I met Nicole Henriksen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014 when I was the entire audience for a 'highlights of the Fringe' show where she was one of the six comedians. With that ratio, I ended up on the stage. Afterwards, I tried to see their solo shows. I liked Nicole's 2014 comedy, Rainbow Rabbits With Rabies and, the following year, absolutely loved her 2015 comedy, Honeycomb Badgers On Acid. (You can probably get an idea of the sort of delightfully weird content just from the titles…)
After having seen 'Badgers', we later spotted each other outside the venue and had a quick chat. She told me that she supports the performance comedy with performing as a stripper and was going to do a show about that in 2016. I wasn't particularly surprised about the stripping: I'd already written that she lived up to Tom Robinson's advice:
Anything you do, do big. Don't be feeble or apologetic. Take possession of your performing area, own it, fill the space. .. The essence of great performance is energy, passion and total commitment…
.. and this is what successful strippers do.
Makin' It Rain duly appeared at the 2016 Fringe. It's a theatre piece rather than a comedy although there are laughs amongst the story-telling and the practical demonstrations. It wasn't just me who loved it, the rather more widely read review in The Scotsman did too:
— Nicole Henriksen (@HenriksenNicole) September 19, 2017
This week sees its first performances in London. To mark the occasion, Nicole and I talked by fax.* This is part one:
Ian: As you know I loved the show. What have other people thought? Have you had any 'women shouldn't do sex work' SWERFs** or have they just ignored it?
Nicole: I haven't had any SWERFs come to the show. Or if so, they didn't speak to me after or contact me online following the show. The only negative or ignorant responses have been from men. One who tried to challenge me on rape culture, then while being escorted out, said he didn't want to be touched so I followed him out yelling "YEAH SURE RAPE CULTURE DOESN'T EXIST BUT YOU DON'T WANT TO BE TOUCHED MAKES SO MUCH SENSE YOU LOSER!".
One man actually tried to interrupt me on stage, to raise a point or challenge me on something. I could barely comprehend it. I calmly said "I don't know if you've noticed, but this is a show, it's my show, and you can ask questions at the end, but right now, these people have come to see it, and I've come to perform it." I was so appalled.
And then a third man said "I don't know if that was your story or not, but either way it was a great show" needless to mention, the conversation escalated, not only because he was unable to see it clearly was my story, but also couldn't understand that if it wasn't my story, and I'd made it up or stolen someone's words, then me trying to profit from someone else's voice, that of a marginalised voice, would be morally wrong.
I did have a stripper say an odd thing about "I don't agree with you on some points, but good on you for telling your story." It was pretty patronising, but that's the worst from any women or femmes/nb folk.
Ian: One of the bits that made me think was the section about the problems of the 'let it be someone else who has problems' approach to safety. Because for some other aspects of sex work, that's the approach that's taken. You screen clients so that the bad ones go elsewhere… A bit like 'you do this with your home, so that other homes get robbed, not yours'.
Nicole: Yes, that's something for which I had a moment of realisation and had to make sure it was in the show! I read a text post on Tumblr, in which someone mentioned this idea of "keep yourself safe" really means "make sure it's someone else". And disturbingly, often this "someone else" is assumed to be less intelligent, or lower-class, maybe even homeless (therefore lesser than say, some middle-class white woman who's married), or indeed a sex worker (therefore someone society should look down upon because they obviously have loose morals). And I knew, this needs to be a moment that people can have at my show, this moment of breaking down the idea of "staying safe".
The idea that staying safe is seen as important, rather than looking at the societal constructs that make people, and overwhelmingly men, feel entitled to other's bodies, in addition to the need to exert power over others, which is seen as important in our society as well. Power is currency, so it needs to be earned or stolen, or so we're taught. And boys (or those who grow up as boys) are taught this far more than girls (or those who grow up as girls). So instead of trying to break the cycle of entitlement and power struggle, a lot of people just say "stay safe", "keep your keys between your fingers", "get a cab instead, a good one".
And it's more disturbing that it's equated to the keeping a home safe idea too. It's very worrying when folks bring up that idea of "well, I lock my house and have an alarm to keep myself and my family safe!" But people don't often break into a house for the same reasons they commit rape and sexual violence.
I hadn't really thought about the idea of making safety someone else's problem. I've always been very much of the mindset that it's not the survivors fault, even as a young person, I thought it was odd someone would ask what the person was wearing or such, it always seemed cowardly and uneven (as opposed to "unfair"). My anxiety always made me obsess over evenness, and things being clear. It could be argued it links to the whorarchy, and I'm sure plenty of people would agree with that idea. I know I have a certain privilege being a stripper, that I can write and perform a show about my work, and it will be seen as more approachable and more legitimate (as theatre), than a show about full service, even if the full service worker was a high class escort, as opposed to a brothel worker, or street walker even.
Ian: You identify as pansexual – what do you see as the difference between that and bisexual?
Nicole: I feel bisexual is too restrictive, and I feel at the moment, I'd rather identify as queer, as I'm feeling pansexual is too restrictive, which is such a queer thing to say. I like that queer doesn't just specify sexual fluidity, but also gender fluidity, and gender fluidity is something I've felt for a long time, but have felt I couldn't identify with a label.
I feel an immense amount of pressure from the queer community and the mainstream community to be queer enough and know all the labels and pick one, and stick with it, which causes me to feel quiet anxious because I'm not a rigid force, and I don't feel comfortable saying I am a certain label, because what if I feel it doesn't fit in a year or five years? Do I erase the time I used that label? It becomes very restrictive to feel a need to ID with a label.
If this hasn't convinced you to see it, the trailer might:
* Not really
** 'Sex worker exclusionary radical "feminist"', i.e. someone who thinks that women's*** choices shouldn't count if they don't agree with them. "I wouldn't, therefore everyone else mustn't" sums up most of their writing.
*** Nearly all swerfs ignore male sex work and most are also TERFs – 'trans exclusionary..' – too, so don't include trans people either.