​Welcome to burlesque – self-empowerment or sexploitation, asks Susan Dalgety

In the week that city councillors agreed to keep Edinburgh’s notorious lap dancing clubs open, a group of Edinburgh women announced the city’s first burlesque festival.
Laura Gooding, better known as Rosie May Riot, is keen to share her passion for the art formLaura Gooding, better known as Rosie May Riot, is keen to share her passion for the art form
Laura Gooding, better known as Rosie May Riot, is keen to share her passion for the art form

​Next month, Rosie May Riot, Felicity Flirtwell and Busty Blue (not their real names) will host a four-day festival full of feathers, satin and tat, with a fair amount of bare flesh on show.

Rosie May – or Laura Gooding when she is not performing – says that burlesque boosts her self-esteem and helped her feel confident in her body after the birth of her second child.

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“Performing is magical,” she says. And her co-producer, Felicity Flirtwell – who is too shy to share her real name – says that she got involved with burlesque to help other people find their own version of beauty.

“No one defines beauty apart from yourself,” she insists.

I must remember that next time I catch a glimpse of myself in a full length mirror.

I won’t see a slightly overweight, very unfit older woman in front of me. Oh no, I will see instead a gorgeous, voluptuous siren, who just so happens to be wearing joggers, an old T-shirt and Crocs. Now that really would be magical.

Seriously though, what’s the difference between burlesque and lap dancing?

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To a dispassionate observer, not much. Both involve scantily-dressed women dancing in a sexually provocative way.

Lap dancers may end up naked by the end of their performance, while burlesque is less about nudity and more about teasing the audience with a clever use of costumes. Or so supporters of the art would have you believe. Frankly, I think both are demeaning of women.

Lap dancing, as practiced in Edinburgh’s three sexual entertainment venues, is a far riskier occupation.

Women perform in front of large groups of men who are often drunk, and the men are there for only one thing: sex.

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Just read the reviews for one of Edinburgh’s clubs. “Full of gorgeous experienced dancers! Lap dances are 10/10. This venue is the definition of pleasure and seduction!” writes one breathless punter.

The bottom line is that the women who work in these clubs are nothing more than sexual commodities.

I know that some of them argue that it is their right to use their bodies how they like, and that lap dancing is empowering and well-paid, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Sex work harms women and perpetuates a society where women and girls are nothing more than the sexual playthings of men.

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Burlesque is not sex work, but it is a sexual performance, even if it is sometimes dressed up – or down – as satire.

It is a regressive art form that reduces a woman to nothing more than an object.

Rosie May and her fellow dancers insist that they find burlesque empowering and it has helped their self-confidence, but surely they would get the same boost from sport or drama?

If we are ever to achieve real equality between men and women – where neither sex is more powerful or influential than the other – then we need to stop objectifying women as nothing more than living sex dolls . . .

And that includes burlesque as well as lap-dancing.

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