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The dark side of burlesque – and what can be done about it

Just because performers are taking their clothes off, it doesn't mean they should have to risk sexual assault.

“I’ve been touched by the audience before,” says 32-year-old Ruka Johnson matter-of-factly. “Someone came on stage and just started touching me up.” The sexual assault took place early on in her career, during a one-off performance she was giving at a now-closed venue in Brighton.

“I told the promoter,” she continues. “She sort of just signalled to just carry on performing. So I walked off stage and she said she wasn't gonna pay me… she said I should've given it a bit more oomph.” Johnson bursts out laughing at this – part in disbelief, part in recognition at the outrageousness of the producer's comments.

With aggressive perseverance and a friend to help argue the case, Johnson did, eventually, secure her fee – £50. She decided against formally reporting the incident or taking the matter any further, but she had told security at the time of the incident. They took no action.

With minimal formal research it’s hard to know the frequency with which sexual assault takes place in the UK’s burlesque scene. That it is such an under-reported crime doesn’t help. Johnson has spoken to plenty of women with similar stories to hers: “Pretty much all performers have been touched inappropriately by someone.”

As it is for so many performers in the female-dominated industry, burlesque was a passion of Johnson’s long before it became her profession. Entranced by the world of Dita Von Teese and evocative glamour, allured by the promise of subversive performance and sexual expression, she started taking part in 2003. Her career saw her appear across London’s lustrous burlesque scene and further afield: the longstanding Café Du Paris, Proud, the Box in Soho. But in 2014, Johnson, abandoned her passion and gave up performing indefinitely. 

When I ask her why, Johnson describes at length her experiences in an underground, under-regulated industry, where sexual assaults – often in the form of groping – are common, and where cowboy producers offer low pay, often below minimum wage, and cancel performances at the last minute with no compensation. She cites the unprofessional culture from some venues and their teams, the lack of regulation that enables exploitation, and the micro-aggressions, tokenism and racial discrimination she regularly experienced as a performer of colour.

“I started hating it and I got really busy with my other job and I had just had enough; I didn't really think it was changing,” says Johnson. She now works as a costume designer in the film and TV industry. “When I worked in retail for example there's HR, there's people you can go to if something is not right to protect you. It’s just so unregulated… there's a general lack of safety and protection.”

Johnson’s experiences aren’t unique. Her observations aren’t unusual. International artist Rubyyy Jones is an influential figure on the burlesque scene, particularly in London where she regularly produces her own shows. She has featured multiple times on industry website 21st Century Burlesque’s Top 50 list and appeared at a varied list of venues, such as the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Arcola Theatre and Hackney Attic. In a seven-year-long career which has seen her adopt multiple disciplines – performer, producer, director and teacher – she has “been privy to abuses against many more people.”

“I would say every single burlesque performer is touched at some point in time,” says Jones. “Depending on who you are and where you're working it's probably happening with more regularity.”

Though Jones has had “relatively positive experiences” throughout her career, she has been groped by audience members on two occasions. Like Johnson, she's had one of her performances – an intimate strip tease – interrupted by someone jumping on to the stage. 

“I was touched on stage and afterwards there was no one around, there was no one for me to talk to,” she recalls. “I was very upset… the performance I did [meant] I was in a really vulnerable place. I was literally just crying my eyes out alone in the dressing room. I had not even another performer there to speak to."

The second incident took place off stage. “Recently I was totally naked walking through a crowd after a really intense arty burlesque type performance and I got touched by various audience members in a really inappropriate way,” she says.

This type of assault – when performers are walking through crowds – can be quite common, depending on the venue. London-based Lilly SnatchDragon is another of the UK’s most prominent burlesque performers, an award winning artist renowned for her ebullience. She too has been groped “quite a few times”.

She considers herself lucky that she predominantly works in venues with experience, such as the Hippodrome in Leicester Square, a venue that she says deals with groping and other forms of sexual assault severely and swiftly. 

“Every show I either go to or attend, there is groping of some form,” she adds. “Most of the time I get groped, I get groped by women because they think it's OK... but I've no problem turning around and telling them to not fucking touch me, and I've broken character.”

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While all three women have experienced groping from audience members – and feel that, depending on the venue, it is likely to be happening with some frequency – Johnson has also had to deal with inappropriate conduct from some event producers.

“The organisers came on to me... not even just an audience member, the promoters,” says Johnson of one incident. “They were just kind of like, ‘Do you want to join us after?’. That's inappropriate and there's a power dynamic. No. I want you to pay my wages on time and that's it. I think that sort of thing's quite common.”

Another producer engaged in even more explicit sexual harassment. “He sat really close to me and kept touching me in ways I felt were inappropriate,” says Johnson. “He kept telling me how he liked chocolate and stuff like that and how he'd been with a black woman before.” Johnson never worked with that producer again.

The culture of groping, assault and harassment described by the three women is exacerbated by the stigma that surrounds burlesque. SnatchDragon suggests that a significant number of people who don’t see burlesque as a legitimate art form, or the performers as artists. She says there’s a type of audience member – one that comes with an innate disregard for women already – who sees burlesque as a form of sex work.

“I don't think it's taken seriously,” she says. “Obviously if you’re a woman and you're taking your clothes off there's that big ‘well you're a whore, you're really open and you have to be expect to be treated like this’. With audience members when you're touched and groped that's what people think they're paying for.”

Jones suggests that as burlesque is an industry built on sexual expression which predominantly attracts women, including vulnerable women, it’s also going to attract predators. The issues aren’t unique to burlesque, they’re societal. Many of the perpetrators who grope women either don’t realise groping is a form of sexual assault – that’s listed in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 – or they don’t care.

“We're just a microcosm,” says Jones. “But we do work in sex and we do work in a world that does involve women's sexuality…no matter what style of burlesque you're doing, unless it's got a family friendly finish, it is sexual expression. It does make sense that people, plus substances and absolute fucking ignorance, go out there and think that they can just touch people or do whatever. And I get it: we’re inspiring you to feel sexy or adventurous or silly or whatever it is, but that's not consent now, is it.”

Each of the women is quick to point out that this culture of sexual harassment isn’t prevalent in every club. It’s worse at some venues and non-existent at others. Longstanding institutions with well-drilled security teams and bar staff have the experience to deal with incidents swiftly, and can draw on their reputation as a deterrent to would be offenders. But not all venues have such luxuries and not all producers have the necessary experience.

Burlesque remains a popular art form to get into with many new performers entering each year. But this surge in popularity arrives amid a decline in the number of burlesque venues. Performance space is now at a premium. As with any property shortage the situation is felt most acutely in London, where even the famous club Madame Jojo's has failed to fend off the steady stomp of gentrification in Soho (at least for the time being – it may yet reopen). Finding suitable spaces to put on shows now requires more ingenuity from producers.

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One solution is to occupy areas in non-burlesque pubs, clubs and theatres. These partnerships can be mutually beneficial to all: the bar profits from the extra foot-traffic, the producers have a space for their show, and the performers can bring their craft to a new audience. But such crowds are often unfamiliar with burlesque culture and etiquette. Unfortunately the world is such that people, especially those who are intoxicated, seemingly need to be reminded that groping is sexual assault. Many shows now rely on the host to educate the uninitiated throughout.

“They play a really important role in schooling the audience and telling them what isn't acceptable,” says Glory Pearl, a traditional performer of burlesque – what she describes as character-based with aerial equipment – who started professionally in 2008. “If you get a burlesque literate audience then they kind of know what they're seeing and they tend to be reasonably well behaved. Often if you're performing to an audience who aren't used to burlesque they will overstep the mark.”

The decline in permanent venues has meant there’s less regular work to go around. With more performers scrambling over fewer gigs, rates have fallen. For those unable to sustain themselves on burlesque alone, performing becomes an infrequent hobby, rather than a full-time profession.

It’s not unusual for a creative industry to attract hobbyists; it's an inevitable part of trying to make it in burlesque – you have to build up your reputation before you can warrant better paid, more regular jobs. But a lack of professionalism in burlesque can increase the risks performers face.

“Often people – and this is something you do find with newer performers – bring people backstage, boyfriends and friends and things like that,” says Pearl, reflecting on the lack of professionalism she’s encountered at some gigs. “That really bloody pisses me off: they have no reason to be there."

“It's often new performers that do it and often people that don't come from a performance background, so don't get that etiquette or the sense that when you're on stage you're doing a job and when you're not on stage you’re in your private life and you don't really want people to see you naked. If you chose to put that on stage that's your choice and you’re in control of that situation.”

Amateur producers bear responsibility too. Without proper training, maintaining safety standards is hard. Curating a culture that protects performers is even harder.

Saph Rox is a producer, casting agent and director of her company, Agent Burlieque, which creates burlesque and cabaret shows across the UK. After training in musical theatre, she started her professional career working in strip clubs. It’s her experience in this environment – where the more overtly sexual nature requires stricter security and more careful management – which has helped her protect the performers she employs.


Saph Rox. Photo: Joust

In Rox’s 17-year career she’s witnessed just a single incident of sexual assault at one of her shows, when an audience member grabbed a performer coming off the stage. The security team removed the audience member immediately.

“It’s dealt with very seriously,” she says. “It’s sexual assault, it's not something we can just brush off.” Though it’s rarity in the shows she produces, she accepts that elsewhere that’s not the case and even knows of a couple of people who “experienced things like this regularly.” She suggests the reason some venues and shows might experience a higher frequency of sexual assault – particularly of groping – is due to the way they’re run.

“I would say it comes down to security, production and how high the level of the production is,” says Rox. “I know that it's prevalent in some shows. I've been told by people that there have been issues. If you've got an amateur producer who thinks they're just going to put a few acts on a stage and that that is production, it's not, that's not what you do. There is huge amounts behind it and making sure that performers are very well taken care of is very important.

“We're dealing with women and men who are removing their clothes, but the boundaries need to be in place and people need to be made aware of what they are,” she continues. “So it's very much a producer issue. If anybody is thinking that we're giving somebody permission to touch them, there is something wrong with that person, but at the same time we need to make sure that everybody knows the rules.”

Even producers who want to protect performers and educate audiences and aren’t always able to follow through on their ambitions, especially in non-burlesque venues.  If an incident takes place – say, a regular patron gropes one of the performers as she crosses the bar – the manager or venue security might not agree that the crime warrants the perpetrator's removal. The producer then has an awkward choice to make.

“What I’ve noticed is a common conversation is about performers not being able to follow through on the kinds of protocols, or boundaries that they would like to enforce,” says Jones. “A producer doesn't want to risk their sure bet gig…it becomes hard for a producer to take a stand.”

Performance space is a valuable commodity. Performance space that comes with a guaranteed recurring weekly spot even more so. “If the producer is disagreeing with a venue manager, as much as they want to side with this performer, and with all women of the world, at the same time here's their booking on the Thursday of every month that's hard to get, which they sell out every month,” continues Johnson. “There's always something beyond morals that make it difficult.”

Johnson also worked in strip clubs throughout her career, and, like Rox, noted its stricter security. Though she recognises that there are many burlesque nights that are managed impeccably, Johnson feels the laissez-faire attitude of some producers is directly enabling a groping culture.

“They don't give a fuck,” she says. “They've got their performance, that audience member had fun, some of them thought it was funny. That was your second performance, you're going home in a minute anyway. Who cares? You're not bringing money directly to the club, so it's lower priority.”

She feels more producers need to take responsibility for the shows they put on, particularly those doing so in non-burlesque clubs. “It's just lots of people running around doing whatever they want,” she says. “I don't feel like it's enough to just put on a night and then spread the word, you have to cultivate your audience. At the end of the day you're having people take their clothes off or performing really intimate personal pieces. [In a] life drawing class you wouldn't let anybody in without briefing them on what's gonna be happening or how to behave.”

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When I met Johnson she explained that her decision to quit in 2014 was actually the second time she had left burlesque. Disconsolate and exasperated, the issues she’d experienced saw her retire early from performing in 2008. She returned, somewhat optimistically, four years later in 2012, hoping it had improved.

“I wanted the audience and the performers to be more diverse, and I wanted more accountability for burlesque as an industry,” she recalls. “I don't know if I was being naive but I kind of thought maybe things would visibly change.” Johnson is adamant that this time her retirement as a burlesque performer will last forever.

For those still thriving in the burlesque scene, the rise of social media has allowed performers to self-police. On Facebook especially, all issues that affect the community are discussed at length: the rates, casting practices, racial discrimination, professionalism. Venues and producers that aren’t doing enough to protect their performers from sexual assault no longer go unnoticed.

“It's all about word of mouth,” says Rubyyy Jones. “Many burlesque teachers will take it on themselves to talk to their students about it, which I definitely do.”

As for the venues that are getting it right, SnatchDragon puts forward Her Upstairs in Camden as a wonderful example of an independent venue breeding a culture of consent and understanding among their audience. Jones cites The Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club as a case for how it’s possible to transform a traditional east-end London venue into a highly successful burlesque club, one that doesn’t compromise on the safety of its performers.

“What is excellent about that venue, and what other venue managers could learn from them, is their ability to listen to criticism or issues when they arise and then to adjust practices or distribute education as needed,” says Jones, who’s produced several shows there. “It's not fucking rocket science. And no venue is perfect, but the ideal ones are the ones who are listening and trying when it comes to protecting their own staff, visiting producers, the events performers and audiences."