the GENDER issue / INTERVIEWS
On Sex, Scholarship, and Sin:
A Conversation between
Dr. Bettina Judd and Ms. Briq House
Photo: Ms. Briq House
When I was asked to guest edit this special issue on gender, I wanted an in to discussing sexuality and gender’s unkempt edges—its camps of acceptable and respectable discourse. How sexuality maintains a seemingly peripheral point of our discourse while always remaining at the center. There is, in fact no real way of talking about gender without being touched by sexuality in some form. Though I teach, research, and write on Black sexuality and gender, there are often limits to the discourse and my relation to the work as a professional in the academy and a queer Black femme living in the world. It is quite ironic to put in a sentence: Because of the specter of sex work, I must limit the connections between my work and sex even as sexuality and gender are key components of my own study and teaching. One curious aspect of this is my growing friendship and collaboration with Ms. Briq House, a burlesque dancer, sex educator, and sex worker who I met within weeks of moving to the Pacific Northwest. We bonded as friends before ever discussing our respective work. Of all things, we first bonded over our love of gospel artist Karen Clark Sheard’s debut solo album Finally Karen.
As our friendship grew of course we wanted to support each other in our respective work. And this is where the limits of my profession come in. What would it mean for me,
Dr. Bettina Judd, to be seen whooping and throwing bills on my good friend’s behind at her burlesque show? Especially in the small town of Black Seattle, the town in which my own students live? It’s a question I intently think about as I head to the ATM around 6pm every second Sunday on my way to the International District where her all people of color burlesque review, The Shuga Shaq takes place. And this is the key in to this discussion, or any Black feminist discussion of gender or sexuality: our respective work, my profession’s respectability limits notwithstanding, are yoked in the same concerns about the sexual autonomy of people color and the psychic and corporeal healing for the sexualized ravages of colonialism, racism, imperialism, and genocide. We knew this of each other’s work and how much we wanted to collaborate, and perhaps this is where my want for such a conversation here at Auburn Avenue can begin.
Congratulations on all of your success: The ongoing success of The Shuga Shaq, being listed as a top burlesque dancer, that’s all so exciting. How did you start your work as a burlesque dancer, sex educator, and sex worker?
I started this version of my work 10 years ago. I was going through a divorce not only from my spouse but also my religion. I’ve always been a performing artist and I was always very drawn to sex work however I had never fully dabbled in the erotic arts because of all the shame I was taught around my sexuality and the expression of it. Once I no longer had my beliefs from the past holding me back there was nowhere to go but up. A friend who knew I loved to dance, sing, and act invited me to be in a POC burlesque show with her. It was produced by Dr. Ginger Snapz one of the pioneers of the Seattle black burlesque scene. I said yes and the rest was history. I’ve never turned back. Burlesque was the door that opened so many others doors in my life. It’s in the Burlesque community where I learned the words to describe the way I enjoyed to live and love and express myself and heal myself and heal others.
Tell me more about divorcing your religion. That’s a huge statement.
My spouse at the time and I had begun to do some soul-searching. We were both very young when we wed because that’s what we were taught. You find someone, you fall in love, and you get married so you two aren’t causing one another to sin. Over time we realized the way we’d been taught to relate to one another was toxic and gross. We did a lot of reading and processing and came to the conclusion marriage in the traditional sense was not serving us. During that time of discovery we asked one another hard questions about everything, including our spiritual beliefs. My spouse asked me if I was queer to which I answered no. I just had a lot of queer friends. Upon further questioning I realized my answer was no because I never thought God would be ok with my attractions. My spouse assured me of my love and spiritual connection with a higher power. A God who didn’t love me for me was not the God either one of us should serve. Anyhoo, together we evaluated the way traditional marriage did not serve us and most of the reasons where steeped in the religious dogma, especially the rape culture aspect promoted about marriage in the Black Christian Church. Once we were able to finally come to terms with one the other came naturally.
Whose work has been most influential for you?
Errrrbodys!!! Way too many folks to name. You Dr. Bettina Judd for sho!
That’s really generous of you to say. It actually reminds me of something I experienced with you my first time meeting you—you have a way of seeing people through their layers of protection to a deep erotic sense of themselves. It’s all at once disarming and a spiritual nudge. Considering your take on organized religion, how does spirituality come up for you in your work?
I’m more spiritually in tune now than ever before. I am an intuitive and physical healer. I’ve always had the gift of touch but my upbringing did not nurture that gift. One of my favorite avenues of sex work currently is my sexual healing through movement workshops. My curriculum incorporates mindfulness practices, sound healing, and sensual movement to move through past pain and into power. My own sexual abuse survival story informs this work. As I began doing more and more of these workshops I noticed I was not only pulling from my personal experiences, I have the ability to channel. What I can hear and feel in the room helps facilitate an even deeper healing for all of us. My sensuality and spirituality live as one within me but now I finally get to bring that truth out into the light of the world and it’s beautiful.
How did you come to develop the gift?
Once I came into the understanding that the way I related to people via physical touch was not a bad thing, or something to be ashamed or afraid of, it was freeing.
Also none of this was possible until I learned to touch myself with love and without shame. This is a constant practice.
You have a specific focus in your work on queer folks and accessibility, can you talk about that a little bit?
When I first began there was not a ton of representation of people of color in the Burlesque scene at all. Adding representation of people of color of varied abilities, in a multitude of body types, and across the gender and sexuality spectrum was even more rare. I was loving what I was doing and anytime a Black/Brown person was in the audience they made sure to find me and tell me how important it was for them to see me expressing myself in that way. It made them feel like they could do it too. Not always necessarily burlesque but the act of being defiant of societal expectations and free. I loved how healing the experience was for me and I loved giving that feeling to other folks. I decided I needed to do that on a larger level which is how the Sunday Night Shuga Shaq: An all POC Burlesque Revue was started.
Another Seattle POC Burlesque Pioneer Boom Boom L’Roux was a booking manager at a small cabaret bar and put out a call for new producers. Having never produced anything solo in my whole life I decided to take a stab at it because I believed in my vision. We did two shows back to back my first night and they both sold out. After that she called me back and asked if I’d be interested in a monthly slot and I said hell yes. That was over 6 years ago. And here we are still going strong as ever!
Your work deals with people of color communities and you also talk specifically about Black queer folks. How do you find that coming together, or having some divisions in erotic space?
I think there were some concerns at first about me bringing so many people together with such different upbringings and understandings around gender and sexuality. With my event Quink social club, (A Kink Friendly social exclusively for People of Color) , My vision was to bring Black and Brown people together to learn and play with one another and move past stigmas and stereotypes that we hold. Who better to teach US and help US remember than US? In my informational email that I send out to participants I let them know that folks from all walks of life will be present and sexual expressions of all kind will be shared. I encourage people to be open minded and responsible for themselves, their words, and actions. I understand the need for safe exclusively Queer Black/POC spaces. I also understand the need for the heteros and the homos and everyone in between to come together so that we can love and build one another up. There can be no revolution without all of us present.
Talking with you, you have a deep knowledge of Black women’s performance history--how do you think this comes across in your work?
I think the way that I take up space and live proudly and loudly in my body is how this shows up. I think the ways I can be meek and mild and Sweet are also examples. The way I merge my knowledge of so many different things, the way I don’t allow myself to be limited to one art form, one expression, one sexuality, one gender. The way I incorporate my spiritual practices into my work. These are all examples of how black women’s influence and performance history shows up in my life and in my work.
Do you find that your audience and clients are ready for the spiritual component in your erotic practice?
Yes, they show up when they are ready even when they don’t know it. Folks seek me out because they enjoy the spiritual aspect sans the dogma usually associated with organized religious events.
How do you ready them for that?
I don’t really. It’s just a consistent part of my practice. I speak openly about my belief of spirituality and sexuality being intimately connected and Sex Work being Sacred work. I am also always driving home the fact that Black Women are Devine Beings. I make no apologies for it. Perhaps that is how I ready the people.
At your show, you have these folks that do the stage work called “Panty Bossess.” I’ve seen some of them go on to perform. Have you mentored them into dancing on stage?
What are your thoughts on mentorship? Bringing more people into the fold?
I think mentorship is awesome. Finding the right mentors can take a long time so I encourage folks to keep going after what they want and allow universal alignment to do the rest. Being aware and honest of the capacity and expectations of all parties involved makes for a valuable relationship.
I have to say, I have thought a lot about what us speaking together in public in this forum and others (Seattle Erotic Arts Festival 2018 comes to mind) might mean for each of our supposed discursive fields. There are a lot of folks in the academy who do Black feminist thought and are interested in the erotic, and sex work as a form of knowledge, how do you think we could bridge those perceived gaps?
I think we bridge the gap by continuing to work together. Uplifting one another’s work to our different audiences. Our collaboration gives folks a better understanding of duality. One school of thought doesn’t have to cancel out the other.
What do you think we can learn from each other?
EVERYTHING CHILE! You know so much I don’t even know where to begin. Maybe I should interview you!!!
Well, it is always an honor to speak with The Goddess.