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My opinions in this essay do not include modern Burlesque, http://pinterest.com/prettyinplague/modern-burlesque-pin-up/, which is theatrical entertainment promoting a body-positive environment celebrating real-life femininity.
In Burlesque, there is no lap dancing, but there is in most strip clubs, which turns dancing on a stage into prostitution. And while women choose to take their clothes off in exchange for money, it is not for pleasure but for financial stability. In my experience, strippers do not come from Ivy League, middle-class backgrounds with ample support and opportunities, but are single moms without an education. So, before you judge a woman by what she does for a living, think about how she may have gotten there. Paying girls to dance naked is not about morality; it is about social class.
What do you think of when you see this image?
The most popular answer I receive is, “sexy, strong, feminine. If only I looked like her, I’d do it too.”
The second answer I hear is, “Oppression. Not comfortable. On display. Drug abuse. Single mother with an extra job. Sexual and physical abuse.”
The last answer I get from women is, “Eww.” They are disgusted and imagine the girl to be a nymphomaniac. Cheap. Slutty. Lower class. Beneath her. Not someone she would ever be friends with. Not a job she would ever have, or want, or do. Fortunately for her, having enough of a net to catch her, supportive parents and/or friends, she would never find herself in a desperate enough situation. And yet, she judges those who are. Why?
This, my readers, is what I am getting to. Do I think that stripping is feminism, or empowering to women? No, I do not. But young girls from working-class families are routinely taken advantage of, made to feel that their beauty gives them power, told their beauty will pay them more than waitressing or any other low-skilled job, and even more than secretarial work in many cases. Most strippers are single moms who have not gone to college, have been emotionally and/or sexually abused as a child, and have never before felt anything but powerless. You do not see upperclass girls who’ve attended prep school, stripping. And if by chance you do, then they’re probably writing a book or paper about their experience. With a financial safety net to catch her, the middle-class girl’s career choice is done more on a dare than necessity.
Dancers are daughters of construction workers, not doctors.
I know this because that is the job I had on and off for 15 years. Before art classes and books. What is interesting to me now, ten years out of the business, is that in Jersey we didn’t call ourselves strippers. We were dancers. Even the customers called us that. This was because, unlike the rest of the country where bars were either nude or topless, in 1991, on the East Coast, it was, “Go-Go.” Unlike nude bars, we weren’t allowed to take anything off further than a bra and G-string, the equivalent of a tiny bathing suit.
And for 15 minutes we would dance alone on a long, rectangular stage to songs that we ourselves picked. I preferred music by Korn and Marilyn Manson, and wearing giant, black boots. Following our dance routine, for another 15 minutes we walked along the inside of a bar collecting tips, while the next dancer was up on stage. Usually, the tip was just a dollar, but by the end of my career, I could get more. But when I danced nude, years later, well, everything was different then.
In a nude club, there really isn’t much dancing, and there isn’t a bar between the girl and the patrons. Just like every sleazy stripper bar you’ve ever seen in bad cop shows on TV, it’s like that. Some try to be nicer, more high class, with black lacquer stages and a man in a tuxedo holding the dancer’s hand as she comes down the stairs, but the underlying sleaze is still there. You don’t make money while you are on the stage, which is only for two songs: one to take your clothes off and one to do floor work - lying on your back and swinging your legs around to the music, sans underwear, which, by the time your life leads you to working for your rent and groceries at a nude bar, you are surprisingly comfortable doing this. Seeing naked girls was more normal to me, at that time, than seeing anything that went on outside in the ‘real world.’ This world I could understand. It had few boundaries, but I knew what they were. It was out ‘there’ that I’d get embarrassed and hurt, and didn’t know what would come at me next.
I tell you all of this because when you first looked at that icon, you probably had your mind made up about what you saw without considering that each woman behind that icon has a different story.
Feminism is actually about empowering girls BEFORE they make bad choices, and not judging them when they do.
If you’ve read my story in the book, ART SAVES, then you know about my anxiety and eating disorder. By the age of 20, I had already not eaten solid food for three years and was placed into a group home with mental patients. I had a drug and alcohol past and, on paper, I looked like I belonged there. But in comparison, I was much more high functioning than my housemates, all of whom heard voices or felt people touching them who weren’t there. Like the guy who wore a sign an aide must have made that hung around his neck that said, “Ghosts Go Home.” There was a guy who drank pots of coffee and made sounds like a horse, I mean, all the time. He spoke only ‘horse.’ And the guy who wore a giant cross and acted like a priest but would burst randomly into obscenities. Then there was my roommate who was on so much psychotropic medication that her voice was monotone - with no emotion whatsoever. Sometimes she twitched.
The group home is where they put me after a 32-day stay in a rehabilitation center because they didn’t know what to do with me next. They couldn’t send me home because my parents’ nonstop fighting broke me in the first place, and dad was drinking tequila and smashing furniture. (He never hit any of us, I want to make that clear. But chairs were fair game. Mostly, he broke his knuckles when he’d hit a beam in a wall during one of my parents’ fights).
I found out about Go-Go from a guy I met in Narcotics Anonymous, and even though I weighed less than 80 pounds, I was hired immediately and started making money. However dysfunctional it felt to dance in a G-string for men 2 to 3 times my age, accepting dollars in my cleavage as they groped my nipple, it was better than Crazyland at home. It enabled me to find a way out when I was out of options. And because the job allowed me to make enough to live in my own apartment, I began to heal, and eat, and slowly get better. I danced just often enough to make enough to survive. For a fk’d up girl like me, with low self-esteem and an eating disorder, it felt like salvation.
A student in my Art Journal class today, when writing about Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan, said “Feminism has the face of a 14 yr old.” And it does. If I had received rape counseling when I was 17, if I had a school system that realized I was in trouble, if the rehabilitation facility had a more appropriate place to send me instead of dumping me in a home full of mental patients. If society cared for its lost girls, I could have had a chance earlier, gone to school earlier, felt I mattered, earlier. Instead, I was on my own surviving the best way I could. It got me out, but I paid a dear price. If a stripper tells you she loves her job, well, she loves the money, and she loves the glitter, and wearing costumes that the other girls will say “OOH, I like that!” But she doesn’t love the guys. These days there isn’t even Go-Go anymore. They don’t pay the girls a salary at all - they work only for tips, which includes lap dancing - something to degrade the girls even more. The day I found out that I could get student loans, I quit stripping, but it took me 15 years to find out about them and to feel like I was smart enough to get through school. Especially after all those years of not living ‘normally.’
You can tell me that your stripper friend loves her job and feels empowered by it, but if she could make the same amount of money doing something else, she would. Because lap dancing is the only way dancers make money today. And no matter what you may have heard, 25-year-old young men are not the main patrons of strip clubs - it is older men, ages 35-75, who want access to 19 year old girls. The older men are clothed, and the girls need the money. A perfectly fair exchange, huh? A lap dance, if case you don’t know, is where the girl straddles a guy and grinds for the duration of a song. That is the sole way a stripper gets paid. At the end of the night, she has to pay the house $100.00, and $50 to the DJ, and may or may not have to pay the club a percentage of her tips. If it was a slow night (there are often 20 or more girls working at the same time), she still has to pay her fees regardless of whether or not she actually made enough to cover them, especially in the, ‘better,’ clubs.
I am not saying that women should not have the opportunity to do what they want to with their own bodies. They should. But it is easy for the middle class to pass judgment on the desperate and unskilled. Waitressing pays less than minimum wage, about $2.00 an hour. Plus tips sure, we all know how wealthy waitresses are; they were listed in Forbes magazine last week, right? Grinding pays more. If you grew up with security and opportunity, be thankful you didn’t have to make these choices. Because to survive, many women do.
Strippers are strong, intelligent, and no matter what they tell you, wounded. While Burlesque dancers demonstrate empowered sexuality, strippers are paid to be dehumanized. Rather than celebrating the woman and letting her dance, strippers are made to benefit the client physically. And while you and I can argue the empowerment of prostitution, I will go on a ledge and say, this is about exploitation and social class. If you have a safety net, if you have true security, straddling a sweaty fifty-year-old in spandex is not what most women would choose to do. The human form, in all its sizes, is beautiful, and should be rejoiced. Yay! Hiring someone to sit on your lap, on the other hand, is taking advantage of a human being who needs money and making them detach emotionally for your pleasure. It is dehumanizing someone of a lower social status. It is capitalism without a conscience.
This post is an excerpt of my Spring class Tell Your Story.
This workshop is available as Self Guided until Dec. 31. 2013