Thursday, October 28, 2004

Good & Bad Things About Stripping. And a great quote from Virginia Woolf.

What I wrote in June 2000:

Obviously it's not for everyone, but I've discovered that there are some good things about stripping... that's what's kept me doing it for so long. Some people think that a woman would only choose to strip because she's so degraded (by drugs, by abusive men, by a bad childhood) that she can't envision anything better for herself. Well, not only have I had fun as a dancer, I've come to realize that stripping offers some advantages that are lacking in other jobs.

Bad Things
Arguably, every line of work has its positive and negative aspects. I'll start with what sucks about stripping because those things are the simplest and most easily explained.

Cigarette Smoke in Bars
I used to be fairly tolerant of cigarette smoke, and would even smoke myself on occasion (those occasions usually involved hand-rolled Drum and microbrewed beer). My father was a smoker — he died of lung cancer — and I've never found the smell of cigarettes per se to be particularly obnoxious. When California started to outlaw smoking in bars I even thought, if you can't light up while you're having a drink, then when can you smoke? But I'm not so tolerant now that I've done my time around inconsiderate people who don't care if their smoking leaves those around them gagging for air, including girls who smoke in cubicle-sized and unventilated dressing rooms and are insulted when they're asked to step outside to smoke. To that, add customers who think they should be able to smoke up my work environment without even bothering to tip me — while I think they should both tip and smoke outside, I admit I'm more tolerant of smokers who tip.

People who bitch about anti-smoking laws tend to forget that those laws were enacted to protect workers, not customers and not smokers, from having to breathe unhealthy air.

What I have to say about that is this: first, at the present juncture, our culture is plagued by a serious disrespect for anyone who does physical labor. This includes hard labor like digging ditches and working construction, and lighter (but also physically exhausting) kinds of work like waitressing and, yes, exotic dancing. All workers deserve respect, even the service worker who flips your burger and cleans the mess that others have left in the bathroom. And second, the foundation of civilization — the only thing that will ever keep us from annihilating ourselves as a species — is our ability to treat one another with respect and kindness.

Stupid, Bitchy Girls
I've met a lot of nice people dancing, customers as well as other strippers. It's my opinion that strippers are among the coolest, most open-minded, down-to-earth and easy-going women around. But of course I've run into my share of morons over the years too — if it's a customer, I can judge that he's too obnoxious to bother with and walk away. In the case of stupid and/or bitchy girls, it's more difficult because I have to share work space with them. I don't like being around girls who are mean, who talk shit about other girls to customers, who talk about exploiting their customers or who are so brainless and lazy that stripping is obviously the only job they'll ever have. Luckily for me, I'm usually good at ignoring people I don't like.

I should add that, in my experience, truly obnoxious strippers are in the minority, and we get a bad rap from the world at large. Some people think that stripping is a magnet job for women who are screwed up, but there's plenty of fucked-up people in the world who never take their clothes off for money.

Bad Attitudes
Well, it's my contention that people who don't like strip clubs should stay out of them! And men who go to strip clubs looking for a date or a relationship should realize that, while many girls date someone they meet in a club at one time or another, the odds are not exactly in their favor.
One of the biggest revelations that stripping held for me was what happened when I decided to come out of the closet about it to my friends. The first year or two that I danced, I thought it really needed to be kept secret: my friends would be shocked! It would totally change their perception of me! My girlfriends, especially, were not particularly stripper-friendly. But once I had been dancing for awhile, I wanted to tell people because I had gotten comfortable with who I was. I felt dancing had done some positive things for me, as I'll describe below, and I wasn't ashamed of it. I was tired of lying to people about what I did for money, and of making excuses for why I worked such odd hours.

My men friends, I discovered, were pretty indifferent. "Really? Huh!," was a typical response. My women friends, on the other hand... they were either surprisingly cool about it, and thought I had a cool and sexy job, or surprisingly judgmental. For instance, one female friend gave me a hard time about it because she's a snob; she doesn't feel comfortable around people who aren't educated professionals, and couldn't understand how I could bear to deal with men who wear sleeveless tank tops, do physical labor and drink beer on a regular basis. She doesn't really have any moral objecions — she just thinks my job is gross. But that's her hang-up, not mine.

Most women friends who objected were just shocked that I would expose my body and take money for expressing myself sexually; as far as I can tell, they've projected their discomfort with their own bodies onto what I do with mine.

One friend saw it as a piece of gossip that she had to repeat to a bunch of people I didn't even know, on the grounds she just needed to unburden herself of the shocking truth (which I'd decided to divulge only because I felt my reticence was diminishing our friendship). That was a big disappointment which made me reflect a lot on the value of privacy.

In her defense, that particular friend finally came to see me dance and found it much more entertaining and much less sordid than she'd imagined. She didn't know, for example, that in California, strippers in topless bars must be at least six feet away from customers when topless. Of course it was her boyfriend's occasional visits to topless bars with his friends that really pissed her off. I'm happy to report that, since coming to see me dance, she has gotten over it to the extent that she actually accompanied him and his friends to a bar to play pool, which evidently really spoiled their good time.

Since I enjoy what I do (and consider it less personally degrading than other, more socially-acceptable, forms of labor), I like it when my friends come to see me dance. Those that do seem to have fun and leave feeling better rather than worse about what I do. That's because they've finally seen the inside of a strip club for themselves, rather than just relying on what they're seen in movies or heard on TV. As for those friends that haven't dared to see me dance: they're either too busy, or too scared, or both.

So stripping has had the unexpected effect of revealing a lot to me about the people I considered close friends; it has strengthened some friendships — with people who are interested in knowing me as I really am, even if it means I am not like them — and strained others. In terms of the big picture, I think that's a good thing. Which leads me to:

Other Good Things About Stripping
But wait, there's more...

People who assume that women strip because there's really nothing else they can do have their eyes closed to one important fact: strippers have a lot of autonomy. We work when we want to, as much as we want, and we don't have to deal with anyone that we don't want to. Yes, it can be easy money, and that can be hard to walk away from... but in addition to that, it's a very flexible, less-than-full-time job, which makes it ideal for single mothers and students. (Of course, it's a trade-off: we don't get health benefits or a pension plan, and the sex industry is rife with shady labor practices.) On a day-to-day basis, I felt I had a lot more liberty and flexibility as a dancer than I do now that I'm in a cubicle most of the week.

Dancing on stage has enabled me to transform myself in positive ways. It changed my relationship to my body. I've observed that strippers are much more open-minded and more comfortable with their bodies than regular women are: non-strippers think of their bodies as who they are, and our culture encourages them to worry over every little perceived flaw. But strippers know that being sexy and beautiful has a lot more to do with how you present yourself than with actual physical perfection. I've seen girls that might not otherwise be considered that attractive transform themselves into beautiful creatures when they dance, because they know how to dress, move and pose. On stage, they show off their good angles — it can be a shock to see the same girl slouched over her cigarette in the dressing room! On stage, a dancer takes control of her flaws and obliterates them.

When you use your body to earn your living, your body is not just you; it's an instrument outside yourself, and you need to present it as attractively as possible in order to make money. Does that sound crass and dehumanizing? It seems to me that women who don't strip but constantly obsess over their weight and appearance suffer from the opposite idea: that their body is the sum total of who they are. Stripping hasn't cheapened my relationship with my body: I still live in it. Knowing it's not the sum total of who I am has made me feel more at peace with it.

Beside the existential lesson of stripping, there's also the fact that stripping teaches a woman to dress sexily — not that I think women owe it to the world to dress or be sexy all the time. Not at all! Sexuality can be a form of performance, and you can learn that when you perform it. I argue that it's better to know how to use that power and choose not to than it is to be oblivious of it.

Sexual Expression
Not to revisit the repressive hypothesis and make the shopworn and dubious assertion that sexual expression = liberty, but being on stage is fun. I've enjoyed it. I'm not a total hedonist, because I don't think that pleasure alone brings meaning to life — but I still like pleasure.

Narcissism & Vanity
I've liked seeing myself in the mirror and knowing that I've learned how to make the most of my performance. Yes, I know it's just a performance and I know that it's narcissistic and exhibitionistic, just like I know that someday I'll be too old to get on stage, and soon enough we'll all be dead in our graves. So what? At least I got off my ass and had a good time.

Beautiful Naked Women
And in addition to being a junior exhibitionist — I say junior because I've never felt any need to do porn — I'm surrounded by beautiful naked women all day. I have to admit, I've really enjoyed that aspect of being a stripper.

In Conclusion
Of all these things, I would say the autonomy I've experienced as a stripper was the most important. Confidence and self-expression have been the personal benefits, while narcissism and beautiful women have been the fringe benefits.

I've never felt that I'm just a stripper. There are a lot of other adventures I hope to have during my life. But stripping has had a powerful effect on how I see the world: it's made me more confident, and has provided me with an education that I couldn't have gotten in school and which, I might add, isn't widely available to women in our society — unless they are willing to cross over and become professional sluts!! Which is one of the reasons why I started this Web site: the experiences of exotic dancers and other sex workers aren't generally acknowledged. But we have something unique to say, and I think it's something that other people need to hear.

What I Think of This Now:


Well, I still think that strippers are people too...

Also, that there are some gratifying aspects of the job, otherwise no one would do it. I sometimes miss being on stage and feeling like I looked good in the mirror, although I don't miss hanging out in bars and hustling (I was never a big hustler, but it's an unavoidable component of the job). My husband is protective and uninclined to share me, which is fine by me, and he's glad that I've quit. Now I do yoga and go to the occasional party where there's a pole on the bar. By the way, I prefer doing yoga without mirrors. I've been trying to learn to look at things besides myself.

I'm alarmed by what I think of as the increasing pornification of culture. I'm not convinced it benefits women overall for stripping and especially porn to have become so mainstream, especially in this time of feminist backlash. That said, my objections aren't based on a desire to villify sex workers -- but I think they often have issues. It's sad when people are victimized as children and then go on to keep reliving that trauma as adults. And I think that a lot of women who now work in the sex industry, especially in porn, were victimized as children. As far as I can tell, that's just a fact that emerges when these people talk about their lives.

I still think people are freaky, even though our homogenized culture likes to pretend they're not. People used to visit freak shows, as witnessed by one of my favorite short stories, Flannery O'Connor's "A Temple of the Holy Ghost." Porn stars are among the new freaks. Perhaps instead of physical deformities, they are displaying their psychic scars to entertain the masses? Bless their hearts.

I now know that the time I spent dancing was time I could have been working on other things, namely figuring out what I was going to do for a living. It was a problem that was still waiting for me when I realized it was time to get off stage. Stripping was where I parked myself while I dealt with some heavy personal issues, like my crazy family and the discovery that graduate school led me not to a job in academia but to the realization that I didn't like academia. It's all good, but I've learned that time is a person's most valuable resource, and most people don't value theirs nearly enough. After all, it's the one thing you can never get back.

Well, "thank goodness for deadlines, as without them one would never finish anything," as a professor of mine once said. He was right. Thank god for death and other absolutes that make us realize our limitations.

Also, I now know that our minds are incredibly powerful, much more so than we're told or encouraged to believe. What we put out into the univere really does come back to us many times over. I guess I knew that already, but now I'm more convinced than ever. More on that later.

This Might Look Random, But It's Not
I'll close with a terrific quote from Virginia Woolf. Over the years I've realized that I pretty much wrote my whole dissertation about it, but I'll be thinking about it for the rest of my life. It's a quote from her autobiographical essay "A Sketch of the Past," in which she seeks to explain what she's doing when she writes:

And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by a desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is, or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost the power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock. (Moments of Being, 72)

And so to work. More later.