Michelle Auerbach, author of The Third Kind of Horse and Alice Modern
Extract from Strip, by Catlyn Ladd
I became a stripper at the age of 19. I had just returned to the States from spending time studying at the University of Oxford and I did not want to live on campus in a dormitory. I wanted my own place but could not afford it on the meager salary of my work-study job. I also did not have time for a regular job, and minimum wage was not much better than the work-study money I already made. I needed a job that paid a lot and had flexible hours.
A friend had been working at a local club and I knew she made a lot of money while keeping up with her classes. I have no problem with modesty and so I decided to give it a try. I ended up working for five years, quitting only after I graduated with my master’s degree. Working in this industry for as long as I did illuminated the tensions and contradictions of being a woman in a patriarchal culture. Patriarchal attitudes, reinforced by our recent Victorian past, continue to inform perceptions of female sexuality and the sexuality of women of different racial backgrounds, and affect women’s safety, self-esteem, and confidence. The lessons I learned inside the clubs have stayed with me, continuing to inform how I teach, what kind of a feminist I am, and how I understand my position as a daughter, wife, (female) professor, and woman.
Gender roles reinforce the impression that “good” women don’t take their clothes off for money. When confronted by someone who breaks these norms we ask, “What kind of woman dances for money?…We assume she is not very bright, sleeps with her clients, and has a surplus of predatory, sexual power. [Popular movies teach us that] a ‘good’ dancer actually hates dancing and only does it when driven by circumstances beyond her control” (Barton 585). Selling one’s body, or permission to look at one’s body, to the highest bidder breaks every sanction we place on female sexuality. I suspect it also confirms other assumptions that are harder to admit: the concern that women really do only pursue men for money, the fear that all women are whores: manipulative, lying, predatory. At the very least, we expect for women in this profession to not enjoy what they do. If they profess to find enjoyment in the job, we either dismiss them as irredeemable or assume that they are lying.
Society assumes, fi rst of all, that women who take their clothes off for money are people “whose prospects for economic well-being outside exotic dancing are limited” (Maticka-Tyndale et al. 103). In other words, they are the undereducated from low economic classes who recognize that they can take advantage of the fact that sex work is the only occupation in the world where women regularly earn more money than men. Studies also acknowledge that many women find aspects of the job fulfi lling: they have fun, make friends, can drink on the job, and still have time to pursue other interests including families, hobbies, and education. However, a common assumption is that women in sex work are objectified and in an occupation that is beyond their control— consider the findings above that refer to the feelings of female power as “temporary” and “illusory.” Sex workers, we assert, cannot really be empowered.
Sex work is defined as “a service to satisfy a sexual fantasy, produce sexual excitement or arousal, and/or provide sexual satisfaction to the customer” though the satisfaction may be delayed (Maticka-Tyndale et al. 88). The assumption is that a (female) dancer caters solely to the needs of the (male) client, subverting her own desires, and even her own personality, in order to fulfill the wishes of the client. Understood this way, stripping can only be viewed as degrading, dehumanizing work in that it reinforces the stereotype that women’s sexual desires can never be found in revealing her body for money and that it is only men who pay for gratification of sexual fantasies.
One example of this subjugation is “customers purchasing various body technologies and giving them as ‘gifts’” (Wesely 655). A “body technology” is a method of controlling the appearance through clothing, makeup, costuming, and cosmetic surgery. Wesely goes on to tell us, “By buying breast implants for a dancer…the customer takes control of the effort to reshape the woman’s body in the fantasy image. At the same time, the women sometimes felt powerful when they convinced customers to pay for body technologies” (ibid). Read in this way, the male customer literally transforms the body of the sex worker as an object of his desire. The dancer fulfills her gender role by passively allowing her body to be modified and, from the position of the enslaved, finds gratification and fulfillment in the attentions of her master.
Another example of the dancer-as-object is that she exists in order to make the club money. Thus, dancers are often required to conform to expectations set by the (male) club owners and general managers. Some clubs set weight requirements or measurement requirements. Other clubs dictate what types of costumes the dancers are allowed to wear. It is not at all uncommon to dictate the shifts a woman can work based on her perceived marketability. Over my time as a dancer, I had owners and managers try to tell me the kinds of clothes I could wear, what type of music I could select, and which shifts I could work. I witnessed clubs limiting the number of women of color on a shift because “black women are not what ‘bring in the money’” (Wesely 658). I never saw a club limit the number of white dancers on a shift.
Women in our culture are not only objectified for the color of our skin but also simply because we display secondary sex characteristics. Dancers often report fearing for their safety, because, “[t]oo frequently, customers are excited by strippers precisely because they occupy the role of the dirty slut in fantasies shaped by Madonna-whore dualities and other sexist notions about sexually available women” (Barton 591). Some customers assume that they are purchasing more than the right to look. I was always careful to work in safe clubs where customers who got out of hand would be expelled and even permanently banned, the parking lots were cleared before the staff left for the night, bouncers escorted us to our cars, and local police patrolled the area.
My experiences are more nuanced than what many of the studies portray: “Missing from the literature…is any analysis of the temporal experience of stripping” (Barton 587). Moreover, “We cannot unpack the complexities of stripping without speaking with dancers themselves and letting their narratives drive our understanding” (Pilcher 522). Numerous articles note the importance of first-person narratives but are limited in scope: interviews are difficult to obtain, sample sizes are small, the number of clubs a researcher can feasibly visit is limited. Furthermore, the studies that do account for dancers’ experiences focus mainly on life within the club. Therefore, we need for “researchers to ask more questions of exotic dancers, such as their perspective of their work and other aspects of their life style in relation to body objectification, relationship satisfaction, and self-esteem” (Downs, James, and Cowan 751).
My work is also limited. I am white, from a well-educated family, and I have substantial economic opportunities. However, I worked in the clubs for five years. While not officially an academic at the time, I was on my way to becoming one. My insights are based on informal ethnography, in that I had not taken a research methods class at the time. Thus, I join the ranks of other dancers who have written autobiographies. However, I was also receiving training as an academic while a stripper: I kept a journal and recorded my experiences and observations. I interacted with hundreds of dancers and many hundreds of customers. I worked in several clubs in different parts of the country. I have insights to offer for those who wish to really seek understanding of the taboo, complex, and enlightening world of exotic dancing.
Catlyn Ladd performed in gentleman's clubs for five years while pursuing an education. She now works as a college professor teaching philosophy, religion, and women's studies. She lives in Colorado, USA.
Strip: The Making of a Feminist
Taking off one's clothes in gentlemen's clubs can be degrading, or it can be a feminist act.
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