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What the (circus) world can learn from sex worker Sabine Maringer #circolo2023

"I think you can apply this idea of consent culture to families, friends, leisure groups, anywhere, if you want." On Friday 13 October 2023, Tilburg's Circus Festival Circolo will open with a seminar on the premises of the Fontys University of Applied Sciences. Keynote speaker at that seminar is Sabine Marringer. She comes with a special message, she announces: "I sent a friend the outline of my speech and he said, 'Whoa, you'll shock those people.'"

Now, some will already be shocked by Sabine Marringer's CV. After college, she became a circus acrobat, but now has a thriving practice as a professional sex worker. As a 'dominatrix' in a practice run and staffed by women, she is the one who can tell the circus world about 'consent'. Because there is quite a lack of that, it turns out: "I spoke to someone who organises sex-positive parties in Vienna. There I give workshops to introduce newcomers to BDSM. When I told her about my previous life as a circus performer, she was stunned to hear that there was no 'consent' culture in the circus.

She said: 'You are so physical, you are so close. You also share so much intimacy. Not only by sharing the body, but also your thoughts, imagination and space. Why don't you have that?' I had no answer at that moment and I realised: this is the missing link to create a safe space to make the circus environment better."

A 'no' shouldn't hurt anymore

Marringer also knows how to do that: "We need to talk about it. If I can use it in my daily practice as a dominatrix, everyone can apply it in daily professional practice. Consent culture takes time and a willingness to think about your own limits and needs."

She says this certainly applies to how we handle criticism: "It also takes courage in a society where we are asked to say yes when we mean no. What makes consent culture so difficult is that receiving a 'no' can hurt. But we need to change our perception of receiving a 'no'. A 'no' is always an opportunity to take action and reshape a given situation."

The Circus Festival Circolo seminar will take place on 13 October 2023 at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Tilburg. Information.
Read the (translated) transcript of the podcast here:
Wijbrand Schaap:

Welcome to the Culture Press Podcast. In English this time. Because we talk to Austria in an online session with Sabina Maringer, MA. I see that you are a scientist, but besides that you are a circus performer and dominatrix. You are a professional sex worker, which is an interesting combination. We are in conversation because next Friday, October 13, you will be hosting the keynote holds from Festival Circolo's seminar in Tilburg. It is on the subject of consent. Coincidentally, in the Netherlands we have just had the premiere of a film made by Tamar van den Dop, who is an actress herself. She showed the faces of actors watching erotic scenes they played in in Dutch films. She interviewed them about it. There were quite interesting things about generations: younger and especially female actors who were very happy that there have been intimacy coordinators on the film set since a few years, and the older generation who thought it was all a bit too much involvement of other people. So that is an issue right now, even after the MeToo affair. Sabine Maringer, you are all kinds of things right now. Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get involved in the circus?

Sabine Maringer

I started working as a lighting technician at a young age and quickly made a career, after which I asked myself: what comes next? I was 24 and met a German street circus company and by chance I fell in love with their technique and with their theatre company and the way they lived together and shared community life. I moved to Frankfurt am Main. This was my step into the circus world. It wasn't planned, it happened to me.

Wijbrand Schaap

And your other profession besides your studies is that you are a professional sex worker, you are a dominatrix. Can you tell me a bit more about that? How did that come about?

Sabine Maringer

For the past 18 years, I did circus, I had my own company, I toured Europe a lot, I produced in Vienna and I actually got tired of many things related to my profession: the touring, the industry, being a female performer, the time management, my body. I got older and wanted change, I wanted to change professions. And that sex work came over me too. I was sitting in the garden with some friends and one of the women came out and said, "I'm a femdom". And I said, what is that? And she explained it to us and as she was talking, I immediately felt, 'boom, this is my next profession'. Then I followed workshops, trainings. That's how I made my move into dominatrix, professional sex worker.

Wijbrand Schaap

This is an interesting choice. Last week, a newspaper in the Netherlands carried an interview with four or five actors and actresses who were sex workers in addition to their acting careers. So it's less strange than it might sound to some people. You said you were dissatisfied with the way things were going in the circus. But then it seems strange to a very normal bourgeois bystander that you chose sex work that might also involve all sorts of unpleasant things, because the sex industry is also not very popular for its good working conditions, so to speak.

Sabine Maringer

I must say that I can imagine this is the image people have. But in reality, I work in a studio in Vienna. We are a team. We are led by women. That means there are no men involved. We are all independent. We make our own decisions. We create our own working environment. No one tells me when, what or how to do anything. So it's all about me and my own decisions, boundaries and limits.

Wijbrand Schaap

Wow. Yes, that's powerful. So you came up with this idea after an 18-year circus career. Can you tell us a bit more about how this came about and why the circus world made such a bad impression on you.

Sabine Maringer

I have an example for you. I was in a partner acrobatics duo, and for people who don't see me: I am 1 metre 75 tall and I used to weigh 68 kilos. So I am not a usual acrobatic partner. I don't have a normal partner acrobatics body. Most people will think I am the basic was, but that is not true. I was the flyer, and we formed a female duo. So that was very unconventional and I got a lot of comments. I had to deal with body shaming. I had to deal with a lot of comments from bookers, audiences, colleagues, friends and family. That was really hard to deal with. I stopped performing and switched to dominatrix, gained some weight and lost my muscles. And what was so powerful for me was that despite my change, I got a lot of appreciation from my guests. In the beginning, that felt very strange because my body image was destroyed by the industry. I always wanted to be a very thin, very small person and now I am admired for who I am.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes, that's interesting, 1 metre 75 and 68 kilos, that seems like a very normal person. But in the circus, that's not the case.

Sabine Maringer

No, not if you have a kite Are in a partnered acrobatic duo.

Wijbrand Schaap

The kite is the one who gets lifted and does all the above.

Sabine Maringer

Correct.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes. Circus, as I have come to know it in recent years, is also a very democratic, a very social sport, an art form, which is very emancipated, emancipatory as well. But the picture you just gave is much more repressive, much more rules set for how you look, how much you weigh. 

Sabine Maringer

I felt I had to stick to this body image, which I thought you had to have because you are an acrobatic partner. So I had to deal with eating disorders. I had a lot of trauma related to my body.

Wijbrand Schaap

And have you also seen this around you? Among colleagues?

Sabine Maringer

This applies not only to people who identify as women but also to people who identify as men, because there is also some kind of image of what someone who identifies as a man should look like or they think it is projected onto them.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes. I immediately feel a bit guilty because last Sunday I had an interview with six older acrobats in their 60s and I complimented them on how they looked. It was very wiry, people who could still perform very scary acts. So I was also contributing to this image of circus people. Can it change?

Sabine Maringer

Yes, I think it is already changing, but a lot of adjustments still need to be made because it is still as if different types of bodies are placed in different techniques or fields within the circus. I think people are used to seeing a specific body with a specific technique. It is up to circus schools and social studies to ask people with different body types to try out different techniques. Then, when people with different body types take the professional route, make a career and are seen on stage, audiences and bookers will also change their perception. But we need to start from the very beginning, and encourage people with different body types to be part of the circus. People with different body types are capable of the same things. They just look a little different than we think it should look now, either we are educated, trained, or we get used to it.

Wijbrand Schaap

Because you were living proof of that. Someone 175 and 68 kg could also fly acrobatically.

Sabine Maringer

Yes, and we had to make our adjustments. So my female partner couldn't do every trick with me and I couldn't do every trick with her. So we really had to see what we were capable of and where our limits were and accept those and see how we could work around our limits and capabilities.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes, that was also the point with the older acrobats, the people in their 60s, that they also had to work around their limitations. Yes, I think there is also the issue of 'consent'. We always have the audience who are very demanding or who are supposed to be very demanding, or who the circus performers think are very demanding. They want higher, better, faster, more dangerous. I saw an image at a festival in Vienna, I think about a circus performer at the beginning of the last century who crossed the Danube River, I think on a tightrope and then fell in because he thought the audience wanted more. I mean, how do you deal with that? You have teachers, you have audiences, you have producers who want the best and the most and you have a certain idea of what the best and the best is.

Sabine Maringer

Yes, I think this is a reflection of the society we live in: higher, faster, bigger. But where does this lead us? I mean, there's a limit somewhere and I imagine that, instead of going more dangerous or higher or more extreme, to see what's inside us, what stories can we tell in the circus? What topics can we broach and discuss?

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes, so by 'consent' you keep the keynote. You can give something away, because not everyone listening here will be at Keto. So what will it be about?

Sabine Maringer

It will be about ideas about what a constant culture in the circus could look like. I can't give answers right now because we are still at the beginning. We are only at the beginning to talk to each other about this topic because it is so new and fresh. And the idea of 'consent' is something we may already be using a bit, but only to a minimal extent. And I will hopefully encourage people to bring the idea of 'consent' culture to their schools, productions, groups and training centres.

Wijbrand Schaap

What does 'consent' mean in this context?

Sabine Maringer

In the introduction, you mentioned that there are so-called intimacy coaches to help actors in a production, movie theatre or whatever to feel comfortable playing sexual or very physical scenes. I think this is a very good first step. But you can apply 'consent' in basically any situation. And this is not just about intimacy or sexuality. It's also about how you are presented on stage, about the roles and the character you play. It is also, especially in the performing arts, about what costume I wear, do I feel really confident in it, can I really be free? And about the choreography itself, about which body parts am I really confidently showing to the audience? And is there any way to change the choreography so that I don't have to show certain body parts to the audience? I am simply referring here to a split, which is very common in dance and circus. But if a female or a male person does a split, it is actually a pornographic act because you show your vagina and your ass in their entirety, even if it is covered, to complete the audience.

And do I really trust that or can we adjust the choreography so that it doesn't happen and you can see it from behind because everyone already knows, okay, she's doing a split. So do I really need to see her vagina up close, even though it's hideous? And it's also about when you're in a teaching situation. So if a teacher asks someone to show a certain game or choreography, are you happy to do it? We are trained to say, yes, I'll do this exercise for everyone, but I can remember many times I didn't feel confident to do it, but I did it because my teacher forced me to do it and there was no culture of giving 'consent'. I felt I had to do it because then I might be rejected in the next class or if I am at an audition and I am asked to do certain things, I am afraid I won't get the job because I say no. 'Consent' is also about how I want to be approached as a person by another person. I don't like being hugged by certain people. Maybe it's just a hello, a verbal greeting or shaking hands or whatever. It really starts with the bare, as the basis of a meeting and relationship between people.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes. In the film I saw by Tamar van den Dop, the older actors said that art is also about pushing your limits, about crossing boundaries. This is what they say. It's also a discussion here. It's not my point of view, but in discussions about this 'consent' issue, they say, well, if everything is by 'consent', we will only get very tame, very lame art, we want something to cross boundaries. When teachers at school say, well, if you experience a boundary, you have to cross it. That's standard procedure in schools with physical arts. Should this change?

Sabine Maringer

I know we are forced to cross boundaries and push our limits. And I think in principle there is nothing bad about the idea, but we need a safe space and a space of 'consent' to feel guided and safe and seen to maybe cross boundaries. And I think it's much easier for people to cross boundaries if they want to, if they also have the ability to say no, I don't want to. If I do, I hurt myself. And often, not knowingly crossing a personal boundary can end up causing trauma for that person. And we don't want that. I know this is the idea that you have to give more and more and more, but is this really true? And then I have a second thought. It's about, okay, if we are not forced to cross boundaries, where do we get what we need to say? Our energy, our interest in moving on from so what is then our driven energy that we use to do that? So I think then we also have to change to find how we can then work and train and we have to find a new source of energy to do things when we are not forced to.

Wijbrand Schaap

Can you tell us something about the source of energy? What is the source of energy? Where can you find this source?

Sabine Maringer

Passion, maybe, but not a passion where I have to feel pain to create, but a passion that comes from my deepest heart and interest in things and from a place where I feel safe to step back, stop, step aside, reflect and change my mind.

Wijbrand Schaap

Is this what you learned from becoming a sex worker, a dominatrix? Because it seems to me that this is a kind of involvement where things you have to give 'consent' for are much more regulated, I think almost than in the circus.

Sabine Maringer

Yes. So how I connected the idea of circus and 'consent' was actually not my idea. It was a conversation I had with someone who organises positive sex parties in Vienna and I give workshops at those parties to introduce newcomers to the idea of BDSM. After my performance, we had a drink at the bar and we talked about my past life and I told her about my career as a circus performer. And then out of the blue she asked me, hey, I'm interested. Do you have a 'consent' culture in circus? And I was like, wait, I have to think. And then I had to say no. And she said, but why? You guys are so physical, you're so close. You also share so much intimacy. Not only by sharing the body, but also your thoughts and imagination and space together. Why don't you have that? And I had no answer at that moment and I felt like, yes, this is the missing link to create a safe space to make the circus environment better, let's say. So a little for all and sundry. I really mean everyone. And it's not about the artists, it's also about the cultural workers, the people who run the festivals, the people who work at festivals or teachers. Everyone and the audience.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes, because we, the audience, also need a bit of training, I think, because I have been a professional theatre critic all my life, since my thirties. And I also know that many modern dancers sometimes recognise older men in the audience. Who were not there because they loved the dance technique. They were lovers of scantily clad women performing strange things. I mean, this is something that is almost never talked about, but it certainly happens, I think, in theatre, especially in Dutch theatre, where nudity is performed very often. So there's also a way of well, that it's still not talked about. And you say we should talk about it.

Sabine Maringer

Yes, we need to talk about it. So I think if I can use it in my daily practice as a dominatrix, everyone can apply it in their daily practice of their profession. Culture takes time and a willingness to think about your own limits and needs. And it takes courage in a society where we are asked to say yes to express no. And what makes consent culture so difficult, I think when you first think about it, is that even for us and even for me still, receiving a no can hurt. But we need to change our perception of getting a no. If we change it to thank you for giving me a no, this is a gift because you were honest, you were true to yourself. Thank you for this moment, then we can change it. And the no is also always an opportunity to take action and reshape a particular moment or activity we are in. So that everyone feels welcome, seen, respected and safe.

Wijbrand Schaap

This sounds great. It also sounds very easy. But I think how can you train people in practice? How can you change this mindset?

Sabine Maringer

Yes, when I think of changing a habit, you have to practise, fail, practise and fail until it becomes a habit. It is not part of our habits in a social gathering to do this. So no one can expect that from anyone. I think they can change overnight, because yes, changing habits is work and you have to invest. And especially with consent culture, you have to do your personal work, you have to sit down and think about past situations how did I feel and what do I really wish for myself? And then stay true to that. And the nice thing about constant culture is also that if the whole environment changes, maybe my no can also change to a yes because I feel safe with a certain group or person or environment. Yes.

Wijbrand Schaap

On this Friday of the seminar, you will also give workshops. How does such a workshop work?

Sabine Maringer

So during this seminar, we have four great workshop topics. And I have to mention the others too because they are so important. We are giving a 360-degree overview of the 'consent' culture in the circus. So let's start with one of my colleagues. She will I think have more of a clear discussion about the 'consent' culture between performers and audiences. We will have a workshop on the culture of consent in the training setting between the teacher and the student. And we will have a workshop where they will talk about content culture in the professional production of making a performance, I think. And I will focus on you as a person, so we will work on creating a language to talk about your limits and boundaries. We will think about different contexts and situations. Because I think when we talk about touch, if you are touched by one person in a specific situation, that doesn't mean it's the same by another person in another situation. And we will try to create a landscape of touch to get to know my body and my needs regarding touch better. And we will do a lot of games to experience what it is like to give 'consent' or say no and how to deal with that emotionally. Yes. So my workshop is basically about yourself.

Wijbrand Schaap

Sounds very interesting. I'll be on the train next Friday, so I won't be able to attend. I hope some colleagues will be there though. Yes. I think this is a great experience, even for people outside the circus world, of course.

Sabine Maringer

I think you can apply this idea of consent culture to families, friends, leisure groups, anywhere, if you like. You can apply it anywhere. One interesting thing, I send a friend who I think is capable of giving me feedback on this speech. I sent him the outline of my speech and he said, "Whoa, you'll shock those people.

Wijbrand Schaap

Really?

Sabine Maringer

Yes, he said, you will shock them. And be aware that many people might have trouble with what you are going to say because you are turning Circus World on its head. Well, and I'm really interested whether this is true or not. I am so excited about how people will take this idea of content culture that I will present to them next Friday.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes. So you go beyond what we just discussed in this podcast in that.

Sabine Maringer

Yes.

Wijbrand Schaap

Do you have something in reserve?

Sabine Mainger

Yes, I have. Of course.

Wijbrand Schaap

Okay. It makes it extra special to be there for people. I was still wondering, since you combine sex work with being an MA, you also have a study.

Sabine Maringer

Yes, I got my master's degree in performing in public space. And that's very good, because I got my master's at Fontys University. Yes. So I'm coming back to the university where I got my master's. And this is really a great honour for me to come back as a keynote speaker, even though it has nothing to do with the subject. But yes, I feel very good. And one of my colleagues will also give a workshop during this seminar day. So yes, I am really happy.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yeah. Great party, I think. I think it's really fun because at the same time you're giving this keynote and doing your research, you're also working to kind of liberate this whole taboo about sex work. Did you struggle to talk about this combination of you being a BDSM practitioner and Circus and giving a very serious keynote on a very important topic?

Sabine Maringer

I think I feel it is easier for people to associate me and the subject because I am a dominatrix and a sex worker and because 'consent', in my profession, is everything, it is the framework, it is the basis. If there is no 'consent', I cannot work. So 'consent' is the framework in which I work. And I think that makes it easier for people. And I also think these days you don't get sued as much for being a sex worker. And I also feel that if I have a university degree behind me, if I have an artistic career behind me, it's easier for people to respect me as a person. Being a sex worker, I think it somehow helps people to say, okay, she's changed, but she's not forced to do that. That's her decision, her personal decision. Interesting. So, okay. I experience a lot of curiosity from people who are open to listening, and I also think people in this creative industry are more open. I don't know how it would be in other contexts, but here I feel really free now to say who I am in my professional life.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes, well, speaking of which, we are approaching 45 minutes, which stands for the podcast.

Sabine Maringer

Okay, fine.

Wijbrand Schaap

We could talk about this for hours, I think. But you will be talking about this for hours on Friday in Tilburg.

Sabine Maringer

No, not for hours.

Wijbrand Schaap

40 minutes long. 40 minutes too. 40 minutes. Okay. Then there's more in Tilburg. I want to thank you very much for your openness and your willingness to have this talk so that people can still go to the seminar. I don't think it's sold out yet, so thank you very much. Sabine Marringer, is there one last thought you would like to share with our listeners?

Sabine Maringer

I want to thank you for your good questions. I felt they started a good conversation between us. And they forced me to talk very openly about my topic. That's really nice. I felt that you had really created a safe, nice atmosphere where I felt seen and safe to speak. Thank you so much.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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