Cassandra Keenan

Stripping for a living ain't so bad

Filed By Cassandra Keenan | May 02, 2010 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, The Movement
Tags: feminism, sex work, stripping, stripping for a living

Last night I finished reading this nonfiction book called Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping. It's got a feminist slant, and it's stripper_pole.jpgprobably the most well-written, insightful book I've read about the topic.

The author, Elisabeth Eaves, doesn't really condemn or condone the job. She masterfully remains objective through the bulk of the book while bringing you behind the scenes, including providing interspersed profiles that focus on dancers' personalities and relationships.

Yet I still picked up on this recurring sentiment (not necessarily emanating directly through Eaves) that it's an unrealistic way to make a living, and that the women who do it must "get out" ASAP and find "real" employment somewhere.

While this judgment may not be totally invalid, considering customers by and large only want to ogle young flesh, it still seems exceptionally harsh, since there are literally tons of jobs out there that could be said to be insubstantial, road-to-nowhere livelihood choices. I mean, stripping is generally one of the best-paying "dead end" jobs there is. So what draws the added denunciation against it? Most likely the fact that it's sex work.

On a similar note, it's interesting that a lot of the pressure for the women to get out of the business came from the men in their lives. It seems to be another example of the tendency many men have to try to exert control over women's bodies instead of allowing them to choose for themselves.

Some women happen to think erotic dancing is a beneficial employment choice -- and that can include getting something out of it that transcends their paycheck: a sense of power, control and self-assurance, for instance.

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While there's a lot to commend the idea, I'm afraid I dont quite accept that it's something "empowering"... not when the majority of the audience is looking at the woman as an object and nothing more. There's a real disconnect there, and somehow -- and call me crazy, but... -- I dont really think the guys sitting on the rail are thinking "Wow! She's not only got a great rack, but she's obviously self-assured!"

Now, dont misunderstand me. If someone wants to look at naked people, for whatever reason, hey, god speed and god bless. But let's not pretend that stripping is an "empowering" move for the women who work at it. It's still based on the *guy* finding the girl hot. If he doesnt, then all the self-assurance and empowerment in the world wont get her a job. She still has to meet *his* requirements of sexual attractiveness, and it's not a two-way street.

Still, isn't all or most employment about objectification in one form or another? Also, I don't understand why it's such a bad thing for a woman to look and feel sexually attractive, even in the context of a strip club. It's her choice if she wants to be an erotic dancer. I'd do it in a heartbeat. And I LOVE to be object. Am I not a good or smart person because of it?

Being a woman in general is empowering due in part to the sexual sway we hold over the people who find us alluring. I myself love getting compliments from guys and I do in fact feel empowered in the context of physical appearance and just the fact that I am a chick.

Lastly, I don't dress any certain way to please anyone. My appearance is my own personal preference. Guys like it, though. What can I say?

Of course you're a good or smart person, because you would be making that choice with eyes wide open. I suggest that most women who go into this dont: they think they're getting one thing, and in reality it turns into something else.

And this is where I have issue with the whole "empowerment" statement: in the particular context here -- that of work as a stripper -- any "sway" a dancer might have is, IMHO, of her own invention. The guys watching are interested in her as long as she acts and performs to their requirements. *They* define the interaction, not her. *They* set the groundrules, not her. To put it in a parallel to my own work, I might design a trade show booth that's a marvel of subtlety and elegance, but once it gets built and handed over to the client, I have no control whatsoever as to whether or not they adhere to the conceptual philosophy behind it. It's no longer mine; now it's theirs, and any creative "empowerment" I might feel about it is deleted in the transfer.

Well, so it is for an erotic dancer. She might be up there thinking she's self-empowered as all hell, but her audience doesnt care. They just want to see naked female skin, the more of it the better. She's as interchangable as a Barbie doll.

Just my 0.02. YRMV.

Are you saying that what the dancer feels about her work is completely overridden by how the men watching her feel about watching her?

Isn't that in itself objectifying, by completely removing the dancer's agency from the equation?

>> "Are you saying that what the dancer feels about her work is completely overridden by how the men watching her feel about watching her?"

Not completely, but tell me: how is that so different from the artist who paints day after day after day and whose work is seen only by himself? Within his own little world, he's one talented SOB -- it's everyone else's fault that's he's not recognized for the genius that he clearly is. But the simple reality is that there's a tiny chance he actually *is* that genius; more likely, what he's engaging in is self-directed creative masturbation. Any "empowerment" he gives himself is limited to what happens inside those four walls of his studio -- because outside them, where he has to deal with a society at large who could give a whit about his self-professed "talent", he's just a jerk-off who's wasting his life.

So what good is empowerment is it's not recognized? Now sure, maybe the woman up there on that pole can take that and apply it elsewhere in her life... but on the job? She's just another woman on the pole. The guys sitting there watching her do not care. So you're saying she should invest this exchange with far more than it's worth? Sorry if this sounds cold, but I'd call that delusional. Just as there are only a few Picassos in the art world, so are there only a very few Gypsy Rose Lees and a very few Carol Dodas. The rest are just an endless, numbing stream of pretty faces and pretty bodies. The guys watching known this. The guys who hire these girls know this. The harsh reality of this, like so many other professions is a simple one: You are expendable. You can be replaced within seconds by a hundred other women. If all you have to trade on is your looks, you'd better have a back up plan in place because some of these guys are starting to hire out of kindergarden. You are up on that stage at the pleasure of those guys sitting at the rail, and you can be dismissed and cast aside at their whim, when you no longer give them what they want.

Again, not to put too fine a point on it, but I dont especially see that as empowering. And Im not reading anything here from anyone else that would convince me otherwise. So can someone please explain this to me, becsuse clearly I'm missing something in the equation.

Is it up to you to define this experience for the women doing this job? Is it really your place to insert your assumptions into their experiences?

I don't know how many women actually see stripping as empowering, and I'm not even trying to speak for any woman who's involved in stripping, but I'm trying to understand how what you're doing is any different from anyone else trying to shame and diminish women who strip.

You're specifically making what women experience while stripping about the men who watch it, and you're completely dismissing what women experience while stripping from their own perspective. Why is that? What are you trying to achieve with this argument?

Then tell me what I'm missing here. You're just saying the same thing as everyone else, but you're not saying why or how this is to be. And that makes you no more able to define this than I am.

What am I trying to achieve? Injecting some reality into this Cinderella-esque, "Pretty Woman" style fantasy. I'm not saying it's a lousy career choice -- anyone is free to do anything he or she wants in life. But what I am saying is that to go on about "empowerment" and "self-assurance" in a field where you are nothing but meat just seems, from my hopelessly male perspective, absurd.

So rather than saying I'm "dismissing" this, tell me what I'm dismissing. Help me to learn here. Isnt that point of these exchanges?

I've told you twice what you're dismissing:

You're talking as if all that matters is the men. Just the men. What the men see, what the men think, what the men do, why the men are there. You keep ignoring women's agency in choosing this job, how women may relate to this. You're saying that a woman's sense of empowerment is false because what men think and do, since apparently only men count?

I have not said one thing about Pretty Woman or Cinderella, or anything that supports such a perspective. I do not see you inject reality into this conversation. Instead, I see what always happens when women's sexuality is discussed: That women are doing it wrong, and that men are the ones who matter. You are reducing the women involved to "nothing but meat." That women who strip automatically give up ownership of their bodies and any subjectivity whatsoever by letting men see them strip.

"Are you saying that what the dancer feels about her work is completely overridden by how the men watching her feel about watching her?"

I was going to ask pretty much the same question.

You know Sean, it's not as if the dancers at a club don't have any control over the interactions they have with their clients like you seem to think. The dancers can and do refuse to oblige rude and disrespectful clients. Besides, you seem to be overlooking one of the most empowering aspects of sex work here: the money. Stripping can earn you a lot more than most other jobs out there, including the kind of jobs you need college or grad school degrees for. Not to say that it's easy money, or that there's necessarily a lot of other options to some women's decisions to strip, but if your other options are all minimum-wage jobs, well, do you think that working for Mickey D's would really be the more empowering choice?

I dont doubt that there is some measure of control, but that comes with any job. The power a dancer might have is so harshly defined that it might as well be considered a perq. A wage slave at Mickey Ds might not make as much, but s/he has far more control over job longevity.

Wikipedia on empowerment:

Marginalized people who have no opportunities for self-sufficiency become, at a minimum, dependent on charity or welfare. They lose their self-confidence because they cannot be fully self-supporting. The opportunities denied them also deprive them of the pride of accomplishment which others, who have those opportunities, can develop for themselves. This in turn can lead to psychological, social and even mental health problems.

Empowerment is then the process of obtaining these basic opportunities for marginalized people, either directly by those people, or through the help of non-marginalized others who share their own access to these opportunities. It also includes actively thwarting attempts to deny those opportunities. Empowerment also includes encouraging, and developing the skills for, self-sufficiency, with a focus on eliminating the future need for charity or welfare in the individuals of the group. This process can be difficult to start and to implement effectively, but there are many examples of empowerment projects which have succeeded.

It looks to me like stripping can be pretty empowering by this definition, simply by achieving self-sufficiency.

Good conversation so far; hope it continues.

While I agree with most of what Cassandra has written, I do want to put out two caveats:

1) That there are a number of women (certainly not all) who go into sexwork/stripping after experiencing abuse/incest at a younger age and specifically get into it to act out some of what they experienced when they were younger. This doesn't make stripping in any way responsible for those horrible events but it also makes for a pretty negative atmosphere in which those issues get played out and, in some ways, reinforced. Of course, there are countless other "more respectable" parts of society where that same cycle occurs as well.

2) No discussion of stripping's positive/negative aspects can exist without mentioning sex slavery. A sizable portion of the world's workers in sex clubs are in it involuntarily. Yes, there certainly are women who are willingly performing and making good money, but there are also many (yes, even in the US... in San Francisco there have been a lot of arrests involving coerced sex workers from Asia) who have been tricked and intimidated into the trade. I do have some issues with these stripper-positive books (like the one by Diablo Cody) who tend to ignore or minimize this aspect of the trade, focus on middle-class white women doing it, when it is an important (and too often condoned) aspect of the world-wide sexwork industry.

>> "You're saying that a woman's sense of empowerment is false because what men think and do, since apparently only men count?"

What you have told me twice is simple "woman good" without going into the specifics, which is what I want to learn here. What does a woman get out of this? Dont tell me empowerment: that word gets tossed around like rice at a Presbyterian wedding. Tell me what she's getting out of this situation that *isnt* defined by the men ogling her.

Otherwise, sorry, but unless you can, it *is* just some Cinderella fantasy.

And dont think for a moment that I'm doing this just because of the profession itself. Its the same question I would ask in *any* discussion where employment is power-based. That's hardly restricted to sex work; it's a fact of life for a *lot* of people, both male and female. So rather than ducking out, tell me what I'm missing.

What you are missing is this. Its pure power plain and simple. When I danced/stripped, I was young and beautiful, long and lanky. And well yes, the work was hard and sometimes gruelling when we had to cover for somebody or work a double shift. You had to be good and you had to be in shape. But the money was 5-6 x's what I could earn at a straight job. For me, I was just twenty-three at the time and just about 2 years post-op, stripping provided not only lots of money, (I was earning over $1,000/week) but affirmation. But the best thing that I enjoyed was the raw power I held over those men. Even though it was just an act, the power was real. For those few minutes that I was on stage, I OWNED those men. I guess you had to have lived it to understand it, but it was real. I could see it in their eyes, I could FEEL it when they tucked those 5's, ten's and twenties into my gee string. Maybe you are not getting it because you are gay and are not wired the same way those guys are that go to strip clubs, or maybe you just don't want to get it. What did "empowering" mean for me? In less 6 months, I had enough money to put down on a nice 3bedroom house in a nice neighborhood with a 2 bedroom apt. in the basement. Is that empowering enough for you?

Madison Rose | May 30, 2010 8:50 AM

I recently started stripping, not out of necessity, but because I wanted something different. And I'm sticking with it because I've found it to be the most empowering thing I've done! I have a university education and the skills for other jobs (I've worked many 9-5's), but getting up there to dance is incredible. I am proud of my body and love to dance, so showing it off in exchange for money is amazing! I am in control, and I'm the one making the guys reach for their wallets. and women their lives based on how society perceives them. Everyone judges and objectifies one other. It's life! Strippers merely take advantage of this, like any other salesman does.

*gives Madison and Anna each a high five* Right on!