What Brings Women to the Stripper Industry?
The following is an excerpt from the new book Stripped: More Stories from Exotic Dancers by Bernadette Barton
I was scared. I was really nervous. I don’t think there’s really anything that can prepare you for that. It’s just one of those things where you just got to step in the water. You just got to do it. There’s no preparing. It was really nerve-racking the first time. I had no idea. I wasn’t very graceful. I didn’t really know how to move to the music the way the other girls who had been there a while had, and I felt out of place. I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to really talk to the men the way that you learn to as time goes on in order to get the money that you need or want. It was really nerve-racking. My first night, I think I only made a few hundred dollars.
—Diana, white and twenty-five, describing the first time she stripped
The single most common reason why any woman starts dancing (and continues) is for the money. Dancers in most locations in the United States make on average two hundred dollars a shift, and, on some days, and in certain clubs, they may make much more. This means that for women with little formal education and few professional skills, like Diana, dancing is one of the best-paying occupations available. Diana started dancing when she was seventeen and quit when she was twenty-three. She explained that she chose exotic dancing as a path out of poverty: “I grew up in a family that didn’t really have a lot of resources. We’re kind of poor, and I didn’t grow up in a really loving, happy, nurturing family. And so, I just wanted to take care of myself. I wanted to have a vehicle. I wanted to just get away.” During Diana’s childhood, her family struggled with issues related to extreme poverty, especially stable housing. They moved from place to place, frequently sleeping in the living room of relatives’ homes, which meant ten people crowded into a two-bedroom apartment. Her brothers never had their own beds, and meals were often sandwiches and cereal. One of the elements of dancing Diana most appreciated was that “I didn’t have to worry about food. I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to survive the next day.”
Natalie, who is white and twenty-nine, also used stripping to ensure her survival. Like Diana, she escaped a troubled home life; in her case, it was an abusive husband. I interviewed Natalie in the conference room at Pearls during a day shift on a warm May afternoon. After I asked, “what led you into dancing?” she launched into a harrowing story of domestic abuse:
I had a son. I was with his dad. I was a preschool teacher. I was a calm, mellow, good girl. And I was with this guy doing, basically, the marriage life without the certificate and the ring, and he ended up being a pretty crazy guy. His dad was a cop, and he ended up being really psycho, abusive, trying to hold me hostage. I lost my preschool job because of him hiding my car down the street. And finally, I couldn’t take anymore. My son was three. It seemed way too much, and I was like, “I have to escape from this.” Horrible, it was like a Lifetime movie. That day, I thought I was going to die. It was August, 2008/2009, when it happened. The bad day, and I ended up going to jail, too. Small town, his dad was a cop. They sent one cop for a domestic call. He hid my phone from me, took my car keys, hid my car keys, trapped me in the house. And my hair was down to my butt, so I had a lot of hair to grab. He was a big guy, too, and I was smaller. So after I was like, “I got to do something for survival.” My mom helped out a lot with babysitting and things and kept him away for a while. So I started dancing.
Maureen’s mother was not as supportive as Natalie’s. Disowned and kicked out of the house for being pregnant out of wedlock at seventeen, Maureen, who is white and thirty-seven, began stripping to support herself and her child. She shared, “I just had a kid, and I didn’t want to get in welfare. Actually it was a friend that used to hang out in the bars that got me the job and stuff. He’s a fireman. He said, ‘Why don’t you be a dancer?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not old enough.’ And they worked around that.” Many of the women I interviewed began dancing when they found themselves suddenly in need of quick cash, some after struggling to support themselves through more conventional means and unqualified for better-paying alternatives. Indeed, of the dancers I interviewed for this edition, 50 percent were teenagers when they started stripping.
Obtaining a well-paying job without a bachelor’s degree—and, unfortunately, sometimes with one—is increasingly difficult in the twenty-first-century United States. With deindustrialization—the outsourcing of relatively high-paying manufacturing jobs from the United States to foreign countries, along with a rise in service sector jobs (retail and fast food for example)—securing employment that pays a living wage is challenging, and the federal minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour as of June 2016. Delia, who is white and thirty-eight, decided stripping was her most practical option for making ends meet after she had a child:
I think that my major motivation for doing it was twofold: first, I could make a fairly good living for myself and my daughter, and I think that that was the only thing I had. I could sell myself through dancing, but I didn’t think I had the ability to do anything else. I didn’t have any education until my daughter graduated from high school. When she went away to college, I went with her. So, I really think that that wasn’t such a bad choice at the time, because it was an easy way to make money, and I had fun, for a while. It wasn’t much fun after a while, but for a while, it was a lot of fun. . . . I think that one of the reasons I did it was because it was an ego boost at that time.
Like Delia, many dancers enjoyed the attention they received when they stripped. However, the “ego boost” that Delia mentions here—feeling beautiful and sexy while receiving attention and adoration from men— was an unexpected perk of the job, not her main motivator for entering the business. Other women shared that they were attracted to dancing specifically because they found the prospect of breaking a taboo both exciting and liberating.
“I Was Curious. It Was Exciting!”
Performing in strip clubs can be attractive to women with adventurous, experience-oriented, I’ll-do-it-if-you-dare-me personalities. Exotic dancing is taboo, but it isn’t illegal. It’s dangerous, but the financial rewards may be high. And while dancing can be risky, it’s also exciting to break social norms. Further, strip club managers, owners, and more experienced dancers encourage an attitude of reckless abandon in those they recruit into stripping. Seasoned staff ply a potential applicant with alcohol, tell her she is as beautiful as any woman up on stage, and ask her, “Don’t you want to know what it’s like to dance? You could bring home a lot of money for just one stage set.” Morgan, who left home at seventeen, was trying to figure out how best to support herself, and not averse to the idea of combining sexuality with work. She shared, “I had several people tell me that it was a good way to make money, enough money to live on. I thought about dancing before, and I worked for a guy named Chris. The name of the company was Playful Entertainment. I’d done the lingerie shows at the hotel they used to have on Monday Night Football.” She joked, “I guess my profile fits a certain moral flexibility, but I wasn’t absolutely revolted by the idea.” Charlotte, general manager of Red Key, started in the industry as a dancer. She tried stripping in response to a dare: “I got dared to come and do an amateur contest by my sister-in-law. I won. And I made, I don’t know, $400 in two and a half minutes or five minutes, or whatever I was on stage. Then the manager offered me a job, and I came back and worked the next night, made $700 on a Friday night and called and quit my other job the next morning.” She had been managing a McDonald’s.
Candace, who is white and twenty-four, had only been dancing four months when I interviewed her during a day shift at Pearls. I was slightly stunned to learn that the most Candace had made in a shift so far was ninety-five dollars, and sometimes she had left work with no earnings. Why did Candace dance at all, I wondered? As we explored her background, she explained that she grew up in a very religious family and “spent most of her teenage years grounded.” Going to work was both an escape from her three children and two dogs, and allowed her to “party while on the job, and completely lose control and nobody’s going to care.” As Candace’s story illustrates, although money is most dancers’ main motivation, it is not everyone’s. It also makes sense that some women raised in rigid religious households might use stripping to resist familial and community expectations of female virtue.
Joscelyn explained that she was originally drawn to the novelty of strip club environments, and then found that dancing met emotional, creative, and financial needs. She enjoyed exploring a side of life shrouded with taboo. Being in a different milieu also freed her creatively—she designed imaginative costumes, and choreographed complicated dance performances for herself. Joscelyn shared:
When I first started, it was a whole new world. I had never been in a strip club before. I just had a stereotypical image that I had gathered from TV and media. I had no idea what to expect. I was exposed to lap dancing. It was very interesting. This was totally new to me. At first, when I saw the lap dancing, I was like, okay, there’s this woman on stage tying herself in a knot, and these women look like they are having sex with these men in the audience with the gyrations back and forth. I just had no idea what to expect. I also did fashion design, so I would make some of my costumes. And I had that creative outlet, so it was exciting for me. Needless to say, that is where it all started, and that was my little part-time job during school.
Approximately one-quarter of the women I interviewed were dancing while they worked on an undergraduate degree. As tuition for higher education continues to rise and government funding for education declines, while raunch culture normalizes the sexualization of women, some young women consider stripping a practical way to finance college. For many of those I interviewed, it was only a short step—through an admittedly large taboo—to transition from dressing provocatively for free to stripping for money. As Joscelyn wryly admitted, “I already had all the clothes.”
“I Was There. I Got Drunk”
Most clubs require an ongoing fresh supply of dancers because of the extremely high turnover rate in the profession. It is not unusual for a woman to try stripping for a night or two, feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable, and decide working at the factory, the reception desk, or the fast food restaurant isn’t so bad comparatively, and quit. Also, dancers regularly switch clubs when their take-home cash dwindles, hoping to get “new girl money” at another place. Clubs apply a variety of techniques to recruit dancers, including economic threats and bribes, flattery, peer pressure, and alcohol. Managers often hire women to wait tables they think have dancer potential, and then encourage them to “get up on stage.” Alcohol figures prominently in this transition. For example, Darby was sixteen years old when she started waitressing at Lace and Lashes, a small, working-class club in Silverton. The management at her club wielded both carrot and stick to get Darby on stage: they threatened her with a job loss while plying her with alcohol. Darby shared, “I started waitressing at Lace and Lashes. My girlfriend got me the job waitressing. I waitressed for two or three months, and I got used to the money. And then they got me real drunk one night, and they told me that they ‘really didn’t need as many waitresses.’ They were going to have to cut back, so I ‘needed to dance or find me a new job.’ They got me a little bit drunker, and I got up there. That’s all it was.”
Darby’s entrance into stripping is a clear illustration of workplace intimidation and exploitation. Management at Lace and Lashes illegally employed a minor, and (illegally) encouraged her to drink an inhibition-reducing intoxicant while threatening her livelihood in order to “en- courage” her to dance topless for men two to three times her age. April, who also started at Lace and Lashes as a waitress, ended up on stage after a heavy night of drinking. She recalled that the manager and her co-workers got her very drunk and then urged her to perform. She said, “I was coaxed into doing it. I was so drunk I can’t remember exact sentences or exact dialogue. I never thought I could do it. When I started, I thought my boobs are too small. I thought I was too ugly to do it, and then to have that sort of acceptance was in itself kind of flattering I think.” To indicate how common this transition is, April told me that the week I interviewed her three women at the Velvet Lounge had changed from waitress to dancer.
Some women, like Julie, make sober decisions to shift from waitress to dancer. Working in another position in a strip bar offers women the opportunity to observe what stripping entails and to become comfortable in the environment. Julie explained that, after waitressing at Pearls for a few months, she recognized that dancers made more money than waitresses doing less work:
Waitressing, you work very hard. You’re always on your feet; you’re on five-inch heels. But dancers get to sit most of the night. Big difference. Waitresses cannot sit. They don’t get any breaks. You deal with everything in the club, where dancers don’t have to. Dancers are pampered: they sit down, they work when they want to work ’cause their money is all on tips, so they’re making their own money at their own pace. You get to party if you want to. You sit down. You can socialize. It’s a lot different. Waitresses, no one cares, no one notices you, no one’s polite with you. Most men want to spend their money on the dancers. So whereas a waitress is getting seventy-five cents maybe to a five-dollar tip, they’re getting a fifty- to a hundred-dollar tip.
Management also reinforces the prestige of stripping relative to other employment in strip clubs by allowing dancers more leeway in their job responsibilities: dancers usually set their own hours, take whatever days off they wish, and, when at work, choose their customers. The alcohol, the flattery, the money and attention all serve to acclimate women into the norms of the strip bar.
Some of the women I interviewed entered strip clubs planning to waitress, like Anna and Melinda, to learn upon arrival that the club was only hiring dancers. Anna, who is twenty and biracial, went to Red Key looking for a waitressing job, and when management said they were not hiring waitresses she told herself:
“I’m not going to be one of those nasty, whore strippers.” Came in here, walked out, saw a text message. I needed to make some money. Came back in and said, “I’ll work for one night. I need to make some quick money for my books.” Ended up making $900 that first night, and I was like, “Wow, this is a lot of money! I’m going to work here for a little bit, get my money up, and get out.” And that never happened. I’m here two years later.
Melinda, who is white and twenty-four, had a similar experience at Vixens:
I walked into a bar. I was going to be a waitress. A little hole-in-the-wall, a backside country bar, and I walked in and they told me they weren’t hiring for waitresses, but they were like, “We’re hiring for dancers.” And I was like, “I don’t know if I want to be a dancer.” They’re like, “Try it anyway.” So they put me onstage ten minutes later. They had this girl take me in the dressing room and put me in her clothes, and they put me onstage. I stayed, and worked the rest of the night, and made a lot of money. I was pretty happy. I was like, “I guess I’ll keep doing this.”
Novice dancers are usually heavily tipped their first time onstage. Melinda continued, “Well, I was nervous. They put me onstage, but as soon as guys come up and start handing you money, you start feeling a little bit better about being up there. I was nervous for about two minutes, and then after that, I had a lot of fun because I was the new girl. And when you’re the new girl, people will give you all kinds of money so you get all geared up feeling good about yourself. And then, after that, dancing seems a little bit easier.”
Charlotte, manager of Red Key, has seen a great many women begin, continue, and exit stripping. As we reviewed the variety of dancers she has hired, Charlotte named a group I had not included in the original edition of Stripped, and one that well illustrates the situations of several women I interviewed, including Maureen, Natalie, and Diana: “undereducated.” In addition to the career dancers, college students, and young women who want “nice things,” Charlotte explained that the undereducated group “don’t feel like they can do anything else. They didn’t graduate high school. They don’t want to work in fast food. They were probably not the most popular people in high school.” She concluded, “I think that this job actually helps that group.” Stripping allows such disadvantaged women the financial means to support themselves while providing them with the (temporary) psychologically reparative self-esteem boost of receiving money and attention for being attractive. Looking closely at my research assistant Hannah (who was present at this interview), Charlotte continued, “If you think about this real hard, you’ll think of a really good example of this—a young lady that’s here today. Girl-next-door, came in literally off the street. She does have children, but she literally came in off the street. She had no money. She had—from what I’ve gathered—a fairly rough life.” Charlotte may have been describing Whitney, whose mother had also been an exotic dancer.
Negative stereotypes about sex workers plague exotic dancers, and managing the stigma of the work is, for many, the most taxing element of stripping. However, having a friend, relative, or partner who dances, and/or encourages one to dance can normalize the process of becoming an exotic dancer, making it less scary, disturbing, and deviant. For example, Whitney, who is white and eighteen, grew up with a mother who danced for fifteen years. She shared that after she and her friends went to Red Key one night and saw what the work involved, she thought, “Okay, well my mom can do it. I guess I can.” With no higher education, her (dancer) mother in jail, and two children (aged two and three) to support, Whitney explained that she works at Red Key “to take care of my kids.” Of the women I interviewed, two had mothers who had danced, two had sisters who were dancers, and three had friends who started dancing with them, or introduced them to it.
Some, like Danielle, who is white and thirty-two, had male partners that encouraged them to dance. Danielle explained, “My husband showed me what strip clubs were.” Throughout our interview, Danielle repeatedly said that the main reason she stripped was for the attention. Bullied often as a child and adolescent, she craved the approval of others, and was grateful the customers “liked” her. From a small town in Texas, recently relocated to a small town in Utah, Danielle felt excited that her husband wanted her to dance. She explained it “was just fantasies more than anything for him” although, upon inquiring, I learned that he “really didn’t work much” and that Danielle’s dancing income supported them.
John, who is white and forty-eight, also had a family member introduce him to the sex industry when he was underage: his biological father. Adopted as an infant by his stepfather, John described a close relationship with his adopted father. But, like many adopted children, he was curious about his biological parent, and his mother facilitated a meeting between them when he was sixteen. John was surprised and impressed to discover that his biological father lived in a mansion in California with the “largest collection of Ferraris in North America, limos, and two yachts.” Then he learned that his father owned a number of high-end strip clubs. John explained, “He actually pioneered the business going from a ‘go-go bar’ to a gentleman’s club, and was very well known in the industry. They had huge clubs, big clubs, with celebrities, everybody coming into them. They had clubs in Florida, California, and Hawaii.” Young, impressionable, and eager for his biological father’s acceptance, John began working for him first doing cleaning, and other odd jobs, then bartending when he turned twenty-one, security, management in his mid-twenties, to eventually becoming a club owner himself. His father wanted him to learn “the whole business.” John worked in (or owned) strip bars in California, Hawaii, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Kentucky over the course of twenty-seven years. John called men who live off the income of dancers, like Danielle’s husband, “pimps” and “deadbeat dads.” Some classify such individuals as “traffickers.”
(This article originally appeared on alternet.com and was written by Bernadette Barton)