You’re not a sex worker

Posted: February 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

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.


It takes fortitude to wear this for 8 hours.

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 really needed 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.

  1. Greetings. I’ve shared this article with a burlesque Facebook group and so far the response has reflected disappointment and even anger. One commenter, a woman who has worked across the spectrum of stripping, burlesque, pole dancing and pornography, was very vocal and shared that the attitude shared in this article does more harm than good and can cause further division among workers in the industry, rather than unite them. She and several others also pointed out that burlesque performers conceal their real identities more often than not in order to prevent ostracization from their personal and professional communities, though it is still very common for performers to lose their day jobs once outed and many also see their personal relationships damaged. I am not trying to stir the pot, but I did want to share some of these thoughts with you because we in turn would like to hear yours. Thank you for initiating an interesting conversation. Sincerely, Cortigiana

    • definitelynotdita says:

      Thank you for asking.

      I guess I’m mostly curious as to why the person you’re talking about considers this post divisive and what harm they think it’s doing. I say that I fully support burlesque performers being allies of sex workers and I don’t really see how recognizing differences between two groups causes harm. I’m not denigrating either group, just stating that sex work has a variety of challenges that burlesque does not.
      I think one of the reasons that people have been sharing this article so much is that they appreciate having those challenges acknowledged. I think a major part of being an ally is owning the privilege you have in relation to the marginalized group you’re being an ally to. I don’t see anything schismatic in saying “Your job is, in many ways, harder than mine.”

      While it’s true that some burlesque performers have been outed and lost their jobs, I wouldn’t call it common. Certainly not as common as, say, full service sex workers experiencing violence or arrest and it feels disingenuous to equate the two.

      But what this really comes down to is what your definition of sex work is and mine is somewhat narrow. I think sex work is a job that is specifically aimed at sexually gratifying your client. Full stop.
      I have another job (gynecological teaching associate) where people put their hands into my genitals, but I don’t consider it sex work because it’s not done for anyone’s sexual gratification. Some people disagree. That’s fine.

      Jo Weldon, who knows a lot more than I do, says the term was coined as “an umbrella term for the many kinds of work that were stigmatized by sexual service of one kind or another.” And if that’s the definition you want to use, that’s fine.

  2. Madison Fahey says:

    I would also agree with you Mary in that the types of people who generally go to burlesque shows and the type of people who frequent strip clubs and full service providers are going for very deifferent reasons. I think if you asked someone attending a burlesque show if they were viewing in hopes to be sexually gratified they would be offended or at the least mildly uncomfortable. I think they would respond by saying they are viewing the show for some “light, sexy, theatrical, fun” the way a group of gal pals might go to see “Fifty Shades of Grey” in the theater together. Odds are the group of girls on GNO is not going to get off together at the movies. The other group going to the strip club and getting a lap dance, going to a Domme or a full service worker ; they are going for the explicit purpose of being sexually satisfied. The other part is while burlesque performers do face some stigma, they do not have to physically interact with audience members/clients. Strippers/ part strippers/Dommes/ and full and partial service escorts all physically interact with aroused clientele with the explicit purpose of sexually gratifying them. Sexually stimulating a customer physically for payment garners a much harsher stigma and can even lead to arrest in many cases. This is the part that really upsets me about burlesque performers claiming to be sex workers. The job is far less risky, dangerous or emotionally/physically taxing.

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