A leading local voice on sex positivity talks about how her personal awakening became her career.
I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
The burlesque revival of the past couple decades has received mixed criticism from feminist thinkers, who have made convincing arguments both for it and against. But for sex educator and burlesque performer Lorraine Hewitt (aka CoCo LaCreme), burlesque was an awakening.
“I had received messages my whole life that that it was not my right as a woman who looks the way I do—who is short and not thin and a woman of colour—to claim a place in the spotlight and be adored,” says Hewitt, who now teaches burlesque workshops (in addition to pleasure-centric sex education workshops targeted primarily at women) at universities, conferences, and the Good for Her women’s sex shop on Harbord Street.
Our conversation with Hewitt is below.
Torontoist: What led to your becoming a sex educator?
Lorraine Hewitt: I was not somebody who received a lot of sex education from my parents. I think the school did its best, but my folks did not talk to me about sex at all. When I asked my mother what an orgasm was when I was like 12 years old, she said, “Don’t say that word ever again.”
When I started having sex, I had no idea about what I was supposed to do or whether it was supposed to feel good, or if it was all about pleasing somebody else. It led to me having not-so-great sexual experiences. I was lucky that the people I became friends with were very sex-positive, sex-radical people who encouraged me to try lots of different things. So I decided I really wanted to explore as much as I could and see what I could apply to my life, and educating myself made a really big difference.
I got a job offer at a sex shop and started working there, and I found that I was very comfortable talking about sexuality. And then a few years later I decided that I wanted to teach workshops as well. I started teaching workshops [at Good for Her] about nine years ago.
When did the burlesque begin?
That probably began around the year 2000. I started out as an accidental go-go dancer when my really good friend Will Munro started the Vazaleen party at the El Mocambo, and my friend John and I got onto a table and started dancing. We ended up being the official Vazaleen go-go dancers for years, which caught the attention of Skin Tight Outta Sight, the burlesque troupe I’ve been with since the beginning. Those girls were at the forefront at the burlesque revival in Canada, and now they’re the longest-running burlesque troupe in Canada. I joined up with them, and they kind of educated me on what burlesque was. I had some knowledge about it already from vintage [clothing and magazines], but I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the burgeoning revival. It was terrifying at first, but I quickly grew to love it, exhibitionist that I am [laughs].
Do you see parallels between the burlesque and sex-ed components of your career?
Definitely. Being able to go out there [as a burlesque dancer] and confirm that I can occupy that space [in the spotlight], and also open up people’s eyes to differences in beauty—or at least affirm to people that if their desires are counter to what’s presented in mainstream media and magazines, that that’s okay—is really empowering. And of course I’ve found sex education really personally empowering, in terms of raising my confidence and putting me out there. Both of those things really help people out, and they both really helped me out.
What are the biggest barriers you think women face to having positive relationships with sex and their bodies?
I think the biggest barrier is the idea that [sexuality] is not a woman’s right to claim, that our main goal is to please others and to make other people happy and that only people who are “allowed” or who have some kind of privilege are entitled to happiness or sexual pleasure. I feel like women are living in a state where they’re made to feel constantly inadequate, maybe so we can be sold more mascara or whatever it is to make us somehow “right” or “okay.” Also, we don’t really prioritize female sexuality, which is why I work on the Feminist Porn Awards—because it promotes movies that put women’s sexuality and desires at the forefront.
What do you suggest for women who want to overcome these culturally imposed, socialized barriers that we’re born into?
I think education goes a really long way. The more you can diversify the types of media you’re exposed to and the opinions you get, the better. I think we have to almost install little mental checkpoints where we have to question what we see and how it actually applies to us and whether it’s something we want to give a lot of weight to. And women need to be kind to themselves and give themselves a chance to learn to like themselves. It’s about checking in with those negative voices. Connecting with likeminded women, diversifying your perspective, opening yourself up to education, I think the more you’re able to consume things that feed a different point of view the better off you are.