It makes me angry that in 2016 another sex worker was killed in Christchurch. Actually it makes me more than angry. It makes me rage. This is the fourth sex worker murdered following being picked up at their place of employment, or in the course of their employment, in Christchurch in less than 12 years.
If this were another industry, say she was a Doctor, and someone came to her place of work and murdered her, there would be a huge outcry about violence against doctors. Questions would be asked as to why the hospital work place is no longer safe. There would be inquiries regarding how this could happen to someone in a care-giving profession. Perhaps security would be increased to make other doctors feel safe. Doctors throughout the country would have rallied around the victim.
But she wasn’t a doctor. She was a beautiful woman whose place of work was just down the road from my office. Apart from outcries concerning the publicity around her employment, I haven’t heard much foot stomping. I have heard nothing from the burlesque community.
But why should we as a community care? Why should it be our business if a street-based sex worker in Christchurch is murdered? I guess this is where I would turn around and ask you why aren’t we enraged at this murder? Why shouldn’t we be demanding that society places importance on the safety of ALL its workers? No person should be murdered in their workplace, regardless of occupation.
Other than the fact that this is a horrific loss of a young life, the reason we should care is simple. As a community, like it or not we have a connection with the sex industry. Yeah I said it. Regardless of where on the spectrum you consider burlesque – be it art, stripping, sex work, or part of the sex or entertainment industries… there is a connection.
I am not a historian. I don’t even claim to have a great knowledge of the history of burlesque. However I think I can say that back in the day burlesque performers who took their clothes off, who teased audiences, who entertained with flirtatious performances were slotted into the ‘unacceptable to marry’ category. AKA The whore. The lacking-virtue woman. The frowned upon. If we were to bring together all the types of women who would also be included in this category we would find prostitutes, lunatic women, women who had babies out of wedlock, and others who had sex before marriage. Women considered in other words ‘ruined’. These women may not have all worn rhinestones, sparkly stuff, or feathers on their heads. We may not have been as vilified as some of those in the ‘ruined’ category, but in reality we as burlesque performers were part of that family. These are our sisters. Personally I love this history of burlesque and that in 2017 performing can be a statement of ownership of my body and my sensuality.
Today in Aotearoa New Zealand we have new words to describe these differing types of women. Some of these words include ‘sex worker’, ‘stripper’, ‘dancer’, ‘performer’, ‘burlesque entertainer’, ‘sex industry worker’, and ‘artist’. All of these labels are wonderful, and the joy of being around in 2017 is you can choose to define yourself however you wish. Yet this does not change the fact of where our industry has come from. Our situation as sparkly performers may have improved a little (and I mean a little) in terms of stigma and shaming but there is still a way to go. For some of our ‘ruined’ sisters the fight has even further to go, and their battle is even more uphill.
The potential violence that society excuses due to our art/employment also links us. For example there are some in society who would, because we post Sunday Bumday pictures on social media, should we end up stalked and killed would say, “What did she expect, posting those types of pictures?”. There is little difference between this attitude and when a street-based sex worker is murdered commenting “What did she expect standing on the street corner like that?”.
I am not one for telling people what to do, unless I am stage managing, but I do have a request – I would really like us to, as individuals, and as a community, think about who we are prepared to align ourselves with and what this alignment would mean in terms of our actions and attitudes. We may have sparkly stuff, and we can joke about shitting glitter, but the origins of our industry weren’t always so glamourous, or so socially acceptable. Perhaps we can use our sparkliness to further the causes of traditionally marginalised women, and demand our right and that of our sisters to be safe regardless of our choice of performance style or employment.
The International Day to End Violence is held on 17 December each year. This day has a huge rich history. The Red Umbrella has become a symbol for sex workers of resistance to discrimination. How amazing would it be that we could show our sisters that we stand with them in their fight? Because ultimately if violence against sex workers ends, all humanity wins.
Constance Maehem hails from QuakeCity, Canterbury. Her birth into burlesque involved stepping out of a coffin crafted by her father. This symbolic resurrection marked the beginning of her determination to live as if she is dying (please note she is not dying), by embracing opportunities and challenges that come her way. Becoming a member of Ayla’s Angels has supported this philosophy and introduced her to a world that she never dreamed she could be part of.
Scratching the surface of this performance persona, we find that behind Constance there is a woman called Hannah Komatsu. As a social worker who supports young people and their families, Hannah is kept humbled at the determination and strength that she sees on a daily basis. She spends most of her time with her family and dog. She loves her friends, who accept all her insanity. Cute animal pictures feed her soul.