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Is burlesque sex work?

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The World Health Organization defines sex work as "The provision of sexual services for money or goods." However, it doesn't go into what these "sexual services" are, which means "sex work" can have a fairly loose definition.

While some feminists regard sex workers — whether they be prostitutes or strippers — as anti-feminist, others consider sex work a choice, and celebrate that choice. (Note: This does not extend to sex trafficking, which is a separate issue entirely).

Within the burlesque community, there's little consensus as to where the line falls between stripping and performing burlesque. Here's what some of this story's subjects think about the matter:

Chairmyn Meow: Having grown up with a mother in the sex industry, a stripper, Meow has a unique view on the subject. While she may not choose to strip in a club or to pursue more intimate sexual actions, she believes there isn't much difference between her work and a stripper's. "I do consider being a burlesquer part of the sex industry," she says, "because I am taking my clothes off and inciting feelings in another. It just expresses itself in a different variety." She says she has dear friends who are escorts and she celebrates them for it. "Because," she says, "I think women specifically in this time need to have the freedom to pursue what is right for them."

Penelope Mais Oui: Mais Oui's grandmother would never tell her what kind of dancing she did in Hollywood, but it wasn't hard for her to figure it out. When Mais Oui was a child, her grandmother told her: "Honey, there's classy stripping and there's trashy stripping," an attitude that seems pervasive within the burlesque community. However, Mais Oui says, much as she loves her grandma, she doesn't believe that at all. "I think there's this misconception that burlesque is somehow classy," she says. "People who are afraid of sexuality are still trying to make it 'okay' by making it better than our sisters who are working at strip clubs."

Violet DeVille: DeVille may take off her clothes onstage, but she doesn't view burlesque as part of the sex industry. While she's not ashamed of her sexuality, and while many of her performances rely on that sexuality, she says burlesque is too variable to be considered purely sexual. "This one [act] I perform has no nudity until the very end. It's an act I've done for all ages, and it's non-sexual." She brings up "nerdlesque" a subset of burlesque that is based in pop culture, a kind of "live fanfiction." Nerdlesque often turns sexual, like a recent Game of Thrones-themed show in which she participated, but she considers it a variable performance art.

— Alissa Smith

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