Bitsy La Bourbon stood alone on stage in nothing but silver panties and sparkly pasties as Radiohead’s “Creep” pumped through the speakers. I was surrounded by maybe a hundred fellow onlookers in a downtown LA warehouse-theater, but I could focus on nothing but Bitsy, the music and the will to keep the tears welling in my eyes from falling down my cheeks. Who cries at a burlesque performance?
Turns out, nearly everyone in attendance that night.
Bitsy’s “Creep” wasn’t the usual song-and-dance routine that comes to mind when you think of traditional burlesque. Yes, La Bourbon started out fully clothed and ended up nearly naked—but that’s where the similarities between the burlesque that we know and La Bourbon’s version of the art form end.
The burlesque dancer known as Bitsy La Bourbon is part of a movement known as “neo-burlesque,” which fuses statements about subjects such as social justice, feminism and racism with traditional burlesque techniques.
With Radiohead’s iconic tune, Bitsy did more than bare her body—she uncovered her soul through the telling of her own story of rape, trauma and healing. At different points in her dance, La Bourbon held up cue cards. She unbuttoned her jacket.
“WHEN CREEP CAME OUT IN 1993,I WAS RAPED FOR THE FIRST TIME.”
SHE REVEALED A NAKED SHOULDER.
“ON THE SONG’S 10-YEAR ANNIVERSARY,I WAS RAPED AGAIN.”
As the song came to an end, we read why La Bourbon is revealing all of this while nearly naked, shimmying and fighting back tears in front of an audience:
“…To sexualize myself on MY TERMS.”
You know that feeling when you’re so incredibly relieved that you automatically burst into tears? It’s a real thing, and psychologists called it the Two-Stage Theory. When our bodies quickly shift from “a state of high tension to a period of recovery,” it can prompt a flood of tears. The best explanation I have for an entire audience—of all genders—staring at that final card with wet eyes is this: La Bourbon’s performance catalyzed recovery for everyone watching. She made the audience strip down with her to peel away their shame, guilt, silence and tension around sexual assault.
True, this audience was particularly open to Bitsy La Bourbon’s message; they had, after all, bought tickets for a show called Cabaret Con-Sensual. The program that night included burlesque performers of all races, sizes, genders and sexual orientations, all of whom blew the lid off the idea that burlesque only panders to the male gaze. Not here. Here, it represents owning your sexuality, being true to yourself and revealing your truth as much as your tits.
It would have been easy for Bitsy La Bourbon to become another statistic. She fits the criteria of many: the one out of six women who will be raped during their lifetime; the rape victim who is seven times more likely to be assaulted again; the victim of sexual assault who is 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs. With all of these numbers stacked against her, it’s nothing short of amazing that she broke the mold: La Bourbon did not become one of the 68 percent of victims who stay silent about their experiences—even if it did take years before she felt strong enough to speak up.
These days, she has no problem talking, calling herself “an almost overbearingly loudmouth person about social justice issues.” When we sat down to talk about sexual assault, Cabaret Con-Sensual and the role burlesque can play in reclaiming one’s sexuality, she told me her story with no holds barred.
“I was molested when I was little by a family friend for many years and kept it secret. I actually didn’t even remember it until I was 16,” Bitsy begins, very matter-of-factly. “I was raped in high school when I was 15.” She didn’t tell anyone what had happened.
“A lot of the women in my family have been assaulted, but it was not talked about at all—which I think really just hurt [us] in the end. It would’ve been good to connect.”
The more I think about this familial silence, the more Bitsy’s path makes sense. The simple act of connecting with another human being over a shared experience is therapy in and of itself. Connection is how we know we are not alone. Connection gives us hope for a light at the end of the trauma. Without connection, we find other ways to cope—and for many survivors of molestation, rape and sexual assault, drugs and alcohol are the most readily available substitutes for human contact.
“At 16, I had been doing crystal meth for a while and was spiraling out of control and didn’t really know why. Things kept getting worse.” Bitsy's dad eventually asked her to go to rehab, and she did.
“I was in group [therapy] for people who had been sexually assaulted because I’d been raped in high school. Someone was talking about being a kid and being molested by their uncle, and it kind of started making me think… then I just basically started having flashbacks and memories.”
Many children who have been molested compartmentalize their experiences due to the fact that their young minds aren’t developed enough to fully process what’s happened to their bodies. Some children compartmentalize so well that traumatic memories are forgotten for years or even decades—but they almost always bubble to the surface eventually. For Bitsy, that boiling point was rehab.
“Rehab is a very safe place to do that kind of thing, because all you have is yourself. You have therapy everyday. I was finally coming off of drugs, and I remembered all this stuff. The thing that’s interesting is that if you’ve been sexually assaulted in any way, your likelihood of being sexually assaulted again, I think it doubles. So it was really interesting that [being molested] came up for me while going to therapy for sexual assault.”
Bitsy is right—the CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey finds that women who were raped as children are twice as likely to be raped as adults. When I asked Bitsy to explain this from her own perspective, she answered,
I think your confidence is lower—actually, I know. You’ve kind of been put in this mode like, ‘Oh, this isn’t my body to make decisions about. Other people make decisions about this body.’”
The numbers caught up to Bitsy yet again when she was 21 and assaulted for the third time while enrolled at UCLA. A numbness set in. “If you’ve seen Orange Is the New Black, with Pennsatucky—that scene where she’s assaulted again and she’s not even surprised—it’s that feeling. There was a numbness about it because it was definitely like, ‘Oh, I know this.’”
Bitsy had taken a break from therapy after rehab, but she soon started revisiting the regular routes: psychiatrists, therapists, talk therapy. But she found the best form of therapy in an unexpected place: the world of burlesque. Her first performance was during a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “It was hugely fun and sexy and great and silly.”
I ask if she knew from the get-go that burlesque would be a healing experience for her.
“I don’t think I did. It was just like, ‘Damn, this feels great!’ I was just excited to go on stage and dress how I wanted and do my makeup the way I wanted and dance to one of my favorite songs.”
It wasn’t until 2014 that Bitsy began to see burlesque as a way to work through the trauma of sexual assault. “I think one of the reasons I like burlesque is that, unlike when you’re assaulted, you get to pick the place, the time, the clothing, the makeup and the way in which you are sexualized.
YOU HAVE COMPLETE CONTROL OVER YOUR SEXUALITY IN THAT MOMENT, AND YOU GET TO PICK THE TIME TO SHARE IT.
To me, [burlesque is] the exact opposite of being sexually assaulted, because you don’t ask for anything at that time. But when you do burlesque, you choose all of it. Every piece of it.”
If healing equals trauma plus therapy in equal but opposite measure, Bitsy may be onto something with her pioneering method of recovery. Just as her statement is sinking in, she goes even deeper.
“It’s been hard for me to be sexual in my private life, so I get training-wheel practice doing burlesque on stage and getting positive feedback and seeing that nothing bad has to happen when I’m sexual… It doesn’t always end in sadness.”
Bitsy kept her burlesque-as-therapy theory to herself until the now-infamous 2012 Steubenville rape case, where a group of high school students sexually assaulted a female classmate—who was passed out—and documented the whole thing on social media. “I unfortunately watched that 12-minute video, and it was a very similar thing that happened to me in high school,” she remembers.
“There was this huge part of me that was like, ‘What can I do?’ The thing that I can do is art, and starting conversations with my art, so it was this weird feeling of responsibility.” And that’s how Bitsy launched her nonprofit organization, More Than “No.”
More Than “No” aims to raise awareness for sexual assault through different art forms, like short films and clever PSAs that tackle taboo topics like rape, consent and sexual assault on men. The newest way that More Than “No” is raising awareness is with Cabaret Con-Sensual, a sex-positive place for performers to share their sexuality and champion consent through burlesque.
Many of the performers are survivors of sexual assault and use their time on stage for self-healing in addition to good old-fashioned entertainment.
Bitsy likens it to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, where something fun and culturally relevant (music for Beyoncé, sexy dancing for Bitsy) actually works as a vehicle for exploring deeper issues (the role of black women in our culture and sexual assault, respectively).
AT FIRST GLANCE, BURLESQUE MAY SEEM LIKE A BACKWARD WAY TO CHAMPION CONSENSUAL SEX
but if you dig a little deeper, it’s hard to miss the glimmering hope of how it can make a difference in this community: as a means of self-expression and self-healing; as a way to connect to fellow survivors of rape and sexual assault; and as a way to heal the culture surrounding these issues.
Still, Bitsy has run into her fair share of sex-shamers who say that there’s no way “getting naked on stage for other people” can result in therapeutic change. “If you need to reclaim your sexuality,” they say, “why can’t you do it in private?” As always, she has a logical comeback for haters: “It’s a bearing witness thing—now you see me take back my sexuality.”
Making an audience “bear witness” acknowledges the role of the public in rape cases and rape culture. Victim-blaming—teaching girls how to avoid getting raped instead of teaching boys not to rape, college campuses continually protecting star athletes instead of their assault victims, pop songs about the “blurred lines” of consent topping the charts—involves the public and how it plays a part in every individual sexual assault case. Why shouldn’t the public bear witness to the healing as well?
As Bitsy's performance of “Creep” proved, burlesque can help heal the community. In just one night, Bitsy La Bourbon and her troupe of neo-burlesque performers shepherded the audience over the first hurdle of healing: connection and communication.
“I’ve had so many people come up to me and tell me about their sexual assault, or how they started going to therapy, or just ask me about how consent works. I didn’t realize how important awareness was—just awareness.”
I ask Bitsy if she thinks of herself as a healer, and she can barely contain a nervous laugh. “Oh god. I hear that word and think of people that have a lot of patchouli and stuff, and I’m so not that.”
Still, she pauses for a moment to rethink. “I guess so? In a way. I try to be. It would be cool if someone thought of me that way.”