Susan Elizabeth Shepard started stripping shortly after her eighteenth birthday. She continued to dance during university and after receiving her bachelor’s degree in English, decided to forego the newsroom in favor of the more lucrative opportunity offered by stripping. Over the summer, she chronicled her experience wildcatting — chasing the best returns in modern American boomtowns. It’s an incredible piece about what it means to take such chances, about this country, and about what it’s like, sometimes, for strippers. The following is an excerpt, but I strongly recommend you take a moment to read the original piece in its entirety:
Mineral extraction economies activate this neural mechanism: wildcatting, prospecting for gold — gambles that may pay off. Today it’s no longer the individual who makes these scores, of course, it’s corporations, but the work and opportunity draws those with nothing to lose but the trying. California in 1849, Colorado in 1859, Montana in 1883, Texas and Oklahoma in 1912, Alaska in 1970, North Dakota in 2008 — every time thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a mining boom, it plays out thusly: Someone finds a valuable resource. People hear about it and flock to the area. These people are mainly men. The newly populated area is lawless and lacks the civilizing influence of family life. Among the first women to show up are prostitutes. For a while, everyone makes money and has fun. Or some people do, some gambles pay off. Then the resource dries up or its price drops, and the gamble isn’t profitable anymore, and the town eventually dries up or turns into a tourist attraction — or San Francisco, if it’s lucky. Because our brains are wired to want to continue taking that chance, everyone keeps gambling, no one thinks the boom will bust. It will. It always will.
Williston [North Dakota] is booming right now. I’ve worked there since 2007, and oil has changed the town both completely and not at all. Whispers’ transition from typically tiny, haphazard small-town strip club into one trying to balance down home and big city is not working out too well, and it’s an example of the boomÃ¢â‚¬â€œbust cycle writ small. Capitalism’s inherent gamble plays out on a small stage with a chrome pole while lessons in second chances and knowing when to cut your losses are there to take to heart or ignore. It’s more America than anywhere I’ve been. Some oil workers think improvements in drilling and fracking technology will sustain the economy for decades, but that’s not my area of expertise. What I do know about is what it’s like to revisit a place you hate again and again over the span of six years, watch it change, and realize you’re watching history repeating and that you’re just another camp follower along the frontier, profiting from mineral extraction booms, chasing opportunity and running from stagnation.
[…] Every Super Bowl/Olympics/national political party convention brings stories about sex workers coming to town, be it a piece about trafficking hysteria, an increase in arrests, or how the city’s strip clubs are planning to double their staff for the event. Strippers travel to find places where the cash flow is better than at home. When there are longer-term economic shifts in play, workers who can will move to better areas. That’s why dancers traveled to New Orleans post-Katrina, when cleanup crews were in town. It’s why they go to Myrtle Beach during golf season, or Alaska in the summer, or Vegas, any time.
[…] Traveling intensifies everything about stripping. Good nights feel twice as good, bad ones make you cry and question everything. When things are going well, the crappy motel has character and its quirks are tolerable. When they aren’t, every irritant is a reminder that you’ve forsaken the comforts of home to seek your fortune. I imagine oil field workers experience the same thing, although their salaries are guaranteed more than those of strippers. But they sleep in group housing, are far from home, and have taken a chance too. When it pays off, with fat paychecks to deposit or stacks of cash to take home, it feels like you’re living the American dream. Not everyone would just up and head for this remote place. Those who do, and who profit from it, congratulate themselves on their intrepid nature and fortitude. I never met a boring stripper in Williston. Some were awesome and some were train wrecks, but never were they dull. I keep in touch with a surprising number of them, and I think this is because once you’ve worked there, it’s like you went to boot camp together.
While at first pseudonymous, Shepard eventually came out as a sex worker. She continues to write about her experiences and issues surrounding sex work, and co-founded the blog Tits and Sass.