A theater intern told me that my eight-year-old’s first exposure to sex will most likely be Internet porn, and I’m sure she’s right – after all, he and his best bud have already been busted Googling “naykid laydes.” (Hooked on Phonics for the win!)
Needless to say, this is depressing. And, aside from the fact that most porn is exploitative, objectifying and quite possibly a contributor to our current political leadership’s belief that women are objects rather than humans, it’s a terrible guide to good loving. And, while I’ll likely obsess in another post about all those former issues, today, I’m writing about my new hope regarding the latter.
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled into a bar called “Bocci’s Cellar” where they do, indeed, still play bocci every weekend; I was there because the Do-Rights Burlesque troupe was performing. And I realized – in this art form, there is hope.
We all know what traditional Burlesque is (song, dance, comedy, and some slightly risqué naughty dancing), but this was actually what is referred to as “Neo-Burlesque” which aims, as stated on the Do-Rights website http://cruzburlesque.webs.com/), “…to discover, accept and embrace the joys of human sexuality. We are dedicated to performing our best and inspiring our audiences to love freely and see that beauty isn’t defined by a mold…”
If you haven’t been to a contemporary burlesque show, you’re probably: A: not a hipster; B: not urban; C: not looking for adventure; D: worried that it’s some kind of live porn or E: any combination of the above. (I was A/D until I went; I’m still A.)
The important point here is that porn and neo-burlesque are totally different genres. Sure, there are overlaps. They’re both meant to be sexy. They both focus mostly on women (hetero porn, at least). They’re both a performance. But that’s about it for their common ground.
The most obvious difference is that burlesque is live. Which is massive on lots of levels. But you might say, “So are strip joints” and be right. So, let me break down my experience.
The first thing that really struck me was all of the smiles – the genuine, “I’m having a good time” smiles on the faces of the burlesque performers and the audience, before, during and after the show. The next was the lack of high-heels – almost all of the ladies were dancing shoeless, in human scale, physically comfortable, and not wearing something that would make dancing harder even if it made them seem more appealing to their audience. There was a wide and wonderful variety of real bodies, from super slim to zaftig, and there was the dancers’ focus – these performers played as if the audience wasn’t there, which is the entire opposite of porn, with its faux loving gazes into the lens. The message here was, “If you’re lucky enough to be peek in on what’s happening, you win! But the stories in these numbers are ours, you are just a witness.”
And, of course, exciting to me as a theater artist was the fact that they were dancing TO the music – to the emotional, rhythmic and storytelling substance of these songs and their lyrics. One of my favorites was performed to one of the least sexy songs I’ve heard in a long time (Zee Avi’s “Concrete Wall”), and it was just an amazing dance exploring the loneliness of that tune. Some others were playful – there was the “sleepover pillow fight,” a catfight, and a “rough seduction” number, too – all the tropes. There was even a glowing hula-hoop dance, where the performer got so caught up in her routine that she forgot to take off as much clothing as she’d intended. There was no full nudity (a few sets of pasties did make excellent appearances), but there was plenty of sexy fun. These were women finding their way, showing their passions, and dancing for themselves as much as for their audience.
All of these little differences added up to something much bigger – everyone in the room was having a good time. No one seemed ashamed to be there, exploited, or uncomfortable making eye contact afterwards. I’ve been to strip joints, and left feeling awkward, hungry, provoked, and very much thinking about women as fulfillers of my needs. I left Bocci’s smiling, laughing with the people who had been onstage, comfortable. Sure, there was a tingle, but it was all about the kind of consenting, adult sexuality that every parent wishes for their teenage kid, not the desperate hunger that I see coming from porn.
I got talking to a friend of one of the performers, who came of age post-Internet. She told me about a lover who was afraid to admit he was a virgin, and with whom she had terribly awkward sex. Everything she did in bed confused him, he did very little on his own, and he was baffled that she didn’t seem to know all of the “moves” he’d clearly studied on his screen. Eventually, she got him to admit what was going on, and, while she didn’t tell me details, it’s my guess that she helped him figure out how to interact with a real, live, flesh and blood woman. Lucky him.
But, how sad. I’ve had a fair number of lovers, and I can tell you that, in all of the porn I’ve ever seen, only about 15% of what’s onscreen has ever happened in my bed. Not only is the ubiquity of porn teaching teenagers of all genders to expect women to have hairless, pneumatic bodies that achieve orgasm the moment they see a penis, but it’s also teaching them a whole bunch of stupid, pleasureless, even unrealistic ways of making love.
Burlesque is the anti-porn. In it, the objects of desire are humans – fallible, complicated, fun-loving, varied, very real humans right in front of you. These aren’t the go-go boys and girls paid to dance in cages, the strippers on the runways, or the hordes of “amateurs” being exploited by the seemingly unquenchable sex trade we call Internet porn.
I know I’m not inventing this point of view – indeed, Neo-Burlesque is part of a far broader movement in modern feminism that embraces healthy sexuality as a vital aspect of equal relationships. What I’m excited by is that this form of feminism has become even more important when considering the specific, modern challenges that have become a fact of our Internet-connected lives. That it can correct a mis-education, a misapprehension, a terrible set of mistakes. Our bodies are fantastic to share with one another, and, specifically as a dad, I want my son to learn that making love is far more than practicing moves or being satisfied – that it’s a duet, a dialogue, and a dance.
So, call me weird, but I really hope he finds his way into some Neo-Burlesque once he hits puberty. I want him to connect to some truth, because the Internet is a realm in which fact and fiction get confused constantly, and it seems to me that the single biggest lie isn’t being exposed on Snopes, perpetrated by the faux ladies of Ashley Madison or spun in the RNC Debates – it’s happening on the porn sites, where an illusion of pleasure is being passed off as what’s real.