When you think about sex education, what comes to mind? A stuffy classroom with an embarrassed teacher standing by a whiteboard? Your classmates giggling to diffuse the awkward tension?
This Burlesque Group Is Baring It All for Sexual Health
For the vast majority of Gen Xers and Millennials, sex education and fun don’t really go together. But there’s an alternate world, hiding in plain sight in several major U.S. cities, where sex education is fun, funny and exquisitely sexy – the world of The Sweet Spot Burlesque. Founded by Ainsley Burrows – a revolutionary poet, author, musician and painter – The Sweet Spot is a direct response to a culture that doesn’t want to talk about sex, sex work, or the role that sexuality and sensuality play in our daily lives. Burrows believed that by creating a haven for people to explore their sexuality and sensuality and nurturing a subculture that celebrates sex, The Sweet Spot could be part of changing the mainstream perspective on sex. More than a decade later, Burrows and his partner (in both life and business), Laurielle Noel, the Chief Operating Officer of The Sweet Spot, continue to manifest the sex-positive and sex-affirming culture they want to see in the world.
In a conversation with Kinkly, Burrows and Noel explained that although the main purpose of The Sweet Spot's burlesque performances isn’t sex ed, the unique shows seamlessly blend sexy performances and sexual education, tantalizing audience members, while also teaching them about safer sex, enthusiastic consent, sexual orientation, and pursuing desire without creating harm. These lessons are both explicitly and implicitly incorporated into the space, the performances, and the way the performers interact with the audience.
When audience members walk into the space, they’re transported to a place that both looks and feels separate from the outside world, a “fantasy world,” in Noel’s words. It’s a subtle message that the performance space has its own rules, expectations and codes of conduct, and that the inhibitions of the outside world are left outside. There are fog machines going, thumping dance beats, sexy lighting, and the performers, in their most alluring getups, escort guests to their seats, which are covered in packages of condoms, The Sweet Spot's version of a swag bag. But those condoms aren’t just fun party favors.
“There’s a huge impact, in the Black community specifically, with HIV and AIDS,” Burrows explained. “People don’t talk about it, but it is an issue. And we try to make sure that condom use is normalized… I’ve seen guys walk into a convenience store, and [they] will not ask for condoms if there’s somebody else in the store! So, there’s condoms on every seat.”
Before the show even starts, the subtle sex education has begun. When the lights do go down, the emcee, often Burrows himself, takes the stage, and lays down the rules of the space.
“The first rule is what happens at the Sweet Spot, tell everybody!” Burrows said, explaining that this rule reinforces that nothing that happens during the performance needs to be hidden because sexuality shouldn't be taboo.
“The second rule is,” Burrows continued, “if you’re sitting with your legs crossed and your arms crossed, which people tend to do when they enter a space like that, we call that ‘blocking your pussy blessing…’ You have to open up!”
This second rule gives the audience members an explicit directive to subvert societal norms that restrict the expression of sexuality, and release their inhibitions.
The third rule, and perhaps the most important one according to Noel and Burrows, is that everything that happens during a one of their burlesque shows is done with consent. And not just consent, “enthusiastic consent,” Burrows and Noel insisted.
“We don’t touch anyone without consent,” Noel emphasized. “The [performers] move through the space asking and giving consent with every interaction.”
Once the rules are established, all audience members are told they must take The Pledge to enter the Sweet Spot Nation. They’re told to raise their right hand, put their other hand on their heart, and repeat, “I promise to keep my mind open, my heart open, my legs open, and my mouth open, and receive all the Blessings of The Sweet Spot Nation.”
Noel explained, “As funny as it sounds, the actual expression of those words literally opens people up to say, ‘Oh OK, this is not a scary space where I have to be on guard.’ And that opens them up to … something they may not have experienced before.”
Throughout the show, the emcee and performers weave subtle moments of education in with the provocative performances. Like when a male burlesque performer comes onstage. The emcee, especially when Burrows is emceeing, takes the opportunity to challenge toxic masculinity and ingrained biases about sexuality.
“When we had male performers, the men in the audience, that would be their drink break or their bathroom break,” Burrows said. “So, I will literally say, ‘Hey fellas, I know a lot of you are going to feel like oh there’s a man coming onstage so I’m gonna get a drink or go to the bathroom … That thing you hear speaking to you, that’s the patriarchy! There’s nothing wrong with you watching a man on stage dancing! And I know what you’re thinking … You’re thinking this is gonna make me gay. That’s not how gay happens! And the guys are kinda like, oh yeah …’ It’s a funny, kind of gentle way to educate people about certain things.”
The Sweet Spot burlesque’s performances are also an opportunity to change the way people think about sex work.
“This is another complex conversation that’s been happening for a long time within the burlesque community,” Burrows said. “It used to be that if you wanted to tip the person onstage, you’d put it in an envelope after the performance, and you’d put it in a bag when the burlesque dancer walks through the audience, right? And that distinction was made, I think, specifically to distinguish the burlesque dancers from strippers … Like, ‘Oh I’m not a stripper, I’m a burlesque dancer.’ So, that’s a kind of stigmatization of sex work. With our show, we specifically say, ‘These are performers. If you like what they’re doing, throw the money on the stage.’ They went from getting almost no tips at all to … they walk away with $300 extra. And that’s work that they would not have been paid for.”
Noel added, “That’s one way that we’re sort of, like … subtly destigmatizing sex work as being something bad.”
Both Noel and Burrows were unambiguous about their views on sex work, stating that they and all their performers support sex work as legitimate work.
“People tell us we do sex work, and we’re like ‘Yeah. We do,” Noel declared.
She added that some of Sweet Spot’s performers are also strippers and see little distinction between that and their work in burlesque. To them – and to Burrows and Noel – it’s all performance work. And that’s what they teach each person who attends a Sweet Spot performance.
Though each of The Sweet Spot's performances imparts serious lessons, Burrows and Noel stressed that the reason audiences are open to those lessons is because The Sweet Spot’s shows are so much fun.
“When you come into The Sweet Spot, you know you’re coming to have the time of your life. By creating a space that is so spectacularly fun, you don’t realize the subtleties of the space you’re in. You mix entertainment with the education.”
Each of The Sweet Spot’s shows, which include a mix of performances like burlesque, spoken word performances, and stand-up comedy, create a safe space where talking about sex, sexuality, desire, and kink is the norm and where people can literally open themselves to pleasure in an ethical way. By creating that culture within the performance space, Burrows, Noel, and their performers are giving audience members permission to cultivate that culture in their daily lives. They hope those audience members will start to create that culture on a larger scale.
If you want to experience Sweet Spot Nation for yourself, their current tour is hitting New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, and D.C. between October and December. Check out their website for tickets and more information about their shows.
Robin Zabiegalski (they/them) is a queer, non-binary writer and movement instructor. They are currently a Health and Wellness Features Writer for Static Media, and their writing has been published on xoJane, Heavy.com, Health Digest, Glam, Kinkly, The Establishment, Sexual Being, The Tempest, and other digital media publications.