Strippers – potentially the most taboo of all topics, to the point where they’re mostly referred to as ‘exotic dancers’ or ‘ladies of the night’. There are so many negative connotations that come with the job that people seem to be allergic to the word itself. It’s turned into a ‘he who shall not be named’ type situation, but I’ll let you in on a little secret… strippers, are just normal people. Funnily enough, the majority of the population have absolutely no clue what being a stripper would entail, and they are usually the most judgemental people. Even though society is strangely obsessed with stripping, we rely on the consumption of television and media to give us a very ambiguous and typically false outline of the job that everyone is too afraid to ask about. Hey, sex sells, it’s no wonder the industry globally is worth a whopping $75 billion annually. The stars at the forefront of this entire ensemble are often brutally critiqued, no matter how successful they are, and no matter what their reason for working at such a demanding job is. Through the rise of feminism, female empowerment, reclaiming control of your own body and sexual liberation, we need jobs like stripping to be a part of the conversation, rather than to be ignored or critiqued. So when you joke with the girls about dropping out of uni to become a stripper, but then end it with a strong “I was kidding” you’re fuelling the fire of what has been an uphill battle for women who work as strippers to fluidly co-exist in society.
I sat down with a stripper who, for the purposes of anonymity, we will call ‘Sarah’, and asked her all the things you want to know, but are too shy to ask.
The politics of being a stripper is so heavily saturated with external stigmas and stereotypes, that it can be hard to discuss your job with someone when there are already so many preconceived ideas about you as a person and your life choices. Starting the job itself almost feels like a plunge down a dark path. Sarah explains how she started her job as a late teen. ‘most of my life I was handed everything by my parents and as soon as I saw that beginning to wane, I decided I needed a job that would be able to have the most pay off for the smallest amount of work. I still haven’t had another job except working as a stripper.’
Being a multi-billion dollar industry and looking at the potential earnings from stripping is obviously the most powerful motivator to work in such a tough and demanding job. Raking in thousands of dollars a week, it’s easy to understand how young, impressionable women who are struggling with debt would turn to a career like this one in order to stay financially independent and to pursue other passions. ‘A regular night really depended on what club I was working at. When I moved to a really good club from the shit one I first started at, a regular night was $1,000, even the weeknights came close to that.’
So what is it really like working at a strip club? Is it all taking selfies backstage and drinking champagne and then exploiting drunk men? ‘On a regular night I’d come into the club, go to the change room and have the in house makeup artist do my hair and makeup, then I’d sit and chain-smoke until I had my first stage. After that, I usually got approached by guys who wanted to book me and I would be busy the rest of the night. Unfortunately, this club has since shut down’. It’s common to look at strip clubs with a heavy feeling of pity for the girls working and to construct some fake sad back story as to why they’re working there.
But taking into consideration what men are willing to pay in order to fulfill their urges and fantasies, while women basically just dance on stage after having their hair and makeup done, it becomes clear there is a shift in power, and the controlling dynamic between the customer and the worker is strongly aligned with the female. As a whole, the job seems very much like a self-empowerment and body love crash course.
Sarah explains her shifts as if it is a routine for her. ‘I had about 4 regulars at one point, now I’d say I only have 2, and only 1 out of the 2 I felt comfortable meeting up with outside of work. I think I only have one friend out of many that work sober, I have never worked sober before’. There is definitely a vulnerability about the job that makes it easy to understand why you would need to be under the influence at work, but to the same degree it’s clear to see how being a stripper could potentially send you down a very dark path if you have no self-control. Sarah definitely doesn’t describe stripping as the dark dangerous underworld I have come to imagine it to be, – she explains it more like a fun and unusual underworld full of beautiful women, and eccentric clientele.
I’ve always imagined that the dynamic between the girls working at a strip club would be similar to that of a family. Sarah has found that she has formed strong bonds of friendship with her fellow dancers. ‘I don’t have many friends that are not dancers, even though I no longer work at a club, I struggle to make friends who are not strippers. For me, I found a lot of strippers have many friends but are mostly introverted and often quite lonely people in their personal lives’.
The pros and cons of the job, as with any job really, inadvertently counteract each other. Sarah explains that working as a stripper, although financially beneficial, can be less than ideal in other areas of life such as personal relationships and working hours. ‘The best part of the job is the money, obviously. No stripper would be a stripper without the money. I would never do anything I’ve done as a stripper for free. The worst part was struggling to find a work-life balance that included a significant other. You don’t feel normal. Working those long night shift hours then coming home and not being sober and being so flat and low is not conducive to a good relationship. I never had a good relationship ever while I was a stripper. I’m sure it’s different for other people, and I have stripper friends that are happily married, but it never worked out for me’. The conversation about stripping seems to be extremely one-sided, and considering it’s an industry that has been around for centuries, the focus is only now beginning to shift to a positive direction.
This short documentary delves into the world of stripping focusing on themes of relationship with self and with other, in a way that challenges traditional ideologies and raises questions about the industry.
Women’s rights, and being comfortable in the workplace is of huge importance in every employment field. But being a stripper is probably the most relevant job in which to outline what you can say yes and no to. ‘I don’t and won’t do extras. I’m not full service. I’m comfortable doing full frontal nudity and lesbian stage shows, and comfortable with touching in a dance as long as its breasts and ass only, if the club permitted me to do so. I even let feet-guys rub my feet and choke guys if they ask me to’. So yes, seems weird fetishes are a real thing, but you can say no to fulfilling them if you want. You can basically say no to anything you want if it makes you uncomfortable. Organisations like Sex Workers Outreach Project Australia aim to protect and support women within the industry who feel unsafe or uncomfortable within the workplace and want to know their rights. Again, the power seems to fall into the hands of the woman as if she’s to be idolized and adored within the confines of what she deems appropriate.
‘Ask any stripper in Melbourne and they’ll tell you, towards the end of 2016 it dried up the most it ever has. What I was earning before I quit, which would have still been a lot to an average person, wasn’t worth my time. I don’t have to pay rent or pay for my car or food or utilities, my parents pay for that. Stripping wasn’t life or death for me, so I could choose to leave when I felt I wanted to. I felt like I wasn’t getting paid enough to justify the huge physical and mental toll the job was taking on me. I used to call the money I made my “compensation”. Also, I fell in love for the first time ever and I wanted to put my all into this relationship and make a serious future together as a couple. My significant other never asked me to quit, I just needed more time to focus on a relationship that was making me happier instead of letting it escape me being wrapped up in life as a stripper’.
So what did Sarah learn during her years of stripping about people and about herself?
‘The worst patrons at a strip club are women. Men make up the majority, but women are worse behaved. I learned my power over men through stripping. I think overall the job taught me what real love was, as corny as it sounds. Because I was always exposed to such huge amounts of money and excess during my time stripping, money made me happy and I truly believed nothing could make me happier than money and shopping. Then to connect with someone and for them to make you happy without money, I learned what real love is that way’.
With a nice succinct ending to our fairytale, one thing becomes abundantly clear about working as a stripper. There’s not nearly as much bad stuff that happens as you’d expect. The biggest problem facing the job seems to be ostracizing yourself from society, and being able to maintain personal relationships external from the job, not the actual stripping part. So while I’m not urging women to drop everything and go out and become a stripper for self-empowerment purposes, I think next time you jump to conclusions about the lifestyle, personal choices, and character traits of a stripper, you should think less about the stripper, and more about the person who is buying into the industry.