Earlier this year, Iceland passed a stripping ban, shutting down every lap dance club and tittie bar in the country. It was heralded as feminist victory throughout the world. Steinunn Valdis Oskarsdottir, a lawmaker in Iceland, told CBC, “Women who work at strip clubs are in many cases the victims of human trafficking and other kinds of abuse. I have been working in this field for almost 15 years and not yet have I met one woman who dances at strip clubs because she wants to.”
I read that statement in bed one morning after a night of performing lap dances and nearly laughed at its boldness. I thought it was a bit of a stretch to say that she has not met one single dancer who enjoys her work. While I can’t speak for every dancer, I can speak for myself. I am a stripper and a feminist and this is my story.
I was sitting in a lobby of a strip club waiting for the manager to arrive, biting my nails awkwardly. Three girls in baggy shorts walked in laughing together and gave me a knowing smile. A beautiful, middle-aged woman walked up to me and, sensing my nervousness, took my hand and walked me through the door into the club. Adjusting my eyes to the darkness, I entered the alluring and drastically misunderstood world of stripping and never looked back.
Three weeks before, I had made a $700 payment on my private student loan, leaving my savings account with a balance of $3. I had an entry-level job, but up until that point, I hadn’t had to think about my overwhelming loan, as it was automatically deducted from a savings account separate from my living expenses. I reminded myself that I just about made enough, but this huge monthly payment was a lot to swallow.
“You will be able to manage,” my boyfriend reassured me. “Maybe you won’t be able to afford to live the lifestyle you are living now. You might have to cut down on all the Mexican food you eat, and you won’t be able to save as much, but you will manage.”
Not wanting to live month-to-month or to give up my beloved burritos, I explored my options. I could turn to my parents if needed, but I didn’t want to place an unfair burden on their finances. It was me, after all, who choose to go to a private college. Alternatively, I could take a job in hospitality, but I was utterly useless in busy times, often forgetting people’s orders.
Besides, if I was going to hustle for tips in a restaurant or bar, I felt I might as well make big bucks. I tossed and turned over the idea of stripping.
My initial hesitancy was not over getting nude or performing a lap dance. I loved being nude and I was a sexually open person. My uneasiness was not a moral dilemma. I was not against sex work of any kind, as long as the workers worked in safe environments and were there by choice.
Nor was my fear a feminist debate. It was something else. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. But despite my reluctance, I was fascinated.
On my first shift, I was confronted with a cloud of hairspray and of a sea of naked bodies. Ten girls filled a tiny room — I was struck by the diversity among them. Women of all different sizes with small and large boobs (fake and real). Skinny and curvy bodies layered with stretch marks and cellulite. The women before me smashed all the stereotypes I had of strippers — they were of all different races and nationalities and some were well into their thirties. They were just normal women swapping stories about their partners and griping about their day jobs. I saw their beauty in their confidence, in the flip of their hair, in their smiles.
After I put on my makeup, I joined the other girls surrounding the bar and ordered a water. Three middle-aged men walked in, looking nervous. They sat down in chairs, their eyes diverted down, eying their drinks. I watched, mesmerized, as three girls approached them. Shaking the guys’ hands, the girls slid in next to them with ease. The men were apprehensive at first, but eventually opened up, laughing along with the girls’ smiling, encouraging faces.
After ten minutes, the girls lead the men back into the semi-private room. The room was filled with individual couches, separated by fringed curtains. Watching from the bar, so many questions came to mind. What did the girls talk about? How did they sell lap dances? I had the assumption that women would get onstage and men would pick their choice for a private, similar to the way they would shop for cars or cattle, but these girls hadn’t even gone onstage.
People think stripping is about looks, that you make money from simply dancing and looking good. But I clearly saw from my first hour on the job that this was very misguided. Making money as a stripper was much more complex than the conveyor belt I had imagined. I realized in order to make money in this business, I was going to have to do more than buy some makeup and cute thigh highs — I would need to build confidence, develop conversation and sales skills, and also foster an understanding of what people needed.
It was the latter that piqued my interest. After a few months into my new career, I began to see a pattern emerge of what customers were looking for. Many men came in and admitted they had not had sex in years. “She doesn’t look at me” was a story I often heard. While I will never know the other side of the story, I understood my role in these moments.
I provide the sexual validation that many lack in their lives.
But those aren’t my only customers. The strip club welcomes a plethora of clientele: happily married men, couples, women, people that identify as queer. Many come to the strip club for a safe place to explore their sexual fantasies.
As a dancer, I also got to explore my sexuality and my own personal boundaries. I initially became a dancer to improve my bank account, but what I didn’t expect was a boost to my self-esteem. My personal boundaries were left shattered by my previous boyfriend, and I watched in awe as they grew back, better defined than ever. As a stripper, I had to set firm boundaries, say no to wandering hands, and demand more money for extra time. And for two days a week, I got practice enforcing them.
Prior to this, I was always a people-pleaser, but now I began to voice my discontent over things. It started off with little things, like telling my friend I wanted to eat at the restaurant of my choice. But then it grew as I started to take more control of my life by having a say in the decisions that affected me. As I became more confident as a stripper, my boundaries became firmer. I stopped putting others’ needs before mine.
As I took the stage one night, leg wrapped around the pole, I was struck by the notion that part of my initial fear of the industry was not any hesitancy over working in the sex industry. I realized that I was afraid of taking a role where I’d have to be fully confident and truly present. To succeed as a stripper, you have to value yourself high, and ultimately have faith and love in yourself, as it always shines through. It’s the personality that makes money; not the body. And the amazing effects of this leaked into my self-esteem.
What I grew to love about the industry is the sexual freedom I experience. As a woman, I have always felt the deepest sting of sexism through my sexuality. From the moment I grew breasts, I knew the rules were different for me than my brothers, and I felt very sharply my lack of sexual choices. I understood the rules; I was to look sexual but not be sexual. As a stripper, I defy this stereotype. The club is a space where I can safely practice my sexuality without shame.
At the end of each night, I take off my 3-inch heels, kiss a few of the dancers goodbye, and know that I’m part of a good community. We all enjoy the perks of working for a regulated and dancer-friendly club, such as being able to keep our own schedule and maintain high salaries, with many of us making $500+ a night.
Not every club is as safe and as supportive of diversity. Some charge massive house fees, take large chunks of the dancers’ wages, and hire only traditionally beautiful women. There is no doubt these are ripe for abuse and can leave women powerless. I advocate for firm regulations that ensure that clubs see women as equal business partners and value all types of dancers. Yet, instead of passing laws that benefit dancers, Iceland has completely shut down clubs — which has left many unemployed. It also makes the gross assumption that women do not like working with their bodies, sexualities, and personalities.
Positive strip clubs have the potential to empower women by offering them a place to work with their sexualities and profit off it, giving many financial and sexual freedom. They can also have the revolutionary impact of challenging our societal ideals of beauty, as diverse strip clubs offer clientele the option to explore fantasies and view many different women as sexy. When I walk outside after a shift and watch the day break, I know I’ve come a long way from that scared young woman who stood nervously in the lobby. How long I will stay in the industry, I’m unsure. But I know I’ll reap the benefits for life.
Top photo via redparrotept
More from BUST