Stripped

When I asked Felix if her job as pole-dancing stripper made her feel exploited, she replied with these words of wisdom: “All labor is exploitative.”

Not what I expected, but her words rang true in my ears. I remembered a job that threatened to fire me if I logged the overtime hours they made me work. I remembered a boss commenting on my breasts, and when I threatened to report him he laughed and said those classic words, “Who’s going to believe you?” Are those instances any more exploitative than Felix choosing to fondle her breasts for money?

“The idea that somehow stripping or any sort of sex-related work is exploitative to women—I don’t see how it’s any more exploitative than any other labor,” she said. “[Men] are giving me a fair exchange for services in an environment where I have the support and the choice to share that with them. In public, if a man wants to ogle me, I receive no benefit from that transaction. In the club, he pays for that right that I have explicitly given him. I have found it to be very empowering.”

Female empowerment is a core ideology of the feminist movement, yet many people see stripping as a hinderance to the pursuit of female equality. While Felix understands that viewpoint, she says it often stems from a misunderstanding of the strip club environment and the reasons why girls choose to pole dance.

“The patriarchal bargain is where you are gaining power individually by conforming to patriarchal ideas at the expense of women as a whole. I’m a girly-girl and always have been—gender roles are part of the patriarchal bargain, but that is who I am. Should I stop being who I am to conform to what feminists think I should be? Let people be who they are—that is really what thoughtful feminism is about—just let people be who they are.”

And Felix is definitely a soulful dancer. Sitting at her club, watching her dance and perform amazing feats of strength on the pole, her grace and attitude seemed more on display than her C-cup breasts. The men watching her weren’t seedy or muttering inappropriate things—even when she climbed on the rack and pressed her breasts into their faces, they remained respectful. Unlike some clubs that give stripping a bad reputation, Felix’s club fully supports dancer safety.

“At my club, if someone is making [a dancer] uncomfortable, if doesn’t matter if they’ve crossed some specific line like groping, if he’s in any way a douche, whatever that means [to the dancer], they’ll kick him out. It’s increased my confidence in that I’m much more comfortable in dealing with attention that I don’t want. I’m now used to telling people that they’re making me uncomfortable—and that they need to stop what they’re doing.”

Again her words reminded me of a situation I faced a few months ago where a male friend kept commenting on my body, kept calling me sexy, and kept whispering discomforting “compliments” in my ear. I asked a mutual friend for advice, and she said he was “harmless,” that he didn’t mean anything by it. Eventually I asked him to stop. Clearly offended, he said that “he wasn’t very good at self control.” Unlike Felix, I didn’t have a bouncer to reprimand this man’s behavior, and my complaint was viewed as over-reactionary and rude, something to be discarded.

I envy Felix’s confidence in enforcing her boundaries, which now extends to her non-stripping life as well. (During a Halloween party, a drunk man who had been trying to grope women on the dance floor only to have his behavior ignored, came up and stroked Felix’s back. She immediately told him it was creepy and that he needed to leave.)

The thought crossed my mind that young women could benefit from Felix’s experience as a stripper. To be given the opportunity to display their sexuality (however they choose) and be allowed to accept or decline sexualized attention without repercussion—to be supported in their choice regardless of whether the intent was “harmless”—could severely flip the cat-calling, “she was asking for it” culture women are forced to accept today.

Strangely, it seems Felix is objectified less in her role as a stripper.

“I kind of had this view of the strip club regular being this creepy old man who’s only there to ogle you, but the vast majority of regulars—shocker—see us as people. People they like to spend time with. You can’t objectify someone and simultaneously see them as a person,” she said. “Just because they’re able to see my body and that I’m displaying my sexuality doesn’t mean I’m being objectified; they just know me as a person, including my sexuality, including my body. A vast majority of customers are there to appreciate the complete package.”

And displaying that package earns her upwards of $30 an hour in an environment where she gets to flirt, dance, and build the kind of brass-balls confidence most women would kill for—and don’t forget the muscles. After months of climbing the pole, Felix has gotten stronger. She eagerly pulled me into the bathroom after our interview and removed her shirt to show me; her lats are indeed impressive.

For a job that’s widely viewed as immoral, Felix’s stance on stripping (and the benefits she receives from it) seems more empowering than it’s given credit for. Maybe it’s time we pull back the curtain and remove the stigma—we might like what we see.

***

Cover photo courtesy of Mark Cheyne.

Note: To protect the source of this article, any and all names have been changed.

8 responses to “Stripped

  1. it’s definitely a topic that can be looked at from so many angles and the most important one to me is the point of view of the woman/women in the industry. i know that when i worked in that realm, i may have felt differently about it depending on my age, life outside the club and the money i made. if you are able to negotiate the exchange and not get too bogged down in the culture or re-traumatize your self instead of asserting your limits and freedoms then it could be a reasonable job. it can also be dumb, dangerous and depressing if you are not ready or too young or didn’t feel like it was a choice. that’s just another side. i can definitely say when weighed between sex work and any other job i have ever done, i met more cool women, examined things with a more critical and compassionate eye and had more time to work on art than any job i had before or after.

  2. A co-worker recently began her job as a dancer in a gentlemen’s club, in addition to the job she works at with me (her day job and mine are in retail stores). She’s much younger than I and tends to get a lot of unwanted attention from many of our customers and at times she used to be hesitant in putting men in their place. Since beginning her second job as a dancer, her confidence levels and awareness of what she deems appropriate and inappropriate have changed and she stands up for herself much more now. I’m not sure if we can contribute this change to her new job, but I do notice she won’t take much disrespect now and that’s nice to see.

  3. I go back and forth on this issue quite a bit, and I really appreciate the perspective that you and Felix bring here. I know exactly what you mean when it comes to clothes-on job exploitation. The idea of turning tables and finding power in a position commonly thought of as vulnerable is refreshing.

  4. Maybe I’ve been to the wrong strip clubs. I get creeped out by the objectification I see on both sides of the table. The men objectifying the women as sex objects, and the women objectifying the men as money opportunities. I didn’t see a lot of respect on either side, just two people getting theirs from the other. Now, plenty of non-sex work transactions can be this way too, and those make me uncomfortable as well. The problem I see is that we don’t live in a vacuum or any semblance of equality. Stripping is so loaded in our culture with all of the issues we discuss on this site. Men don’t experience that nearly as much. Neither are there nearly as many male strippers. There is also a guilty by association factor. As a woman leaving a strip club, how many have been harassed by the same douche bags the club threw out? When men and women are bombarded by sexualized imagery of women throughout all aspects of life, we subconsciously objectify each other more. Women and men are less likely to take a sexually provocatively dressed (or undressed) woman seriously. So then, what, I get to deal with sexism because some coworker visits the strip club too often? Likewise a stripper gets to be disrespected because of her line of work? Another point is that genuinely heinous activities like human trafficking can masquerade as legitimate businesses behind the veil of legal sex work. Portland has this problem.
    You can have a respectful exchange. I experienced this at a sex show in Amsterdam. You can also have creepy crap, like what I’ve experienced in Portland, and in some cases illegal horrible things.
    As such, I feel like stripping just plays further into the patriarchy, which is unfortunate for women as a whole, and unfortunate for the women who genuinely enjoy this work. It’s not just two people involved in an exchange. There is so much more.

    • To a large extent I agree with you. The reason I found Felix’s story so interesting was that her club seems like a place that is trying to change the standards of the normal strip club. If you want to play, you have to behave.Seedy male behavior goes largely unpunished or even ignored in our society, thus they are raised to believe it is acceptable—that they can get away with it. If places like strip clubs demanded respectful behavior, I wonder what that would do to change the way men behave as a whole?

      I’m an animal trainer and behaviorist by trade, so I’ve spent a lot of time learning about how behavior works and how it’s propagated. Getting rid of strip clubs or sex work isn’t going to change male behavior. The behavior itself is what needs to be addressed, and the only way that will change is by how the behavior is responded to. I like that she has the power to say no. It teaches respect. It teaches that if you want to be in a strip club, you have to behave correctly. I don’t have that power if a dude is creeping on me in an elevator. I’m considered rude and get shamed for saying something. That’s the kind of behavior and male entitlement that needs to be addressed.

  5. I love this, and we need more exposure to the general public that sex work is truly a choice, and has positive as well as negative aspects, just like all jobs and all choices.

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