Sex Work Damaged My Relationship With Myself. Burlesque is Helping Me Heal

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Growing up, my body never really felt like mine. 

From sexual assault to my mother’s voice berating me as a child for eating too much or being too fat, my father’s wife yelling at me for “talking too white,” or the kids at school who made fun of my flat face and “chinky eyes,” I learned from a young age that my body was on the chopping block for dissection, ridicule, and even the taking. 

Of course, I didn’t know that then, but looking back, at my issues with myself, my sexuality, and intimate partnerships, how I viewed myself makes sense considering the shame that was instilled in me throughout my childhood. 

In Sex, Health, and Consciousness, Liz Goldwyn explains that shame is part of how we learn about sexuality and determine what is, and is not, normal. She writes, “All of this comparing and despairing as we measure ourselves against “normal” creates massive, internalized shame that suffocates us. This shame holds us back from being the most fully realized, joyful, and orgasmic versions of ourselves.” 

Why I Got Into, and What I Found, In Sex Work

I became a sex worker, primarily escorting and dancing in my early 20s. If you had asked me then, I’d tell you I started selling sex for financial security. Now, over a decade later, I’d tell you I started escorting and dancing for my financial benefit, but I stayed in the industry for both the money and the way it made me feel: powerful and desired. 

In the “real” world, there was always something wrong with me: I was told I was too fat, too dark, too short, had too many tattoos, wasn’t Black enough, and too feminist to be desirable. Escorting provided me with a validation that I wasn’t used to. 

I got into tricking to catch up on some bills, but after some quick math, I quit my work-study job and dived into the sex trade headfirst. Somewhere along the line, I viewed Live Nude Girls Unite!, a documentary on the now-closed Lusty Lady Theater, a worker’s owned peepshow in San Francisco. 

I was enraptured by the idea of a feminist, cooperative strip club. Wanting to move up in the whorearchy, to engage in sex work that was societally deemed more respectable and safer as compared to full-service escorting, I made my way to North Beach from Oakland and auditioned during the club’s open calls for dancers. A few days later, I was ecstatic to learn I made the cut. 

That happiness dissipated when I became a real lusty. I hated stripping, it was such a different vibe than escorting, massaging, or working as a professional submissive. I hated being on display in the meat market, a free-for-all environment that strip clubs can feel like. With clubs, men come in with very specific desires and I didn’t like being compared to other women in real-time. Escorting was more private and direct in that way. Despite the other dancers being sweet as pie, it brought out the worst of my insecurities. 

Identity is Important: Know Who You Are 

Looking back, I hadn’t a clue about real sexiness and attraction. I could mimic what I saw on TV, in popular culture, or the women around me–like adopting a baby voice– but I had no clue about my thoughts on the matter. I’m not ashamed to say that around 21, I had no fashion sense, and coupled with my insecurity, it gave me a stripper identity crisis of sorts. 

While most girls walked around naked or in their best Victoria’s Secret, I alternated between shirt-dresses that I’d try to make sexy by stripping off mid-dance and other costume pieces. I even brought my hot-pink glittery prom dress in as a striptease costume of sorts. No one was buying it, not even me. I finally forced myself to wear less after one of my co-workers innocently called me out asking, “Isn’t that a bit much for the stage?” 

My friend Brandi Glass, a burlesque performer and producer, spoke to me about similarly experiencing imposter syndrome when she first encountered the scene in 2010. At the time, burlesque was all about imitating the version of glamorous femininity found in a vintage pin-up. For several years, Glass performed as a drag king under the name Ennis FW. A few years later, she started dipping back into burlesque after attending an all-level burlesque class with Empowerment in Heels, a community focused on empowerment through burlesque. Now the Las Vegas-based performer specializes in comedy burlesque or “erotic clowning.” 

Reflecting on the imposter syndrome I felt working at the Lusty, I think, maybe the feeling of not fitting in was in my head. I never really felt like I was one of the pretty girls growing up, so as hard as I tried to give my version of whatever the Pussycat Dolls were doing, something just felt off… but after all, I did get hired. The women never made me feel out of place, so where did those feelings come from? Maybe like Goldwyn said, it was shame that was holding me back from my best erotic self.

Perhaps the real reason I didn’t put more effort into my stage appearance was that effort would have made it real and intentional, effort would have made me a professional, and not just some co-ed who fell into it. 

Leaving the Industry, When the Industry Left An Impact

When I moved east to finish college in 2008, Gen Z were still babies, no one had heard of Cardi B yet, and Onlyfans was a twinkle in some tech-person’s eye, so sex work was still underground as fuck. I was glad to put my days taking off my clothes on a stage, or having sex with strangers for money, behind me. 

It’s now been over a decade since I turned a trick, but the effects were lasting. Sex had always felt, bad, dirty, and wrong to me, but these feelings had intensified due to my time as a sex worker. Speaking with Goldwyn, I took the chance to ask her why she thinks sex rules so many of our decisions, individually and societally. She responded, “I think a lot for a lot of us, early experiences of sex or sexuality or body image are tied up in a lot of trauma, and we have a lot of things to unpack by the time that we’re adults, and in control of our choices in our bodies, we’ve learned a lot of habits that aren’t good for us.” 

Finding What Makes Me Feel Sexy 

To unlearn some of the habits and thoughts I had picked up, I started being more mindful of my mental health and the energy I surrounded myself with. Therapy helped me begin to construct a new normal and unpack some of the things I was taught about myself and sex in general. To have fun and explore my sexuality, I started taking pole dancing and burlesque classes. 

I started taking burlesque and pole dancing classes because I liked the idea of being glamorous, flirty, and aesthetic. At first, I felt silly, uncoordinated, and self-conscious. But I kept on, because it was something I wanted to do for myself, and eventually, those feelings dissipated. 

I enjoyed feeling feminine, erotic, and glamorous without the pressure of having to sell or finesse some middle-aged dude. During the pandemic, I took an online burlesque act development class that upped the ante with lessons on stage presence, dancing, makeup, music selection, and more. 

I’ve been taking more classes in dance and pole and am happy to see the progress and confidence in myself grow. Over the years, I’ve realized my body is just a body, and it ultimately doesn’t matter or say anything about me as a person if I show it off or not. Watching and seeing so much erotic dancing up close, has expanded my idea of what attractiveness is. 

Now when my classmates tell me, “You’re so graceful,” I believe them. 

Eroticizing myself, as Goldwyn put it,  has helped me to become more confident and more grounded in myself. Not caring so much about what other says has been freeing and I see the beauty in myself more and more each day. While working at the Lusty showed me (or at least tried to show me) how to appeal to the male gaze, burlesque allows me to feel sexy for, by, and to myself.