I found out via a phone call from Anne Mayne that Rape Crisis was benefiting from a burlesque revue (and did in fact receive around R36,000 if memory serves). My initial reaction was disbelief and then a sort of creeping horror. I simply could not understand that what I felt was the objectification of women’s bodies and sexuality could be used to raise funds for an organisation like Rape Crisis, founded by a radical feminist and sustained through the first really tough seven years by radical feminists, with a feminist analysis of rape as a tool of the patriarchy. Surely it should be obvious, I thought, that women stripping themselves of their clothes for entertainment was the very antithesis of feminism?
This was a gut reaction−I had heard of burlesque but had no real idea about it beyond an instinctive aversion.
But, no, I was told, these women feel empowered; they are reclaiming their sensuality; some of them are rape survivors and this is an expression of their healing; it’s very tastefully done; the only men in the audience where there by specific invitation and all the performers and technical staff were women.
Frankly, that sounded like capture by the patriarchy to me, but I didn’t have any clear counter arguments and it was obvious I had to do some research. So I did, and ended up even more convinced that an organisation with a feminist analysis of rape could and should not accept donations from a burlesque show.
This is what I realised:
For some women to say that it’s OK and it’s their choice and it’s liberating is to deny the reality of millions upon millions of women who have no real choice in the matter and who are vulnerable to a multitude of abuses as a result.
Nicole Deagan, who is highly critical of burlesque performers, said “play(ing) with the role of ‘empowering’ an objectified woman performing for an audience is really telling about how disconnected they are from the actual lives of women who live in true poverty and how traumatizing it is to be living in a racist, sexist, classist world where women are sexually used by men who have access to privileges and entitlements that many women can’t even dream of.”
For some women to claim that this is personally empowering is to forget that feminism is not only about personal empowerment but also and essentially about challenging the very fabric of a misogynist patriarchal system which has at its bedrock the objectification and ownership of women’s bodies (and their agency, intelligence, capability and humanity).
For some women to claim that burlesque is a feminist and empowering choice is to fail to understand that ‘choice’ was, as the second wave of feminism took root, about abortion and reproductive decision-making by those whose bodies carry babies to term, NOT a ‘choice’ to strip and gyrate in sexually suggestive ways for the ‘enjoyment’ of others.
So I am afraid I remain unconvinced. And I feel really sad and very angry that Rape Crisis has lost its radical feminist roots−once the reason for its existence.
I am impressed by so much of what Rape Crisis is doing and the huge difference it is making in the lives of individual survivors. The organisation under Kath and the current board is doing absolutely wonderful and necessary work, but the radical feminist edge has gone. To me this feels as though the blood we sweated in the face of extreme opposition back in the early days and the care we took about our political positions and who we would and would not engage with has been disrespected and discounted.
It may be true that this is a path Rape Crisis has had to follow to survive−indeed, to be celebrating 40 years is a remarkable achievement; but I cannot shake the sense that the price has been high, that my early contribution and that of many women who (like me) cut their feminist teeth in the organisation and went on to challenge the patriarchy in their daily lives, has been dishonoured and that these days Rape Crisis is more about delivering a service and ensuring justice for rape survivors (noble aims indeed) than about changing the weft and weave of a society which constructs masculinity as sexually aggressive and femininity as sexually passive.
My research has confirmed my instinctive reaction. The Rape Crisis which I was instrumental in establishing and of which I was the first-ever director is no more. So I remain sad, angry and feeling that it is no longer a place where I am proud to be.
A founding member of Rape Crisis in the late 1970’s, she rejoined as the first director in 1996. She is currently the director of LINALI Consulting – Protecting Children’s Rights.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. We invite anyone reading this to share your opinion and submit your piece to our Director, Kathleen Dey, at firstname.lastname@example.org for publication on this site. We hope to spark our own debate to see what feminists of today, and any other day, think and feel.