Calm Down Dear

My Big Sister Taught Me This Lap Dance (And This Queer Politic)

It is such a complex issue, but it is definitely worth trying to delve in to the complicated world of progressive feminism in relation to My Big Sister Taught Me This Lap Dance. So. Deep breath, here goes.

As I said it was great to see how Rosana as a queer artist fit in to the festival of feminism, having experienced first hand the drama and arguments that can erupt between radical feminists (known as Trans* Exclusionary Radical Feminists or TERFs ) and sex-positive progressive feminists (Libfems) in Glasgow. TERF’s tend to take the stance that prostitution and the sex industry works against feminist ideals and aims, stemming from 2nd-wave feminism kicking against sexual objectification. Lib Fems are trying to incorporate the needs and views of sex-workers in to modern feminism, some believing that the decriminalisation of sex work is the best way to tackle the misogyny and sexism in those industries. Lib fems also tend to want to include self-identifying women in the movement, open to those who may not have been born female. Louise Orwin’s piece made it even clearer to me that feminism should not be about getting tied up in current disputes over who’s wrong or right. That’s getting tied up in the present. When it’s really about the future, and about the young people that will have to live in that future.

That’s what I find so fantastic about My Big Sister Taught Me This Lap Dance, it doesn’t seek to take a firm stance on sex work, it doesn’t seek to dispel other arguments, it goes beyond thinking about whether sex work is  ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It does this by providing an experience. It forces the audience to tackle their theoretical feelings on lap dancing, and have some actual ones, by having a lap dance. Then they have to tackle their feelings on the (mainly) women who lap dance, by listening to a recording of an interview with Rosana’s sister afterwards.

To some people, I think this type of issue-based work that goes beyond providing concrete opinions on that issue is confusing. It was fed back afterwards that one audience member had asked Rosana, during the lap dance, ‘is this performance art? What are you trying to say?’ Rosana then said to me:


‘I’m not trying to say one thing; I’m trying to give you an experience. I want the person to think about what they think and feel, not whether I’m trying to do something’.

I really like that way of thinking about making work. I had begun to wonder why lots of work on gender and feminism I'd seen, that addressed sexism or misogyny, did nothing for me. Why it felt so surface level. I now think this was due to the performance not feeling like I was experiencing something, I was merely being told. The work was too cerebral and theoretical. Where as, similar to what Louise did, for the performance Rosana isn’t just addressing the issues around lap dancing, she is a lap dancer. It’s an experience for both audience and performer; it is the frame of it being a performance that means you can begin to dissect those experiences.

What’s more, it feels personal because she actually listened to someone who is a sex worker, who is her sister. This is something sex workers are constantly struggling for, rather than being painted as victims as they often are by the media. I also know some women’s groups in Glasgow, as well as feminist writers often slip in to this pattern too. (Equally, there are lots of great pro-sex work articles out there, click here for this one on how you can be an ally)

Popular feminist writer Caitlin Moran said of stripping/lap dancing:

‘Get down off those poles, you’re letting us all down’ -(How To Be A Woman, Moran, 2011, p.172)

This is not only problematic due to its shaming tone, but it works with this universal idea of ‘woman’. That somehow all women are innately connected, part of a ‘sisterhood’, which harks back to the radical feminism fostered in the 70s/80s. This then gives permission for women to dictate to other women how they should behave, as if there is a ‘right’ way of behaving because we all have similar experiences. But feminism isn’t about transferring the power from men to women on dictating modes of behaviour, it’s about no one needing to dictate. I feel like queer feminists accept that just because one form of expressing sexual identity isn’t right for you, doesn’t mean it’s not right for someone else.

That’s not to say we can’t challenge or question each other’s behaviour, but there is a way to tackle the sex industry without deeming those who partake in it as morally wrong. For a start asking the people in the industry. Feminist groups such as The Woman’s Support Project see the negatives of the sex industry, dealing with women have been exploited or forced. Whereas, SWOU, made up of sex workers, are fighting to get people to acknowledge the difference between sex work and prostitution/sexual abuse. This does not mean they deny the abuse that does go on, but they feel that being told you’re a ‘victim’ when you’re not is just as disempowering as those who feel sex work is their only option. I once read in the feminist blogshpere; it’s ok to question the structure, why do more men than women pay for this? How does it negatively and positively effect our culture? (It's the attack of the workers that is not appreciated).

I Like this quote from J Halerbastam

‘Porn is negative in the way it provides sexual training, but is not morally ‘wrong’’ (p.12, Gaga Feminism, 2012)

For me, Calm Down Dear showed me that there was a space for queer work in spaces that were not explicitly queer or LGBT spaces, in London at least. I felt that being a queer female artist in that context therefore meant being able to step outside feminist arguments and go beyond them. Although many sex-positive ‘libfems’ are queer, there’s the added aspect of being an artist that allows you to sit on the periphery, reflecting things back to your audience.

Feminism: it's getting popular?

Week 5, and I’m in London again! This time Rosana is showing her one-on-one piece ‘My Big Sister Taught Me This Lap Danceas part of Camden People’s Theatre festival of feminism Calm Down Dear. I think what has been wonderful this week is to see how queer work can fit in to a feminist context, as there can often be a massive gap between radical feminism and relatively new, progressive feminism (often adopted by those identifying as queer). I shall discuss, and attempt to unpack some of my ideas surrounding these complicated arguments between feminists, in relation to the work I saw this weekend. I also think this festival is really interesting in the context of a new surge in feminism as a part of popular culture, and having more of a political presence. The recent feminism festival The F-Word that happened recently at The Tron springs to mind, (which I unfortunately did not get to see).



I’d like to talk about Louise Orwin’s piece Pretty Ugly, in which she shows us some of her discoveries about an online phenomenon. This is a culture whereby teenage girls post videos and ask viewers to comment as to whether they are ‘pretty or ugly’.  This would often be stated by the girls being given a ‘rating’ between 1 and 10 on how attractive they were. Orwin then created several online personas, who were teenage girls joining in with this craze, to find out more about why the girls were doing it.

I think the piece is important and positive for many reasons;

  • It reminded me that feminism and the fight for gender equality is at the crux of it a fight for young women (cis and trans*) to have a better future, where they can feel that they have a freedom of expression and better role models than we did.
  • This does not mean speaking for them, and I think this piece had a gentle curiosity about it, whilst at the same time remaining non-judgmental.
  • Orwin directly being involved in the online culture allowed her to experience the animosity and negativity that comes from online trolls and commentators. (It also meant she was vulnerable to getting involved with those who gave her praise, but more on that later).
  • It was particularly fascinating when Orwin experimented with using some of the language others had used on her in chat rooms. We saw a rolling video of her typing to men on chat rooms. The male response to being ‘rated’ or told they were ugly was often either instant aggression, dismissal or a look of amused disbelief.
  • Because Orwin ‘became’ a teenage girl herself, she discovered that actually you don’t need to be a teenage girl to be hurt by the Pretty Ugly online culture. Young people are more vulnerable because they are at a particular stage of discovery in their lives, but we are all susceptible to sexism and misogyny online. (And of course in real life)

I only had one qualm with the piece. Orwin tells us about a particular online relationship that she forged with an older man called Bobby. After watching her videos, he sent her messages. First they began with generic things like ‘don’t let people bring you down’ or ‘you’re beautiful, don’t think you’re ugly’. But slowly they seemed to ask for pictures of her, then topless pictures, then came professions of love, then of lust. It was clear that Bobby was basically grooming Orwin’s teenage persona Baby. Orwin then moves on by saying ‘this piece is not about Bobby, or the other Bobbys out here’. I can see why that was important for this piece, I can see that to try and address the motivations of both the people in the videos and the consumers of such would be a lot to tackle in one performance.  But, all too often in feminism, and culture in general we see the motivations behind girls and women’s actions being interrogated. People want to bring awareness to the actions of others so that they might start to change. This implies, even when carefully dealt with as in Pretty Ugly,  that the pressure is on the women and girls to change. But, what if we start to interrogate the Bobbies of the world? What if there was a piece that was about Bobby, that explored why 60% of all the comments Orwin received were from men, and almost all the private messages were from men? I feel that the more we encourage everyone to think about gender (in)equality, the more we all take responsibility. The less we get caught up in them and us, the perceived differences between men and women, and our gender roles. Actually, this online culture cannot be changed by one set of people, because it is part of a wider issue with the way society works.

I am part of a progressive network of feminists that means I automatically think beyond the question of what’s bad about the way I’m being treated in my gender role as woman? To what’s problematic about the construct of gender roles?


I do think Orwin managed to avoid slut-shaming the teenage girls, and instead interrogated the culture, but without the other side also being interrogated it runs dangerously close to implying that the girls need to change what they’re doing. (i.e their behaviour and the abuse they then receive is their fault).

Furthermore, Orwin’s work sits in a wider trend of people piping up and wanting someone to blame for the correlation between pop culture and the way young people act. Again, this tends to revolve around writers/popstars/celebrities commenting on the way the actions of female pop stars affect young girls. We know Orwin must cite some responsibilities in the role models mainstream western culture gives for the Pretty Ugly phenomenon due to her references to Britney throughout the piece. She's one of many trying to unpack this and other complex issues surrounding the behaviour of young women.

Jasmine Gardner falls in line to declare that 'decent' role models should keep their clothes on in this article on pop culture.

The new feminism? Lilly Allen's Hard Out Here - comment on pop music culture


Click here to read Guardian writer Suzanne Moore's article on the video