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Back You are here: Home Feminism & Pop Culture Fem2 Cruelty-free striptease: The art of ethical undressing

Cruelty-free striptease: The art of ethical undressing

StripteaseFeminist strippers? Green Vibrators? Ethical porn? Zahra Stardust offers some insights on the intersectionality of oppressions from sexism to speciesism and strategies for ending oppression when pleasure is your politics.

As a queer, female, vegan performer, I have often thought about the interrelationships between different forms of oppression.

‘Intersectionality’ was something we had studied at university, for subjects such as Anti-Discrimination Law and Law and Gender.

But one of the first times I really thought about my involvement in oppression (despite that I was, no doubt, deeply complicit – unconsciously – for the greater part of my life) was when I did a photo shoot with Animal Liberation NSW for an anti-fur campaign.

The motto of the campaign was ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’. Our premise was to promote the message that, ‘I’m happy in my own skin, why would I wear someone else’s?’ Campaigns like this were used regularly by organisations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), but had suffered a lot of criticism for allegedly using sexism to combat speciesism – perpetuating one oppression in the struggle to end another oppression.

I’ll refrain from the politics of that specific debate (we remain very proud of our campaign, which featured people of diverse genders, ages, ethnicities and body shapes uniting against animal oppression), but the incident got me thinking.

For me, my involvement in the adult industry had always been about spreading love around the world, and promoting autonomous and alternative visions of women’s fantastic multiplicity and diversity.

I’d fallen in love with the anti-establishment disdain for gendered ideas of ‘appropriateness’ and ‘modesty’, and was head-over-heels for this plight to transgress patriarchal and governmental regulation of female sexual display in public.

Certainly, all around me from upside down, pole dancers were challenging expectations about female strength and passivity through their defiant and athletic skill. At buck's parties, strippers embodied modes of feminist resistance in their control, domination and ridicule of their male subjects.

In burlesque, performers would deconstruct ideas about what constitutes a 'woman', using artifice, caricature, pastiche and comedy. Sex workers around me were educating their clients about safer sex, female pleasure and unquestionably subverting ideas bout heteronormativity and monogamy.

In so many senses, the erotic stage had become for me a place about ending oppression – about challenging attitudes towards beauty, the grotesque, nudity, gender, stereotype and inequality. 

Empowerment by oppression

But at the same time, I had started to notice other oppressions around me which appeared undeniably intertwined the gender oppression I was fighting to eliminate. In the adult industry, stereotypes about race, class, sexual orientation and species were all completely bound up with stereotypes about gender.

Being vegan, I noticed signs advertising ‘$5 steak and Live Nude Girls’ or Nandos ads for fried chicken that read ‘Aussie chicks taste better’ (compounding ideas about the edibility, consumability and sub-human status of certain nationalities, genders and species).

Often performers would appear to celebrate animals onstage, but used means that continued to oppress animals offstage.

For example, I would see Catwoman shows on the stripping circuit that celebrated animal, feline mystery and power but often had performers dressed in leather, parading the skins of dead animals which had been treated and tanned with toxic and polluting chemicals.

Performers would often dress as beautiful winged creatures like peacocks or flamingos with giant feather fans, but these gorgeous plumes were often plucked from farmed ostriches and chemically dyed.

Burlesque performances often featured fur, an industry which sees millions of animals a year captured in traps or languishing in fur farms. And I’d see performers using snakes in strip clubs, among strobe lights, thumping music, cheering crowds, despite that snakes are extremely sensitive to vibrations (let alone can’t consent to featuring in R-rated strip shows!)

Of course I realised that I was also deeply complicit in these oppressive practices. I was horrified to discover that my nail polish contained cochineal, a red dye made from crushed female beetles, and that my shimmery eye shadow contained fish scales.

The make-up, hairspray and lotions we used (as pole dancers, we use all kinds of wacky ingredients from shaving cream, hairspray and golf grip to help us stick to the pole) were often tested on animals through toxicity and skin irritancy tests.

The whipped cream that my fellow performers would pour all over their breasts onstage in the name of female sexual liberation was often produced by cows who themselves were forcibly impregnated, had their breast milk pumped out for sale, and had their calves stolen from them to become veal.

For those adult entertainers who perform X-rated shows, the vibrators and other toys we use are often made with phthalates – chemicals linked to reproductive health and environmental problems – or from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), whose factories employ a workforce of mainly poor, minority people exposed to physical dangers like dioxin, during their production.

But this intersectionality obviously wasn’t limited to gender and animal oppression – it also extended quite visibly to class, ethnicity and sexuality.

Classism, sexism and speciesism

Many aesthetics represented onstage – whether they involved silicone implants, laser hair removal, hair extensions, fake tan, acrylic nails or custom-made costumes and professional photo shoots – all involved forms of class privilege.

zahra_polePerformers needed certain economic and financial capital to be permitted access to the stage and therefore to be represented as a ‘desirable’ body. Eroticism and desirability became in many ways intertwined with class.

Although burlesque traditionally embodied the ‘low’ invading the ‘high’ in ways that parodied class divides, mocking lavish bourgeoisie decadence, many burlesque events now appeared to be replete with rhetoric that validated only ‘classy’ tasteful sophistication over ‘smutty’ striptease or ‘lower class’ acts that become bizarre, grotesque, ugly or trashy.

When burlesque requires – in a prescriptive way – $800 ostrich plume fans and a diamonte encrusted corset to be digestible, then it is no longer accessible to the masses as a form of social commentary, but merely acts as another benchmark narrative for women to adhere to.

As I was absorbing these crossroads between classism, sexism and speciesm in erotic performance, I would also see various racial, ethnic and cultural stereotypes employed on and off stage. Indeed, the images of the Geisha girl and the Native American Indian have become largely iconic in contemporary striptease.

We have recently seen the use of ‘blackface’ re-emerge. Yet there is often little recognition that those cultures are rarely afforded access to the stage, let alone self-determination or self-representation.

They are widely used, fetishised, othered and exoticised for their novelty factor for the (often economic) benefit of western performers, while people within those minorities or ethnicities continue to suffer discrimination, hate speech and xenophobia on the basis of those same stereotypes.

Offstage, I would also hear performers themselves making comments about how their audiences treated women, where they would attribute men’s behaviour solely to their race (for example, I would often hear phrases like, ‘Muslim men have no respect for women’).

This was despite the fact that practices like sexual assault were well documented tool of colonisation in Australia perpetrated by white settlers upon Aboriginal women. Yet race or culture was rarely mentioned when white audiences were equally misogynist or sexist.

It was also increasingly clear that only certain bodies were permitted access to the erotic stage – or at least the commercial erotic stage.

When I appeared in Picture Magazine they airbrushed out my armpit hair. Friends of mine who had a physical disability found it difficult to obtain a job in strip clubs. Women I knew in their late 30s were apparently too old to appear in adult magazines.

Even porn websites I worked with who purported to promote ‘real’ women without make up or surgical enhancement, still only accepted girls under about 25, and even then gave careful instructions on how we could not shoot if we had scratches, mozzie bites, navel piercings or pimples on our bum (because, obviously, ordinary ‘girls next door’ don’t actually have pimples on their bum).

Women were expected (not to mention recruited, screened, monitored and policed) to be hyper-feminine, waxed, thin, young and overtly heterosexual, while male strippers themselves were similarly hyper-masculine, inhabiting two binary gendered extremes.

I had heard that some post-op MTF trans-people worked at a prestigious lap dancing club in Sydney, but any transgressive potential was tamed by the need to appear distinguishably and intelligibly female to be free from the threat of violence and stigma.

Holistic, ethical approaches to erotic performance

zahra_muralDespite these shortcomings, I don’t want to give the impression of doom and gloom, or suggest that all aspects of the adult industry is necessarily classist, homophobic, racist, sexist, ablest and speciesist, because it is certainly not.

And we are very lucky to live around many vibrant people with holistic ethical approaches to their work in this field. Indeed, the Red Rattler is host to bent striptease event Gurlesque, which showcases extremely diverse, uncensored, creative acts with the philosophy of redefining women’s bodies away from patriarchal dictates of what is sexy or attractive.

There are some amazing and innovative initiatives around. Feminist pornography websites I have worked with had comprehensive philosophies about making erotica that was rewarding and positive for the contributor, and had sister websites such as Sonic Erotica for the visually impaired.

Many sex workers I knew worked through organisations like Touching Base with people with a disability, and experienced their work as a profoundly healing.

Pole dancer colleagues had passionate ideas about women’s self-esteem, body image and home birth.

Brands like Inika provided certified vegan make-up free from petrochemicals, GM ingredients, parabens, preservatives, phthalates and fragrances. Even their powder brushes had handles made from sustainable timber instead of plastic, and didn’t use horse hair in the brush.

Vegan’s Choice grocery store sold vegan whipped cream to pour on your breasts if you were that way inclined, and most supermarkets had biodegradable detergent to use during bath shows.

I watched girls at Sydney fetish club Hellfire wrestle in blood and guts made from tofu and tomato sauce.

I heard of people making wings with cruelty-free feathers collected from the ground.

Performers would spend hours sewing their own costumes and sourcing and recycling fabrics and props from op shops and markets.

Further, adult retail outlets like Babeland and Smitten Kitten market their products specifically as ecofeminist sex toys, drawing attention to fair labour practices, ethical manufacture and cruelty free products. There are vegan friendly strap-ons. There is vegan lube. Yesterday I even saw advertised online a Solar Vibe, a bullet vibrator that came wired to a small solar panel!

Indeed, the erotic stage can be a very powerful and political space to spread love around the world.

A privileged position

While I advocate for the end to all oppressions, I am also distinctly aware that I have this existence because of many forms of privilege.

Not only am I middle class, white, and can pass as heterosexual, but I have been to university, I live in demographic and social circles that give me access to diverse visual aesthetics and iconography, I belong to activist networks, I can read theoretical literature and I have opportunities that are not always accessible or affordable to everyone.

In this sense, I feel it is so genuinely important, when having discussions about how we are often complicit in various oppressions, to be respectful and mindful that everyone’s experiences are very different.

When I first became a vegan, I still wore leather for a while because I was a poor uni student and couldn’t afford to buy new shoes. It is sometimes cheaper to buy BBQ chicken and coke than it is to buy organic, fair trade, vegan food.

It is virtually impossible to live 100% ethically today. Even if I go to develop photographs, the developing paper contains gelatine. Oppression is so completely ingrained in the way contemporary western mainstream society operates.

Nonetheless, it is crucial that we do our best, and to be conscious of other oppressions as we fight our own causes, and to be careful not to stigmatise and harm others in the process.

This was a presentation given by Zahra Stardust at the Unity of Oppression Panel, which was part of the Sheila Autonomista Festival at the Red Rattler, 2 April 2010.  

Zahra Stardust is a pole dancer, trapeze artist, burlesque performer and fire twirler intent on spreading love around the world from upside-down. She is the Australian Pole Dance Open Pairs Champion 2009, Miss Sexpo NSW 2009, Most Unique Entertainer in Miss Nude NSW 2009, and was an international feature at the Amsterdam Burlesque Festival 2009.

Zahra has performed in Tokyo, Wellington, and Amsterdam and appeared in Cosmo, Madison and Picture magazines as well as on SBS, Channel 7 and Fuel TV.  She has had her fun bits photographed for ABC television in a protest of the airbrushing of women’s labias in men’s magazines, lent her voice to a short film featuring animated vaginas giving their perspectives on sex, spoken out against the censorship of female ejaculation in adult films in Triple J, and stirred up one of the most conservative seats in Australian politics as a candidate for the Australian Sex Party. Visit her website for more information.

Images from top: Zahra Stardust, courtesy of Matt Briggs; Zahra Stardust, courtesy of Stephen Carl. 

 

 

Comments   

0 #2 r.evolutionary 2010-04-20 04:29
Wow. Great piece.
I especially admire you for naming your own privilege at the end there, and the need to be respectful of others. You sum it up perfectly: it is crucial that we 'do our best' - whatever that may be.
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0 #1 Tiara the Merch Girl 2010-04-18 23:42
THANK YOU. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.

I too am a burlesque performer, and as a South Asian recent migrant I have been very vocal about issues with privilege, discrimination, exotification, and basically not being able to do my own thing without having all these frames and labels of "Bollywood princess" and so on pasted onto me.For the past year and a bit I have been tirelessly campaigning for more awareness against cultural appropriation, such as two (www.racialicious.com/2009/07/08/on-burlesque-essay/) articles (www.racialicious.com/2010/03/03/who’s-a-pretty-burlesque-princess-now/) on influential pop culture & sociology blog Racialicious, regular writings on my blog (blog.themerchgirl.net), and even a couple of burlesque pieces dealing with assumptions about my upbringing (vimeo.com/5000091) and reclaiming myself from appropriation (vimeo.com/7905337).

In many other places of the world, and even in places like Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth, I have people who support my aims and views, people who actively work through these issues, whole scenes and movements to create the type of ethical burlesque you speak about. But here in Brisbane? My former burlesque mentor thinks I write "insulting and derogatory" things about burlesque, that I don't show any respect, and I am now no longer welcome in the majority of burlesque shows & performances in this city. Sure, I can move on to other performance art (and indeed Vulcana Women's Circus has been very accepting - the Ex/Rotic performance I linked to above is a product of a 3-month project with them) but it hurts to have my worst fears affirmed by the very people who taught me and got me going in the first place.

Thank you for recognising this. Thank you for giving all this a voice. It's somewhat unfortunate that people would likely take you more seriously than they take me, because as you mentioned you hold the privilege of being white middle-class normal-beauty, but we need more people like you to speak up and realise what's going on.

So much love, this means so much to me.
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