
You may think you understand the level of sexual harassment women face. Trust me, you don’t. You just don’t. I had only an intellectual understanding of it myself until I began living as a woman in the world. It’s wondering how quickly it will take for “Come on give me a smile” to turn into “Smile bitch! It’s walking to your car late at night and wondering if you’ll need to use your heels to defend yourself against the guy who’s following you. It’s dealing with the daily messages from collectors who want to friend you so that can save your photos to their personal spank bank. It’s ever-present, it permeates down into your bones.
Obviously not all sexual predators are men — in fact the person who sexually assaulted me was a random women, and sexual abuse within the lesbian community is sadly unreported. But most of them are.
So yeah, you *do* need to be on your best behavior. Think about it. You’re in a space where women are nearly naked on stage, and often fully naked backstage. Watch what you say, watch what you do. Know that, despite your intent, what you say may be taken the wrong way. I know it might feel onerous — welcome to what it’s like being a woman in a man’s world. I’m not saying you need to completely self-censor — I’m a bitch who loves bawdy banter myself. But be mindful of where it’s appropriate and who it’s appropriate with (i.e. best to start with only people you know well).
Some special thoughts for the gay men, who perform as drag queens, who are crossing over into burlesque.
If I hadn’t already made it clear, you’re in a different culture now, with different cultural norms. I’m a lesbian-leaning bisexual, but I’ve spent more than a decade performing in gay bars and other gay spaces as a drag queen (who at the time was thought to be a man), and let me repeat: *it’s different.* Gay culture can at times be a bit sexually… direct… not only cruising but also on the mic, and unfortunately fairly tolerant of people getting handsy with performers. I’ve been groped so many times in gay bars I’ve lost count and people expect to brush it off with a laugh. “It’s not like they’re real” as I ask them to remove their hands from my boobs and my ass. (Yes, they’re my boobs and ass, I paid good money for them.) “What’s the big deal, I’m gay,” they tell my women friends who perform there after groping them. Nope. Just nope. Without consent, it’s still sexual assault.
We drag queens love innuendo and teasing others (and ourselves) about being promiscuous and/or sec workers. But remember women’s sexuality is viewed — and policed very differently. Yes women MCs may make similar comments and jokes on the mic, and the women in the audience go wild. But that’s because burly spaces are one of the exceedingly few places women *can* do that. Those sorts of comments can be heard very differently when coming from a may, gay or not.
Again, I get it, it sucks to feel restricted by problems caused (mostly) by straight men. You want more freedom? Become known for shutting down sexually harassing comments/actions by straight men, and confronting sexually misogynistic comments in gay spaces. In another words, someone known as an ally by deeds not just words.
Actually, that’s good advice for all men.
To all men, it’s not that hard. There’s concrete things you can do every day. If you’re a photographer, before going into a dressing area, ask if you can come in (someone may prefer to get covered by you enter). If you’re a producer make it clear you take sexual harassment (by any gender) extremely seriously. If you’re a performer and see another performer getting a little out of line, pull them aside.
As said before, we welcome you to our house — be good guests.