Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 4

Author's note: If you haven't already done so, please read part 1 - 3 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque!

[photo: new york times article - what do women want?]

Female Desire

Sexologist Marta Meana’s work was featured in a January 2009 New York Times article which probed the mystery of female desire, and specifically why women and men are both attracted to the female form.

Dr. Meana and her colleagues had found that when hetero-sexual male and female participants are shown pictures of a man and a woman engaging in foreplay, the male participants stare longer at the women in the pictures, but the female participants stare equally at the man and the woman in the images.
Men looked at opposite sex figures significantly longer than did women, and women looked at same sex figures significantly longer than did men… men had a strong visual attention preference for opposite sex figures as compared to same sex figures, whereas women appeared to disperse their attention evenly between opposite and same sex figures (Lykins, et al, 2008, p. 219).

This was true for both erotic and non-erotic images.  Results were interpreted as potentially supportive of recent studies showing a greater non-specificity of sexual arousal in women.  Meana(as cited in Bergner, 2009) has various theories about her findings, such as one that proposes that women are more arousing to both sexes because their bodies hold the promise of sex at all times while men’s bodies only look provocative when aroused.  The authors of this study note that “Sexuality remains one of a number of areas in which significant and persistent sex differences…abound” (Lykins, et al, 2008, p. 219).

These observations may explain, to some degree, the reason for the large proportion of burlesque fans who are female.

Dr. Meana recently completed an article on women’s sexual desire and pointed out some interesting findings.  It had not yet been published by the time of my research, but she was kind enough to send me a manuscript when I informed her that I was anxious to read her latest work.  Dr. Meana (2010) asks, “What if being desired and desiring are turn-ons for women, in and of themselves?” (p.4)  Of course, anyone well-versed in feminist theory will quickly point out that one's cultural upbringing could have fostered this preference.  Andrea Dworkin might say that because we know no other way, we believe we enjoy this.  Jacki Willson (2008) reminds us that, “The truth of the matter is that our culture and childhood are littered with references to who is the fairest of them all – the fairest being the one who gets to marry the Prince or win the coveted prize” (p. 115).  However, Meana (2010) also points out that, while “appetitive behaviors” usually precede “consummatory behaviors,” there is animal research that suggests that evoking desire may have its own rewards (p. 4).  Meana refers to a study in which female rats caused their male partners to pursue them, apparently enjoying the attention and response they were able to elicit, even though sexual reward was not being achieved.  Furthermore, Meana states that pacing the “intromissions” can increase the chances of conception, which would provide a biological explanation for this behavior.

She writes that it is “speculative but not unreasonable” to say that women perhaps “enhance their ability to select a partner and pace the course of relationships through the enactment of parallel behaviors.  That they would find these behaviors to be rewarding and arousing would logically follow…the role of sexual object has its own important version of agency and control” (Meana, 2010, p.4).  She has been careful to identify herself as a feminist, and acknowledges the uncomfortable and often politically incorrect implications of her work (Bergner, 2009).  Meana’s point might be better received if she used the term “object of desire” rather than “sexual object” to keep the meaning of this statement from being lost on some readers.

Sexologist Meredith Chivers also notes that “there is something really powerful for women’s sexuality about being desired” (as cited in Bergner, 2009, p. 4).

Also supporting this notion is the statistic that 47% of women in a 1998 study “reported the fantasy of ‘seeing themselves as a striptease dancer, harem girl, or other performer,’ and 50% had fantasized about ‘delighting many men’ and being an ‘irresistibly sexy female’” (Meana, 2009, p.9).

Interestingly, this study also found that men too are very aroused by being desired.  “Stranger fantasies” are equally prevalent in both male and female subjects, suggesting that external validation of desirability may be an important part of desire for men and women, and such validation may carry extra weight when it emanates from individuals who are not institutionally bound to them (as in marriage).” (Meana, 2009, p.8)

Meana’s manuscript also brings up the interesting theory that women may become aroused by their own sexiness.  Given what many feminists already know about the prevalence of body image insecurity, it is not surprising to learn that “in one study, approximately one-third of female college students indicated that they experienced body image self-consciousness during physical intimacy with a man…” which was a predictor for sexual avoidance, nor should we be shocked to find out that “women reported more appearance-based distraction during sex than did men” (Meana, 2009, p.10).

What is interesting is that when self-perception is positive, “self-consciousness can be a boost to desire” (Meana, 2009 p. 10).
seeing self

seeing self

One small study recently revealed that almost half of the female participants  “reported arousal to contemplating themselves nude, wearing sexy lingerie or clothes, [engaging in] grooming activities, imagining that others find them irresistible, and so on” (Meana, 2009 p. 10).

“Women… who were asked to adopt a positive self-schema prior to viewing erotic stimuli demonstrated significantly greater subjective arousal and vaginal response than women in a negative schema condition” (Meana, 2009, p. 11).

Even men have reported that a woman’s self-perception is an important factor in male arousal (Meana 2009, p. 10). We can interpret Dr. Meana’s findings to say that women (and men) enjoy being desired.  We needn’t misconstrue this to mean that they enjoy being objectified.  


It should also be noted that although the burlesque performer may enjoy baring her body, this does not fit the clinical definition of exhibitionism in the pathological sense.  Consider these words from an abnormal psychology textbook:

Exhibitionists are motivated by the wish to shock and dismay unsuspecting observers, not to show off the attractiveness of their bodies.  Therefore, wearing skimpy bathing suits or other revealing clothing is not a form of exhibitionism in the clinical sense of the term.  Nor do professional strippers typically meet the clinical criteria for exhibitionism.  They are generally not motivated by the desire to expose themselves to unsuspecting strangers in order to arouse them or shock them.  The chief motive of the exotic dancer is usually to earn a living (Philaretou, as cited in Nevid, 2008, p. 378).

With this said, it is incorrect to assume that there are no underlying psychological reasons to choose stripping.  In my interview with burlesque and drag performer UnAmerika's Sweetheart Karin Webb, she recounted a story of how she asked her mother once as a child, how did one get to be a stripper?  Her mother responded that no one wanted to be a stripper or chose it freely.  Webb knew this couldn’t be true, because to her it seemed like a thrilling prospect; she regularly invented pretend performances even from a young age.



Webb’s attraction to non-clinical exhibitionism is not uncommon.  Jacki Willson (2008) comments, “It appears acceptable, commendable or even commonplace for many young women to want to feel the empowerment, excitement and danger that comes from openly going to see a risqué female performance or the sexual dominating sense of power, control and desire that comes from revealing their bodies as objects” (p. 5).

Perhaps this desire to display one’s body is both a product of and a reaction against the ‘porn culture’ in which we are immersed, according to authors like Ariel Levy and Sarracino and Scott.   Sexualized images surround us, and the idols females grow up seeing in the media and popular culture are often stereotypically sexy.

We search for a balance between sexiness and feminism.  Amid this tension, some burlesque troupes wish to distinguish themselves completely from conventional stripping.  One Boston troupe, in an advertisement for new dancers, made clear that they were looking for professional dancers willing to learn how to strip, not strippers wishing to learn how to dance.  (I spoke with a few of their members and brought up this point.  They back-pedaled, saying that they were not necessarily looking for trained dancers, they were looking for dancers with a professional attitude, willing to attend twice-weekly rehearsal and put in thirty minutes a day at home practicing.)  It is possible that some of the women of burlesque are resentful toward the conventional stripper image because they feel excluded by the narrow range of body types represented in strip clubs and the media.

Burlesque and Body Image

Although there is sometimes discrimination against women who have had cosmetic surgery by troupes such as L.A.’s Velvet Hammer with its policy excluding professional strippers, “fake” breasts, and porn stars, and Minneapolis’ Le Cirque Rouge de Gus who hang a sign outside their venue which reads, “No Fake Boobs, No Stripper Moves”, new burlesque is characterized by its greater diversity of body types (Baldwin 2004, p. 51).



The sight of confident, natural-looking women of various shapes and sizes, and the audience’s positive reactions to them is enough to provoke “a radical mind shift” for some women in attendance when they see women with ‘imperfect’ bodies being cheered on by the audience, causing them to feel empowered about their own bodies (Baldwin, 2004, p. 133.)

“Big Moves” is one troupe, with chapters in Boston, Montreal, San Francisco and New York City devoted to featuring plus-sized women whose sex appeal may not have been traditionally respected and celebrated by main-stream culture.

At the 2009 Great Boston Burlesque Expo, Honey Suckle Duvet performed a burlesque piece before an imaginary mirror, which spoke to the topic of self-acceptance.  The number ended with the audience on its feet cheering, and Ms. Duvet took away the “Most Beautiful” prize at the evening’s conclusion.



During our interview, when I asked how she felt about winning the award, she expressed indifference. “It doesn’t imply that there’s any talent, it just implies that somebody thinks you look good, and I think that pinpointing it to ‘best earrings’ would make more sense to me, but I appreciate that something was recognized in my dance, that there was a message behind it about beauty and that that was rewarded made me feel good” (Duvet, 2009).

The ‘Good’ Feminist

Issues like body image and beauty are often at the heart of feminist debate as well.

Feminist icons like Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir warned women not to get caught up in their physical appearance, for it would take up time and energy that could be better spent.

In her feminist rant “The Beauty Myth,” Naomi Wolf (1996) notes that “many are ashamed to admit that such trivial concerns – to do with physical appearance, bodies, faces, hair, clothes – matter so much” (p. 9).

These matters are not trivial.  Beauty is as natural to humanity as eating, sleeping, love, and sex.  It is time for feminists to get comfortable with their love and desire for beauty.

The brilliant feminist playwright Eve Ensler (2004) opens The Good Body with a shame-filled introduction explaining why she would choose to write a play about her fixation on the size and shape of her stomach:  “…Whatever the cultural influences and pressures, my preoccupation with my flab, my constant dieting, exercising, worrying, is self-imposed. I pick up the magazines. I buy into the ideal. I believe that blond, flat girls have the secret.” (p. xii ).   What is most troubling about Ensler’s statement is her guilty self-indictment for experiencing concern about her physical appearance.  Wolf and Ensler both express a shame and guilt over perceived vanity and “narcissism” (Ensler, p. xii)  Ensler (2004) sees her desire for the beauty ideal not as natural, but as personal baggage, a pursuit for “goodness” programmed somewhere in childhood.

However, she does not realize that the shame she experiences because of this desire has been programmed, not only by the starched, sanctimonious culture of the 1950s and the lingering Pilgrim effect, but by second wave feminist culture as well, a kind of dogma that makes caring about one’s appearance a ‘sin’ against feminism.

The desire to put one’s body on display is seen as a betrayal of feminism.  Women who choose to do so are seen by old-school feminists as brainwashed, identifying with their oppressor.

The notion of ‘vanity’ as a source of guilt smacks of religious shame.  Vanity is defined as “inflated pride in oneself or one's appearance” (Merriam-Webster, 2009).  Is pride antithetical to feminism?  Not according to this definition:

Pride  1: the quality or state of being proud: as

a: inordinate self-esteem

b: a reasonable or justifiable self-respect

c: delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship (Merriam-Webster, 2009)

Esteem, respect, or elation with oneself would seem to be things feminists would encourage and celebrate.  Like many other so-called vices, pride in oneself is actually an essential part of our nature. The controversial philosopher Ayn Rand (1961) wrote,“The virtue of pride…above all means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty”.

Feminism strives to free women from the bondage of patriarchal social structures, but when it comes to celebrating our bodies and our sexuality, women are not free.

Beauty in Popular Media

One important and deeply troubling consideration for women is our portrayal in the media.  In advertisements and ‘entertainment’ we can find women reduced to essentially headless sex objects, and worse, due to the prevalence of violent films and television shows, women as expendable victims.



These images hurt everyone, though many of us are so accustomed to this poison, we may fail to notice it, or to notice what we have internalized as a result.  Girls learn that the most important thing is to be sexy, and they also see that it can be sexy to be a victim.  Boys learn from these images too, and they are certainly not lessons about mutual respect or partnership.

In addition, the bodies of models and actors represent an increasingly small fraction of the population.  Their looks are unlike those generally found in nature, but when a person grows up on these images they begin to imagine this is how everyone should look, believing their own bodies to be unacceptably flawed.


One of the most harmful trends in the media is the glamorization of extreme thinness, an ideal constructed to keep the gold standard just out of reach.  Historically, in cultures where only the rich could afford to eat to excess, plumpness was in vogue.  In our culture, poor people are more likely to be overweight due to the high cost of many healthy foods and fewer resources to devote to physical fitness, while the very rich have access to special diets, personal trainers, liposuction, and more time to spend honing their bodies.

Because thinness is currently idealized in our culture, and reinforced on an exaggerated scale by stick-celebrities, many girls and women at healthy weights feel compelled to lose weight.  In fact, even girls who are already underweight often seek to lose more.  Poor body image and low self-esteem are bad enough, but even worse problems such as disordered eating can result from this unhealthy ideal.  Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are life-threatening, life-long ordeals many women and girls have to face in pursuit of thinness.

As Nancy Etcoff (1999) points out, fashion models are genetically in the minority, because although they are very thin they still have roughly .7 waist-to-hip ratios, a curviness impossible for someone who is anorexic and starving.

The fashion and film industries have a vested interest in protecting their preternatural beauty ideals.  They are selling not just products but an image, an ideal of almost god-like proportions to many women.

In order for this mojo to work, they must give women something to covet and pursue.  While the desire for attractiveness is a natural, even defensible drive, there is no room in an evolved society for predatory and deadly fashion trends.  There are now “pro-ana” websites dedicated to defending anorexia as a lifestyle choice based on personal aesthetic preferences.  This environment is toxic.

Cultural Nostalgia and the Return of the Pinup Girl



Part of the appeal of burlesque may be the prevalence of an old-fashioned beauty aesthetic and its comforting sense of innocence and nostalgia.  By borrowing the easily recognizable sex symbol image of the pinup girl, the burlesque dancer brings the voiceless, two-dimensional image into real life.  She shows us that there are no erotic bodies without whole people inside, makes clear that no matter how familiar the image, each person owns a unique voice to be heard.

When I interviewed various neo-burlesque performers about their opinion as to why the 1940s and 50s pin-up look dominates the burlesque scene, their answers varied.  Honey Suckle Duvet (2009) expressed that “the romanticized aspect of burlesque is from those eras, and so when people think of [burlesque] and want to recapture it, that’s what they want to recapture.” Carrie Tyler’s (2009) opinion was that in those days women were less empowered than women today, but that these historical periods were “a time of great beauty… where women really did take the time to put themselves together and there was a certain sense of show… It’s very attractive for us to reach back to that time and then say, ‘Okay let’s do that again, but let’s do it in a more empowered way.’” Crissy Trayner (2009) said the forties and fifties were a time when women began to be sexually empowered.  Others cited the pin-up look as the reclaiming of curves.  Jacki Willson (2008) posits that “pre-feminist” aesthetics might serve as a foil and give an ironic edge to the sexually empowered women embodying them (p. 121)  Maria-Elena Buszek has written an entire doctoral dissertation, which was later turned into a book, Pinup Grrrls, on the mysterious allure of pinup images.

It seems likely that the reclaiming of the pinup image may stem from a rejection of the now-popular centerfold image featured in men’s magazines and beer commercials.  This stereotypical image looks a lot like the Barbie dolls many of us played with as children: long blond hair, thin noses, tiny waists, curvy, but not too curvy, hips and breasts.  The unattainability of this ideal for most women may have prompted a rebellion against it and a desire for a different aesthetic interpretation of sexiness.

Before the sexual revolution, women used external supports like corsets and girdles to make their bodies look more attractive in clothes, but as women became sexually empowered, by the 1960s and 1970s they were comfortable wearing more revealing styles; fashion got closer to the body, and fewer undergarments were worn (Brumberg, 1998).  As Jacki Willson (2008) notes, “The length of a woman’s skirt has slowly risen with each feminist battle won” (p. 133).  Eventually women began to change the body itself to look better in clothes (or, perhaps, to look better naked).  Rather than wearing a girdle, women dieted, toned their abdominal muscles, and now sometimes they have surgery.  This process continues to unfold.  Until recently, when a woman was in the nude, the only ‘accessory’ she wore was her hairstyle.  Now she might be ‘wearing’ breast implants, carefully sculpted muscles, tattoos, body piercings and even the way she chooses to groom her body hair.

Because of the now widespread availability of cosmetic surgery, and the lack of ‘flawed’ bodies in the media, some of the cultural nostalgia present in neo-burlesque may be a reminder of a time when all a woman needed to look glamorous were well-made undergarments and lipstick.

Please stay tuned to this blog for parts 5&6 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque. As always, thank you for reading!


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