“I hate bachelor parties,” the petite blonde in a pink bikini sitting beside me at the bar said. “I hate guys who are in here because they think they have to be in here and not because they want to be here. You’d think we were dentists asking to pull out their teeth. You don’t need local anesthesia! It’s a fucking lap dance!”
She’s not alone. When you look at stripping for what it is — a job — and consider what it’s like to have to provide any semblance of customer service to someone who doesn’t really want the product or service, you begin to get an idea of what this situation is like. Of course, when you’re working at Best Buy, you don’t often encounter people who don’t really want to be there. They might be indecisive about the gadgets they’re looking at, but it’s not often that you’re going to encounter someone with a pained expression on their face because they just don’t want to be there. The closest comparison I can come up with is the telemarketer. Most people hate them. I respect them.
When “civilians” think of strip clubs, they imagine exuberant expressions on the faces of the men who frequent them. I wish that were the case. It’s not. The bachelor party, which has turned the strip club into a requirement, is a prime example. Some embrace it as a good reason as any to let loose, but a percentage seem to enter with shame, embarrassment, resentment, irritation, and — the worst — that breed of “understanding” that is closer to pity than anything a guy might have picked up in a gender studies class at some point during their undergrad years.
Case in point: this piece by Nathan Graziano at The Good Men Project:
I’m humiliated by the fact that this woman is being paid to feign interest in me — if they even bother to feign it — only for the duration of Aerosmith’s “Angel.”
I also become hyper-conscious of the power dynamic at work. On one hand, the dancer is being paid for a service, which makes her in some way indentured to the man. And there’s always the arguable point that it objectifies and denigrates the woman, thus giving the man the upper hand.
However, like an actress, the dancer only has to play the role of temptress for a limited amount of time. And while the male is clearly attracted to her and contriving absurd scenarios where the dancer might actually sleep with him, the female is dividing numbers in her head — “Forty dollars for four minutes is ten bucks a minute, which makes six cents a second to sit on this chump’s lap.”
I wonder whether anyone who walks into a Starbucks worries for a moment about whether the barista is being denigrated, standing there hour after hour for minimum wage, smiling and being nice no matter how impatient and obsessive compulsive the customer acts about his soy latte. The barista is not indentured to the costumer, even if she knows that being very accommodating will score her some cash in the tip jar. “The customer is always right!” is not something any manager has ever said at a strip club I’ve set foot in. Ever. Even the high rollers in the champagne room. And if they tried to pull something like that on me or any dancer I know, they’d be on their knees in front of a lawyer before the DJ could even think of putting on Aerosmith.
Mind you, it does happen. But combating abuses in the industry requires something completely different than pitying looks. It requires organization and a stance against a society that refuses to see sex work as a legitimate thing, and the people within that industry as workers who deserve rights like anyone else who has a job.
But I know what Graziano is talking about. When I was dancing, I would often encounter this sort of man. I will never forget one occasion — a man had spent several minutes griping about his job; he hated the schedule, he hated his clients, he hated the paperwork, he was bored, he was tired, and so on. I navigated the conversation away from all the things he hated by asking what he loved to do. We spent several more minutes discussing his love of sailing and the fact he hadn’t spent any time on his boat in the past couple of years.
“You have the power to change that, you know,” I said. “When was the last time you took a vacation or personal day?”
“I don’t even know,” he responded.
“Why not do it? What, exactly, is stopping you?”
He paused for a moment, then smiled. “You’re really something, you know. I can’t believe I am having this conversation at a goddamn strip club. You’re right! I need to just take some time off, just go out to the water.”
He laughed and looked around.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “This is not who you are.”
“‘This’ meaning a strip club?” I asked. “I’m not a strip club any more than you are your office.”
“I mean, you are doing something more than this, right?” he asked. “This isn’t the last stop for you, right? You are so much more than this.”
“I do a lot of things. The last stop is death. And yes, I am much more than any job I hold,” I answered his questions with mild irritation. Before it could overcome me, I switched tracks: “Have you ever been to Starbucks?”
“Yeah?” he responded, slightly uncertain.
“Ever met a barista who’s really nice?”
“Have you ever told her, after some conversation, that she is so much more than her job, that you hope she is going places, that what she does is beneath her?”
He didn’t respond.
“What would you do if I walked into your office, looked down my nose at you and said, ‘I don’t really know you, but you can do so much better. I’m just a client, but I know how this works better than you and I think this shit is beneath you. Anyway, here is some money, now get me my project specs.’ Does that sound motivating to you?”
“So why are you saying it to me?” I asked. “I stand to make six figures a year if I work really hard. But I don’t work hard. I work sporadically. I choose my own hours. I don’t dance for anyone I don’t want to dance for. I come in whenever I want and leave whenever I want. I meet really interesting people. I connect with them, I share a moment. It’s not just a song; it’s a moment we’re having that we’ll never get back. It may change everything or become just one more vignette in the carnival of experience. You never know. That’s the best part. Sure, I get up on that stage and take off my top. You think that’s demeaning? I think it’s beautiful. This is my body, and I love it and respect it the same way I love and respect my brain, which I also gyrate for a price. I think the only differences between you and me are the way we file taxes, the health benefits, the ready-made retirement plan and the fact I don’t have to take it in the ass from my boss because I am my boss.”
“When you put it that way, your job sounds better than mine.”
“It’s not a contest,” I said. “Work is work. We do what we gotta do in the hopes we’ll have a shot at doing what we wanna do, whether that has anything to do with a career or not.”
Understandably, there is some degree of privilege in my experience. I was dancing by choice, not circumstance. Many women in the industry dance because their circumstances limit their options. But that’s not much different than having to take a retail or waitressing gig. How many people do that because they want to? Why do we honor their choices and call them hard-working but deny sex workers the same right? Why are baristas and attorneys and engineers allowed to whine about hating their jobs while sex workers are questioned about their choices every time they have the audacity to complain about theirs?
Everyone has great days and bad days at work. Everyone lives through workplace situations that are difficult. Everyone has moments of recognition and empowerment and days that make them simply want to bash their heads into the nearest surface. No one questions the barista, the manager, the editor, the programmer about their choices. No one says they’re letting themselves be exploited. No one walks into their workplaces with pity in their eyes or feels resentment because they have to pay to receive a good or service. Most people pride themselves on tipping their waiter decently!
And yet, if you are not fully dressed, it doesn’t matter if you speak seven languages, kick ass on World of Warcraft, are working on a book, paying your way through law school, supporting your kids, saving your mortgage, or planning to take the next year off to travel the world. You are no more than a stripper and you can do so much better.
Looking at me as a human doesn’t mean feeling sorry for me because I am sitting there, topless. It means realizing that I, just like you, am a multidimensional being who has likes and dislikes, boundaries, ideas, emotions, and dreams. Like you, I am more than the job you see me doing, this one tiny facet of a life that is filled with an incredible array of things no one else will ever truly grasp. Like you, I shouldn’t have to justify why I am doing what I am doing to everyone who walks in the door. Just let me do my job the same way I would let you do yours if I were to walk into your office.
And just what is my job? My job is reading you. It’s determining whether you want me to help you bring out what’s preoccupying you to pick apart, or distract you from that reality. My job is catalyzed in flesh, yes, but really, I’m trafficking in intimacy. There’s something beautiful in those moments shared between strangers who have, beyond the briefest transaction, no obligations toward one another beyond three minutes — or thirty, or an hour, or three hours.
I’m not here counting how many cents I am making every second I sit on your lap. I’m not here to make you believe I desire you. I’m here to make a moment. Take that moment. It belongs to you.
Header image by Jessica Janson.