It is such a complex issue, but it is definitely worth trying to delve in to the complicated world of progressive feminism in relation to My Big Sister Taught Me This Lap Dance. So. Deep breath, here goes.
As I said it was great to see how Rosana as a queer artist fit in to the festival of feminism, having experienced first hand the drama and arguments that can erupt between radical feminists (known as Trans* Exclusionary Radical Feminists or TERFs ) and sex-positive progressive feminists (Libfems) in Glasgow. TERF’s tend to take the stance that prostitution and the sex industry works against feminist ideals and aims, stemming from 2nd-wave feminism kicking against sexual objectification. Lib Fems are trying to incorporate the needs and views of sex-workers in to modern feminism, some believing that the decriminalisation of sex work is the best way to tackle the misogyny and sexism in those industries. Lib fems also tend to want to include self-identifying women in the movement, open to those who may not have been born female. Louise Orwin’s piece made it even clearer to me that feminism should not be about getting tied up in current disputes over who’s wrong or right. That’s getting tied up in the present. When it’s really about the future, and about the young people that will have to live in that future.
That’s what I find so fantastic about My Big Sister Taught Me This Lap Dance, it doesn’t seek to take a firm stance on sex work, it doesn’t seek to dispel other arguments, it goes beyond thinking about whether sex work is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It does this by providing an experience. It forces the audience to tackle their theoretical feelings on lap dancing, and have some actual ones, by having a lap dance. Then they have to tackle their feelings on the (mainly) women who lap dance, by listening to a recording of an interview with Rosana’s sister afterwards.
To some people, I think this type of issue-based work that goes beyond providing concrete opinions on that issue is confusing. It was fed back afterwards that one audience member had asked Rosana, during the lap dance, ‘is this performance art? What are you trying to say?’ Rosana then said to me:
‘I’m not trying to say one thing; I’m trying to give you an experience. I want the person to think about what they think and feel, not whether I’m trying to do something’.
I really like that way of thinking about making work. I had begun to wonder why lots of work on gender and feminism I’d seen, that addressed sexism or misogyny, did nothing for me. Why it felt so surface level. I now think this was due to the performance not feeling like I was experiencing something, I was merely being told. The work was too cerebral and theoretical. Where as, similar to what Louise did, for the performance Rosana isn’t just addressing the issues around lap dancing, she is a lap dancer. It’s an experience for both audience and performer; it is the frame of it being a performance that means you can begin to dissect those experiences.
What’s more, it feels personal because she actually listened to someone who is a sex worker, who is her sister. This is something sex workers are constantly struggling for, rather than being painted as victims as they often are by the media. I also know some women’s groups in Glasgow, as well as feminist writers often slip in to this pattern too. (Equally, there are lots of great pro-sex work articles out there, click here for this one on how you can be an ally)
Popular feminist writer Caitlin Moran said of stripping/lap dancing:
‘Get down off those poles, you’re letting us all down’ -(How To Be A Woman, Moran, 2011, p.172)
This is not only problematic due to its shaming tone, but it works with this universal idea of ‘woman’. That somehow all women are innately connected, part of a ‘sisterhood’, which harks back to the radical feminism fostered in the 70s/80s. This then gives permission for women to dictate to other women how they should behave, as if there is a ‘right’ way of behaving because we all have similar experiences. But feminism isn’t about transferring the power from men to women on dictating modes of behaviour, it’s about no one needing to dictate. I feel like queer feminists accept that just because one form of expressing sexual identity isn’t right for you, doesn’t mean it’s not right for someone else.
That’s not to say we can’t challenge or question each other’s behaviour, but there is a way to tackle the sex industry without deeming those who partake in it as morally wrong. For a start asking the people in the industry. Feminist groups such as The Woman’s Support Project see the negatives of the sex industry, dealing with women have been exploited or forced. Whereas, SWOU, made up of sex workers, are fighting to get people to acknowledge the difference between sex work and prostitution/sexual abuse. This does not mean they deny the abuse that does go on, but they feel that being told you’re a ‘victim’ when you’re not is just as disempowering as those who feel sex work is their only option. I once read in the feminist blogshpere; it’s ok to question the structure, why do more men than women pay for this? How does it negatively and positively effect our culture? (It’s the attack of the workers that is not appreciated).
I Like this quote from J Halerbastam
‘Porn is negative in the way it provides sexual training, but is not morally ‘wrong’’ (p.12, Gaga Feminism, 2012)
For me, Calm Down Dear showed me that there was a space for queer work in spaces that were not explicitly queer or LGBT spaces, in London at least. I felt that being a queer female artist in that context therefore meant being able to step outside feminist arguments and go beyond them. Although many sex-positive ‘libfems’ are queer, there’s the added aspect of being an artist that allows you to sit on the periphery, reflecting things back to your audience.