50 Haverford students converged to watch the Fire Gypsy do a burlesque striptease, wave flaming batons and dance with a hula hoop on fire. The Field House felt especially cavernous, the lights were shining and we were piled onto metal bleachers in the middle of the track. The Fire Gypsy danced her three songs. No one in the audience seemed to know what to do or how to act, so the space faltered between cricket-silence and objectifying-call-outs and the occasional gasp of surprise (or turn on?)– it was hard to tell. Both devoured by the audience from afar, and interacting with us during her act, the Fire Gypsy got down to her bra and undies in her second song. A male-voiced-person called out “Nice ass!” and a female-voiced-person called out “shame!” while other audience members exchanged looks of disgust. In that moment, I felt like the show became more about us, (Haverford students, audience members, consumers of spectacle) than about her, and I realized all over again how inept we are as a community at having positive conversations and experiences dealing with sex and sexuality, and how much work we have to do.
What could have happened:
50 Haverford students come together, out of the cold and into a cozy, respectable space, but not too frilly or quaint. The emcee welcomes everyone and explains how the performer would like to be treated (“call-outs welcome!” or “She is a professional dancer and would rather the audience be quiet”). The event is a celebration of body and sex positivity, and ideally had multiple body types represented, all to be honored. After the dancing/striptease part of the show, the performers and audience members could mingle and talk about art and sex work. There could have been pamphlets and/or ‘zines about sex positivity and safer sex and consent, as well as condoms for people to take for later (even though they’re available elsewhere on campus).
What was happening for me:
The event didn’t feel like a community, more like a bunch of individuals staring at a young woman eating fire. I felt uncomfortable when people were shouting call-outs that seemed objectifying and rude. I’m not a big fan using call-outs to publicly shame folks, but I also would have been sad to see no one react to the obvious inappropriate (and out-of-line) comments coming from the audience. I was thinking about the queer burlesque show that I attended at the Wooden Shoe in Philadelphia some time last year – that was both more sex positive and more provocative than this one (though in other ways).
I wanted to think Haverford had changed so much that I started to believe in my imaginary Haverworld. It’s pretty easy to do when you spend most of your time off-campus. I’m not trying to shame people or our community- I don’t think that’s productive. I can still imagine a sex positive campus culture where sexuality is celebrated, not objectified and where partners always ask each other before sex. But we have a long way to go until we get there.