Sexual Overtones

(Annotated by Sarah Lawrance)

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 interesting to me because it presents a way of performing sexuality that is very different from traditional forms of public sex and sexual representation—like mainstream strip clubs or porn, for example. Aside from the transgressive content of its performances, the troupe’s 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 club environments.

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.

What I find particularly exciting and inspiring about this project is that, for me, it is both utopian and pedagogical. By “utopian” I mean that it is building the sex projects its members want to see, as much as they are 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. Click here to read more about this idea of “utopian pedagogy.”

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.

~ by artpoped on August 18, 2009.

One Response to “Sexual Overtones”

  1. In case anyone is interested in checking out a Sexual Overtones show, we’re at the Bronson Centre on Sat, August 22nd at 8 pm. SO will share the stage with Montreal’s Dukes of Drag. The event was organized by and supports Ladyfest Ottawa and the Venus Envy Bursary Fund. Tickets are $10 and available at Venus Envy.

    For more information, see


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