Cross-annotation of Utopian Pedagogy and burlesque troupe Sexual Overtones

(Annotated by Sarah Lawrance)

To consult the version of this annotation that excludes the heavy theory, click here.

Last year I was struck by a piece of theory that I think applies to many projects described in this blog, but only now am I able to write coherently about it. I’m referring to the concept of utopian pedagogy as articulated by Coté, Day, and de Peuter in their edited work Utopian Pedagogy: Radical experiments against neoliberal globalization (2007), where utopia is understood “not as a place we might reach but as an ongoing process of becoming” (Coté, Day, & de Peuter, 2007: 13). More specifically, the utopia described “is both a critical attitude towards the present and a political commitment to experiment in transfiguring the coordinates of our historical moment” (Coté, Day, & de Peuter, 2007: 13). That is, this idea of utopia means being critical of how things are while also trying to make things better, all the while acknowledging that there is no singular “correct” vision of what this could look like because we will always be improving upon it. “Thus it might be said that utopian experiments today share a point of departure much more than a point of arrival” (Coté, Day, & de Peuter, 2007: 14, emphasis in original), since there is no actual point of arrival, singular or otherwise, in sight. This also suggests that the “ends” are inconsequential because, wherever we end up, we’ll always still be in the process of making our current situation better. Thus, these utopian experiments are necessarily prefigurative: they involve building now the world we want to see—always in the shell of the old—in order to continuously bring our reality closer to what we want it to be.

These prefigurative projects, as clumsy and imperfect as they may be (or not), are at least ways to imagine, enact, and keep discovering what is possible. “It is those practices which seek to propagate an awareness of the existence and possibilities of the radical outside that we call utopian pedagogy, a pedagogy that is itself contested and without guarantees” (Coté, Day, & de Peuter, 2007: 15). I have already written on this blog about a project that I think embodies particularly well the prefigurative politics of utopian pedagogy. I now describe another alternative sex project that I think equally exemplary.

Sexual Overtones

Part of an ever-growing movement of sex-positive, female-positive, body-positive, and queer-friendly alternative sex projects, Ottawa’s Sexual Overtones is a not-for-profit burlesque troupe that gets naked and silly to raise funds for local community organizations.

Mixing comedy with sexual satire, this refreshing representation of sexuality reminds us of how fun and funny sex is and should be. The troupe’s reclamation, appreciation, and re-valuation of real people with real bodies are wonderfully inclusive and affirming in light of a mainstream context that is constantly relegating us to invisibility.

This project is a great example of utopian pedagogy, for me, because it presents a way of performing sexuality that is very different from the traditional context of public sex and sexual representation. Aside from the transgressive content of its performances, the troupe’s structural organization is worth noting. To begin, the troupe operates as a collective so all decisions are made by the participants together rather than by an unconcerned team of managers or owners. Also, in comparison with many exotic dance clubs, for example, which prioritize meeting the clients’ needs in order to maximize the clubs’ income, this troupe instead puts its performers’ best interests at the forefront and prioritizes their safety and enjoyment. The performers participate voluntarily and design their own acts and costumes according to their own tastes, desires, boundaries, and degrees of comfort. The audience members, of course, are expected to be respectful of performers and of one another— a standard that appeals to common sense but that often goes unenforced in traditional clubs.

Again in comparison with many exotic dance clubs, which place far more emphasis on for-profit commercial activity, Sexual Overtones channels the profits from its performances back into the local community, in particular toward other sex-positive projects. This, for me, poses an interesting challenge to what has heretofore been understood as the sex “industry,” because this group performs and represents sexual entertainment without the explicit focus on economic production. Taking the emphasis off money also means that a given performance is not limited or dictated by the performer’s preoccupation with generating income. This freedom allows more room for creative experimentation and political and personal expression in the performances. Finally, de-emphasizing income also means a low degree of competition between performers and thus a strong potential for friendship and solidarity—features sorely lacking from many traditional clubs.

Additionally, unlike many participants in the sex industry who prefer to distance themselves from more stigmatized occupations, Sexual Overtones proudly aligns itself with sex worker rights activist groups, namely Ottawa’s POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate & Resist). This show of solidarity is surprisingly rare within the sex industry, as legal issues and social stigma often make such alliances difficult.

If it is not yet clear why I consider this to be a project of utopian pedagogy, I’ll specify the utopian and pedagogical connections separately. This project is utopian in that it is building the sex projects its members want to see, as much as they different from industry norms, and it is doing it right now, in the shell of a sex industry that places little value in its workers and that is often indifferent about who its content misrepresents or excludes. This project is also pedagogical for almost the same reasons, in that it is teaching (by example) a different way of “doing” sexual entertainment. It is also teaching about sex-positivity and other kinds of inclusiveness. The “doing” essentially IS the “teaching” because it is unashamedly showing how another world (and/or sex industry?) is possible.

Of course this pedagogy is contestable—not everyone will agree that there is a direct connection between sex work and education. It is also without guarantees (regarding its effectiveness, longevity, etc), and this model cannot yet be effectively translated to a context where performers rely on their performance income for subsistence. Nonetheless, this is an interesting project that is taking steps toward creating a world where sex and sex work are valued and respected.


Coté, Mark, Richard J. F. Day, & Greg de Peuter (Eds). 2007. Utopian Pedagogy: Radical experiments against neoliberal globalization. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press.

~ by artpoped on August 18, 2009.

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